Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Book Review: The Man in the Maze by Robert Silverberg

"Muller knew the maze quite well by this time. He understood its snares and its delusions, its pitfalls, its deadly traps. He had lived within it for nine years. That was long enough to come to terms with the maze, if not with the situation that had driven him to take refuge with it." --The Man in the Maze, by Robert Silverberg

I should be working on revising my application for Ontario scholarships, but I accidentally left my paper with the professor's notes for revisions in my office (a process which is repeated about 3 or 4 times every time I have to do this application), so now that I've finished my scholarly reading for the day, you all get a book review. So yes, you get to benefit from my general incompetence.

Originally published in 1969, Silverberg's The Man in the Maze is a fairly old school sci-fi book: minimal plot, broad character archetypes, and a cast utterly devoid of any females that aren't there purely for titillation. But for all that, there's something compelling about the book. Maybe it is the "old school" sense--this isn't a postmodern sci-fi like Snow Crash, with a constant bombardment of ideas, or even a sci-fi in the vein of Philip K. Dick's work, with its constant questioning of subject (although at points, it comes close).

The plot: after an alien first-encounter goes horribly wrong, astronaut superstar Dick Muller retires from the human race and exiles himself to Lemnos, a planet whose now extinct alien dwellers converted into a giant maze. What went wrong is that the aliens experimented on Muller so that he constantly projects his inner angst to the people around him, to such an extent that no one can stand to be near him. But now he's needed again, so a crew of spacemen come to brave the maze and bring him back, willing or not. The crew includes its captain, the aptly (or eye-rollingly) named Charles Boardman, the Machiavellian operator who manipulated Muller into the original mission,and Ned Rawlins, the fresh-faced youth Boardman intends to use as bait.

The appeal of the book may come from its mythic resonance--personally, I found compelling connections with at least two Greek myths. The first came from the Iliad. Or more specifically, some of the legends concerning the stuff that happened before the Iliad proper. When the Greek king Agamemnon went recruiting men to fight in the Trojan War, some of the big names didn't want to show up--in particular, Odysseus (I know most go with Ullyses; he's Odysseus to me, okay?) and Achilles. Both, significantly, disguised themselves by pretending to be opposite from their true nature. For Achilles, the ur-warrior, this meant dressing up as a woman and hiding among his mother's maids. For Odysseus, the battle genius, this meant pretending to have lost his mind, and Agamemnon found him tilling a field with salt. In both cases, Agamemnon broke through the deception. He gave the maids a selection of treasure, and identified Achilles when one maid pushed past the necklaces and bracelets to pick up a well-made sword. And when he threw Telemachus, Odysseus' infant child, into the path of the oxen, Odysseus brought them to a halt, proving his sanity. Muller's case is very similar: the hero of humanity is pretending--to himself as well as everyone else--to be the ultimate misanthrope, and it's up to Agamemnon, er, Boardman, to break through the pretense by any means necessary.

The other myth is the obvious one: Theseus and the Minotaur's Maze. The maze motif, honestly, is what drew me to this book in the first place. I think I've mentioned Donald Norman in previous posts; for the moment, I'd like to bring up his view of games, that, contrary to most objects humans do, games are deliberately constructed to be difficult to use. (Within obvious limits) In that sense, a maze is like a game; it's a piece of architecture, an area of space, that is designed to be difficult to navigate through.
I find the idea of the maze fascinating, and I sometimes--like this book, for instance--deliberately seek out instances of interesting mazes. The best use of a fictional maze, for example, I'd have to give to deathtrap featured in David Edding's book, the Sapphire Rose. (Also notable for being the only fantasy book I can name off hand for devoting a half of its plot to an exciting ecclesiastic election. And the only fantasy book that has an exciting ecclesiastic election.) The best movie one I can name is... um... Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? (Okay, I don't watch a lot of movies.) And the best game... well, I barely know where to start. Even now, with automaps being an almost ubiquitous game element, many games still have an element of the maze to them, deliberate or not. And I don't think I'm the only one in academia fascinated by the maze, or the labyrinth, or whatever you want to call it; in mathematics and computer science, there's a dedicated history of developing path programs. As a postmodern motif, the text as a maze is a good a way as any to describe the wanderings of a David Foster Wallace or Calvino. And it's even been carried into new media studies, as the rhizome, the computer program, the hypertext. It's amazing.

...Sorry. That won't happen again. I don't know what came over me.

Anyway, the maze motif points to another advantage of The Man in the Maze, that its simplicity means that it can be read allegorically. Straightforward allegory has fallen out of fashion somewhat, especially in a genre trying to re-brand itself as "speculative"--there's a sense, right or wrong, that if we're trying to create a complex and realistic future, allegory needs to be minimized. But if done correctly, it can be a moving piece of literature, and it's hard not to see the similarities between the emotional walls Muller's put up and the maze walls he's hidden behind (especially since his alteration means that he is literally pushing people away with his negativity).

It's a technique that I haven't seen done well in a sci-fi work since I read Iain Banks' The Bridge (mentioned in the link here, which is filled with more swearing than I remembered; posting while sleep-deprived is a dangerous game). I'd mention the allegory at work there, but it'd kind of give up the entire plot. Suffice to say, while the Bridge is far better at creating atmosphere, the Man in the Maze has two advantages over it: 1)the ending is less banal, and 2) at 212 pages, it's half as long. It's nice to be able to have a book that can be read in a sitting or two.

Finally, after I finished the book, I went back and read the new foreword for the 2006 edition, written by a plucky newcomer named Neil Gaiman. You might have heard of him. And regardless of its actual content, a foreword penned by Gaiman makes a message in itself: it tells us that someone believes the book has potential for reaching a large audience, and it tells us that this story is less a sci-fi and more of the sort of story Gaiman might pen, something fantastic and ethereal. Which, I think, it is. Of course, Gaiman addresses that in the actual text. Somewhat gratifyingly, he also addressed many of the points I did--he sees a Greek influence, though he names it as the story of Philoctetes, which comes at the the end of the Trojan War, rather than its beginning. And he also notes the lack of women in the novel except those that appear as "courtesans and sexual memories," though I would have used a less polite word than "courtesan" for the things Silverberg has his women doing. But he does catch one really interesting idea that I didn't. Gaiman argues that Muller, Rawlins, and Boardman form a male equivalent of the mother, maiden, and crone trinity, a sci-fi equivalent to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. That adds another level of mythic resonance to the story, and another reason it's so compelling.

Bottom line: both Neil Gaiman and Person of Consequence recommend this book. Between the two of us, how can you go wrong?

Later Days.

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