Tuesday, 25 June 2013

A Maze of Death

Philip K. Dick A Maze of Death (1968)

I'm currently forcing my way through the Science Channel's Prophets of Science Fiction, a series of eight documentaries hosted by Ridley not only getting the wrong end, but it's a different fucking stick Scott, the genius who turned Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? into a film about how robots have feelings too. The first of the series explains how Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was written mainly as a prophecy of genetic engineering and the future of medical practice. Subsequent shows dedicated to H.G. Wells and Isaac Asimov have been helpfully embellished with re-enactments of significant moments in the lives of the authors - a youthful Asimov stood amongst a group of similarly fresh-faced and hopeful looking Americans collectively awestruck by the spectacle of Sputnik's first circuit around the Earth as they gaze at a black and white screen in the window of a television retail store; or that moment when H.G. Wells was first struck with the idea for The War of the Worlds and began to frantically scribble it down in his old fashioned notebook. Were it not for these brilliantly thespianised interpretudes, I know that I for one would find it impossible to understand the concepts involved, authors thinking shit up and then writing it down.

Philip K. Dick, it turns out, invented virtual reality. That's what his books were about, you see - asking the question, are we really here or what? Unsurprisingly Ridley's actorial dramatainmentations focused mainly on a young man in a false beard frowning just as Philip K. Dick probably would have done when he was inventing virtual reality and asking himself the crucial question, I wonder if I'm real? I was hoping for giant metal faces in the sky and those other aspects of Dick's life which directly inspired his writing, but I guess they thought that stuff was all a bit bonkers and so left it out.

A Maze of Death is probably one of those novels into which certain people may have read predictions of virtual reality, given that it all takes place on a spacecraft, rather than a hostile and surreal planet as would appear to be the case, ending with Dick's equivalent of it was all just a dream. It's actually another of Dick's layered explorations of perception and theology and how the two may relate, if indeed they do, and is in some sense more or less a rewrite of Eye in the Sky, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The point of this illusory environment is to place its characters in a world of tangible spirits closely resembling those of Christian theology, notably the Christlike Walker-on-Earth who manifests before Seth Morley to advise him that the spacecraft he has chosen is likely to malfunction after lift off, so he'd better pick another. Inhabiting this universe, and specifically left alone to fend on a planet which appears to be killing them off one by one, the colonists of A Maze of Death give voice to Dick's more subtle ideas, such as are found in this discussion of Morley's earlier encounter:

'But look: what you saw was what you expected to see. You assumed that he was the Walker-on-Earth because Specktowsky's Book is virtually universally accepted. But I don't accept it?'

'You don't?' Seth Morley said, surprised.

'Not at all. Strangers - true strangers, ordinary men - show up and give good advice; most humans are well-intentioned. If I had happened by I would have intervened too. I would have pointed out that your ship wasn't space-worthy.'

'Then you would have been in the possession of the Walker-on-Earth; you would have temporarily become him. It can happen to anyone. That's part of the miracle.'

As with much of Dick's fiction, this is the dark, illusory universe overlaid upon reality partially as a means of examining those who experience it, partially because that was in certain respects just how the author saw the world; and it's further complicated by the end which suggests that even being a dream, A Maze of Death still happened in all senses that matter. You could take this as a novel predicting the advent of virtual reality, but you could just as easily take it for a prophecy regarding the interstellar popularity of orange marmalade:

She arrived a few minutes later, slender and tanned in her khaki shirt, shorts and sandals. 'Well,' she said, surveying the Morbid Chicken, 'it looks rundown to me. But if you say it's okay it is, I guess.'

'I've already begun loading,' Morley said.

'With what?'

Opening the door of the storage compartment he showed her the ten jars of marmalade.

After a long pause Mary said, 'Christ.'

'What's the matter?'

'You haven't been checking the wiring and the engine. You've been out scrounging up all the goddamn marmalade you could talk them out of.' She slammed the storage area door shut with venomous ire. 'Sometimes I think you're insane. Our lives depend on this goddamn noser working. Suppose the oxygen system fails or the heart circuit fails or there're microscopic leaks in the hull.'

See! And that isn't even the only scene expressing futuristic marmalade enthusiasm.

Finally, it has been pointed out that A Maze of Death seems quite a bleak novel by virtue of an unusually high body count. I'd disagree by virtue of it being so short, and the conclusion which subverts much of what happens in the preceding pages, and even the misleading chapter headings referring to lives lived by these characters in a completely different novel and suggesting yet another layer of existence to which the reader is not party. It's possibly not quite so tidy, nor so sporadically funny as Eye in the Sky, but I'm probably just splitting hairs - another one of his very best, I'd say.

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