A Maze of Death – Philip K Dick (1970)
‘Delmak-O was one big deathtrap…
Fourteen people arrive in the strange planet of Delmak-O, each looking forward to a new life in a new world. But what is the huge forbidding building near their settlement that plays on each individual’s fears and superstitions? And what are the tiny artificial insects which observe the colonists with minute TV cameras?
Without warning, the murders begin…’
Not one of Dick’s most important novels, but one in which he again experiments with the novel structure and explores once more his favourite themes of madness, reality, religion and the human condition.
Prefaced by a chapter listing which bears little relation to the events in the book, it is a tale at first strangely reminiscent of classic murder mysteries, in particular, Agatha Christie’s ‘Ten Little Indians’.
A group of professionals are posted to the planet Delmak-O on a mission whose purpose is to be specified once they are all assembled.
Christie’s novel begins the same way in that ten professionals are invited to an island by a mysterious host.
As in ‘Ten Little Indians’, once the group is assembled, all communication and means of escape are cut off.
Dick’s characters live within a society which subscribes to a single religion, based on ‘The Book’ by Specktowsky, which seems to be an amalgam of today’s major religions, one in which prayer is beamed to the ‘god worlds’ by electronic means.
The purpose of their mission is never revealed, but it soon becomes apparent that this is a disturbingly dysfunctional and motley band of individuals who suffer from various psychological problems, ranging through alcoholism, nymphomania, paranoia, drug dependency, and the usual Dick armada of mental conditions. In contrast to ‘Clans of The Alphane Moon’ in which disparate sufferers of mental illness made up for each other’s failings and worked together, friction appears inevitable within the group.
This is not helped by the actions of baffling phenomena; the shifting geography of the landscape, the mysterious fortress-like building which appears to move from place to place, insects which spy on the group with recording equipment.
The group repeat their conversations word for word on occasions, and before long, one of the newest arrivals, Ben Tallchief, is found dead.
Ben believed that his electronic prayer to the god worlds for a more interesting posting had been answered, but as others debate later, why should God answer his prayer only in order to kill him as soon as he arrives?
It is clear that the group are not living in a realistic environment, something which, on first reading is hard to determine since Dick’s environments are seldom realistic and in this case we are also dealing with the subjective viewpoints of several characters, and the mystery is not who is murdering the characters but what exactly is going on in a wider sense.
The main focus is on Seth Morley, whom we meet initially in the Tekel Upharsin kibbutz. Before he and his wife Mary leave for Delmak-O he is visited by The Walker On Earth, one of the four aspects of ‘God’, a Christ-like figure who advises Seth not to use ‘The Morbid Chicken’ (the small spaceship he’d chosen to travel to Delmak-O) and points out a non-defective craft.
Again, later it is questioned why the walker did not counsel Seth against going to the planet in the first place.
Ultimately it is discovered that the group are in fact the crew of a disabled ship who have been locked into orbit around an uncharted dead star for about twenty years and are attempting to preserve their sanity by regular escape into a shared virtual reality in which they have no access to their previous memories.
However, even this, it is suggested, may itself be a delusional reality since when returned from the illusory world of Delmak-O, Seth Morley is once more approached by The Walker on Earth and is taken away to enjoy a new life as a cactus, living quietly in the desert.
In the shared dream of Delmak-O, the basic psychoses of the group members come to the fore and their subconscious hostilities toward each other are unleashed.
It’s a shame that Dick chose to employ so many characters as in such a short novel he’s not given space to explore their personalities fully, although they do come across as having more depth than characters in other genre novels of the time.
Susie Smart, one of Dick’s dark-haired femme-fatales, is one of the more interesting characters, announcing herself to Seth Morley almost immediately as the settlement nymphomaniac, flitting from male to male to offer sexual favours, a practice which is ultimately her downfall since she arouses the jealousy of Mrs Morley, who subsequently murders her.
Dick is attempting to examine how humans, with their repressed feelings, psychoses, desires and resentments are released from our inhibitions in what is essentially a dream state, a condition in which one is removed from the restraints of one’s true memories and experiences.
There are also some interesting points made about religion since it transpires that the entire Specktowsky theology was distilled from the basics of human religions and conflated into a working philosophy.
It is the one thing which permeates the lives of the group and connects them as individuals. Despite the group’s obvious faith, their prayers and faith have no tangible beneficial effects. On the contrary, it seems that their faith is counter-productive. Maggie Walsh, the theologian, is perhaps the one most dedicated to the faith, although her ‘obsession’ is to be her downfall since as she attempts to use quotations from ‘The Book’ to win over the appositely named Ignatz Thugg, she is shot and killed.
Tony Dunkenwelt, who enters trance states in order to commune with the four aspects of the Deity, kills one of the group whom he is convinced is The Form Destroyer (The ‘Devil’ aspect of Specktowsky’s philosophy) and is in turn shot dead.
Despite the fact that this is far from Dick’s best novel, it’s very representative of his talent for playing with conceptions of reality and demonstrating that reality is subjective, and exclusive to every individual.