A Maze of Death  – ★★★★
“People see what they want to see and what people want to see never has anything to do with the truth” [Roberto Bolao, 2666].
“...we’re rats in a maze with death; rodents confined with the ultimate adversary, to die one by one until none are left” [Philip K. Dick, 1970: 97].
In this curious short novel, Philip K. Dick blends Agatha Christie’s infamous And Then There Were None premise with his own colourful world and perception ideas to produce an engaging story of fourteen people who find themselves on a remote and strange planet Delmark-O…and in danger – a mysterious force is also on the planet and is seemingly killing them one by one. A Maze of Death may be termed as a more straightforward story from Philip K. Dick, especially compared to some of his others, but there is still a mind-blowing twist to be found at the end. In this book, in a typical Philip K. Dick style, we get immersed into the world where reality is bent, where nothing is as it seems and where the chances of survival depend wholly on one’s clear and true perception of oneself and the world around.
In a usual for Philip K. Dick fashion, we are thrust into one strange future space-exploration world from the very first page without any preliminaries or explanations. We first follow Ben Tallchief, who is excited to receive his job transfer and is looking forward to going to a distant planet Delmark-O to begin his new work assignment as a qualified naturalist. He has been praying to a certain deity for this opportunity to present itself since there is a complex religious system in place in the universe and two opposing forces battle for supremacy – the Mentufacturer, a creative force, and a destructive force called the Form Destroyer. We then shift to Seth Morley, a marine biologist, and his wife Mary, who are also looking forward to their trip to Delmark-O. As the trio arrives to Delmark-O, there is already a group to be found there, including a psychologist Wade Frazer, an elderly woman sociologist Roberta Rockingham, a clerk Suzanne Smart, and Dr Milton Babble, among others. A question emerges – who gathered all these people on the planet and what is the nature and purpose of their assignment there? Are all these people really as different to each other as they first appear? Another mystery is the planet Delmark-O, which shows signs of interesting and unusual extra-terrestrial life activity, including insects of man-made origins that may have a spying purpose. Another mystery is the Building, which some people in the group only caught a glimpse of. What is the purpose of that structure and should the group try to approach it?
The uncertain nature of the group’s assignment, the presence of a deathly force, Delmark-O’s strange environment, as well as the increasing sense of isolation and claustrophobia of the group on the planet all make A Maze of Death an intriguing, fascinating read. It is really exciting to explore the planet with the characters and see the change that the strangers experience within themselves, for example, through their interaction with one another and with the planet’s mysterious forces. Then, there are many similarities between A Maze of Death and Agatha Christie’s masterpiece And Then There Were None and not only in the setting and multiple-character perspective. Similar to And Then There Were None, the characters in A Maze of Death find that much of the set-up of the planet was probably designed specifically with them in mind or their past, and they find some forces working in a way which emphasise their own mental states and desires as though some higher power on the planet knows them intimately. Philip K. Dick also indirectly explores the free will vs. determinism issue, the possibility of one’s true destiny existing and whether one can perceive true reality, go beyond one’s usual perception of the world and reach higher levels of understanding. “Nobody sees reality as it actually is…Space and time are modes of perception” [Philip K. Dick, 1970: 102], says one of the characters in the novel.
In the final part of the book, more “action” occurs, and there are some nice twists and turns until we get to the final, satisfying, even if chaotic, revelation. Perhaps, overall, A Maze of Death may feel slightly underwhelming in comparison to the author’s other work and the book may not have aged that well because there have already been many movies made that, unfortunately, make A Maze of Death feel like an old idea. Nor can the novel awe us with its originality since it relies on the concept in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, especially to set the scene. In all other respects, the book is quintessentially Philip K. Dick, in all his usual delicious, hallucinatory “craziness”, thought-provoking scenes and twisty endings – a quick and enjoyable read.