“A bug crawled up on to his right shoe, paused there, and then extended a miniature television camera. The lens of the camera swung so that it pointed directly at his face.” (p.30)
Bored with his mundane life, Ben Tallchief prays for something “more creative and stimulating”. A transfer to the planet “Delmak-O” seems to be the change he is looking for. He joins a group of recent arrivals who are unsure of what their “mission” is, aside from colonizing the planet. They are awaiting communication of their orders but the communication system fails. Then one of the colonists is found dead. Was it a sudden allergic reaction to the new surroundings of the planet or something more sinister?
As the group begins to explore Delmak-O, they discover they are not alone on the planet. Tiny artificial bugs with cameras are seen creeping around the colony. A large “Building” is sighted by some of the colonists, although its location cannot be agreed upon. And there is an organic life form called a “tench” that sounds like a big, sentient jelly but is capable of giving oracular advice.
“The great globular mass of protoplasmic slush undulated slightly, as if aware of him. Then, as the question was placed before it, the tench began to shudder …” (p.172)
A Maze of Death is yet another short PKD book that is absolutely bursting with ideas. It’s also a dark story by Dick’s “normal” standards. The opening chapters are fairly pulpy, late-60s sci-fi but it gradually gets weirder and more bizarre as the story progresses. Each colonist’s perception of the world is slightly different with Dick using this subjective approach to have some fun with how we interpret reality. As usual the author has the reader questioning what is real, if anything. This can make things a little confusing at times but it is worth the expended effort needed to follow the story.
“I have a feeling that the plateau over there is illusory. A superimposition over something, resulting in a negative hallucination for anyone who sights in that direction.” He explained, “A negative hallucination – when you do not see something that’s actually there.” (p.105)
As is often the case with PKD, his characters don’t exactly endear themselves to the reader. In A Maze of Death this is more noticeable than usual. The colonists on Delmak-O are a motley group of misfits whose faults actually make them more credible, more rounded. It is refreshing to read a sci-fi story from this period in which there aren’t any clichéd heroes. And yet this is still a Philip K. Dick story so it is no surprise when the reader finds themselves asking “did that character really just say that?!”
“I’m interested in going to bed with you. I can’t judge a man unless I’ve been in bed with him.” (p.72)
In his mammoth Exegesis, PKD writes about the “basic theme in 3 Stigmata, Ubik and A Maze of Death” as being “the pleasant illusory skin stretched over a dreadful reality” (p.218). He continues, “The cardinal fixed idea of all my writing has been this plus the theme: I am not what I think I am – in particular my true identity is obscured by fake memories.” (p.218) Here we have Dick summarizing his two main themes: Reality is not as it appears to be, and identity is not what it is thought to be. These are deep, philosophical questions that Dick was exploring via the medium of his “science fiction” stories. And it’s one of the reasons I enjoy his writing so much.
Despite its minor flaws A Maze of Death is a worthy addition to the PKD canon, otherwise known as “Essential Books to Read by Philip K. Dick” (my title). It’s a book that can easily be read more than once, and it will probably be a smoother read the second time.