A Maze of Death, or Amaze of Death? I thought as I scrolled through lists of classic science fiction novels.
After reading Philip K. Dick’s introduction, which clearly states that he had done his homework when establishing the theology that underpins this short novel, I couldn’t stop reading. It’s amazing how well this one held up, despite the character tropes and the if-Ten Little Indians were-horror feel.
There is an actual line to God in this book, a way to send a prayer on just the right frequency, so long as your superiors allow you to use the phone. This technology and the awareness that God is real forms the basis of the entire plot. Bored of his life, Seth Morley sends a prayer for a transfer and it gets answered. He and his wife are to travel to the distant planet Delmak-O by noser, a spacecraft that doesn’t have enough thrust to leave a planet once it lands. A dozen settlers meet him, all with different specialities that don’t seem to fit colonization, and none of them have a single clue what their purpose on planet is.
And the planet is strange. There’s a tall, square building that is never in the same place, a river that moves, bugs that sing, bees with cameras. A blob-like organism called the Tench that replicates any object placed in front of it–albeit with a little generation loss–and that tall square building? It has little offspring that move. One of the characters trains one as a pet.
Seth Morley quickly finds himself worse off on Delmak-O than he was on the spaceship. Still bored of his pointless life, he’s now surrounded by people that are mentally ill in their own ways, The satellite that holds the instructions for the new colony erases the instructions for colonization as soon as the last colonist arrives by noser, and it becomes clear something, or someone, is messing with them.
The colonists are tested in classic sci-fi manner, but the spirituality of the characters surprised me. They all believe in a book written by Spectowski that describes the details of the Mentufacturer, who creates, the Intercessor, and the Walker-on-Earth, who first appears to Morley and asks if he’s sure he doesn’t need to speak to a psychiatrist, and the Form Destroyer, who according to one character, may be above all. Spectowski apparently proved God was real, and there’s only one religion. Miracles can happen.
As the characters begin to die one by one, it’s not so much a question of what the evil is–it’s the mystery of the carefully constructed divinity melded with a hallucinatory quality that keeps that pages turning, a narrative trick that at times couples with an omniscient narrator to become strikink.
The ending, though, is what truly resonates. Stop reading here if you care about spoilers. They’re coming.
Mind. Blown. Not so much because it wasn’t in keeping with what I had called early on (oh, this book mystery has been copied in so many different ways! I thought,) but I was still a little off on the particulars, and in specifically the character’s choices at the end.
When the survivors are finally off Delmak-O, they are given a choice to attend any world they want. They’re all survivors stuck on a stranded spaceship using complex virtual reality to pass the time, creating scenario after scenario, world after world to blow off steam as their supplies dwindle. They are bored. They have infinite entertainment at their fingertips. The God on Delmak-O? They fed an AI all the information they had on a dozen different world religions, and that is what it came up with.
And yet, despite the horrific violence they just endured, they immediately choose to go back to Delmak-O, knowing that they will wake once again to find themselves vulnerable, stranded, and prone to infighting. Only Seth Morley is rescued for his innate humanity, being raptured before the others return to stasis (Yep, the AI figured out what God really was).
The crew literally prefers the simulation of Delmak-O to the boredom of their lives.
It’s this allegory of escape, the preference for manufactured plot and video game graphics, that struck as me unusually prophetic, and probably a meta meditation on writing pulp novels. Maybe when Philip K. Dick was writing A Maze of Death, he thought that only a supercomputer could figure out what God really was, and while that’s startling to see play out, the idea of a populus so amused with themselves, so obsessed with violence, that they don’t realize they’ve stumbled onto proof of God is a hard truth to stomach.
In Philip K. Dick’s A Maze of Death, God is everywhere. The characters are just too self-absorbed to notice.