Philip K. Dick, “A Maze of Death” (1970): Alternative Reality and Freedom

In A Maze of Death, Philip K. Dick tries to show us that an alternative reality can lead to the perception of freedom, if not freedom itself.  In the novel, fourteen lost spaceship residents, establish a collective delusion for cathartic reasons.  This delusion is cathartic, provides some limited illusion of freedom, and wastes their time.  The novel might be compared to The Matrix or eXistenZ with its reliance on an alternative reality.  In eXistenZ, the approach is more playful and the reality is always hidden under another layer of delusion to the point the characters do not know where they are.  A Maze of Death presents us with a reality that is brutal and horrible, fourteen progressively insane members of a lost at space spaceship crew with murderous impulses and no hope of escape.  In The Matrix, of course, the delusion is created as a means of exploitation and social control.  The film-makers believe that reality is preferable to delusion and the struggle for freedom comes from escaping the fantasy.  A Maze of Death show us that opposite.  People find their freedom in the fantasy.  Reality is a prison.  Even if the freedom in the fantasy is sexual excess, murder, or a host of conspiracy theories and paranoid, at least it allows us to live out our passions, rather than confining them?


A question arises by the time you get to the end of A Maze of Death.  If these fourteen people hate each other so deeply and use stimulated realities to, in part, work out their hostilities against each other, why do they not simply murder each other in reality?  Their mission is lost and they have no hope for salvation.  Perhaps the answer is that in reality, despite their unique circumstances, they are still bound by the rules of society.  Philip K. Dick may be saying that our lives are really akin to these fourteen lost in space.  Any freedom we have is a delusion.  We are bound by social obligations beyond any reason.  We have at best a bottle-up disgust for the other members of our species.  We escape into fantasies (television series, adulterous relationships, myths of the happy family, raising children, irrelevant political battles, cruises to Jamaica that never show us anything of Jamaica beyond the resort) because this is the one way we can escape the horror of our enslavement.  It is a false freedom, of course.  To fight for freedom in the realm of the real would require a revolution.  This is something neither we nor the crew members of ship are capable of.  Whatever optimism Dick had in humanity and our capacity to achieve solidarity (expressed in Now Wait for Last Year) is missing in A Maze of Death.  When one fantasy breaks down, they have no choice but to start another one.  In a sense, the hope lies in there.  Overtime our fantasies lose the ability to sustain our interest so we must at some point face reality, each other, and the chains that bind us.

The theological system collectively created by the participants in the fantasy is not uninteresting.  In this particular version, God exists in four different parts.  It is much like Hinduism, where God is divided into Brahma (the creator), Shiva (the destroyer) and Vishnu (the sustainer).  Here the four aspects of the divine are the Intercessor, the Mentufacturer, the Form Destroyer, and the Walker on Earth (closer perhaps to the Holy Spirit or a Buddhist Bodhisattva).  There is a mechanical system by which people can request help from these different avatars through “prayers,” which are not so different from requests to superiors.  Indeed, the first character we meets treats his prayer just like this, asking for and receiving a transfer to a new location.  In this reality, the truth of the divine is uncontested.  Not only are prayers really answered and direct connections to the divine explicable via natural law, but the Walker on Earth is experienced directly by one of the characters.  Created by the participants through a method of collective will (I am reminded of the Jungian psychology here), this theological design is not far from what people really want from their God.

Another layer of the delusion, is that the characters are given an important task.  Again, this is something that is clearly lacking in reality.  On the ship, they are no different from millions of people in office jobs, teaching jobs, government bureaucracies who know that their work is meaningless.

So in their fantasy, they create an important task, consisted with their skills and training.  Everyone has an important task that is worked into the fantasy.  On the surface, they are sent to begin the settlement of a planet Delmak-O and they all have an important task (a psychologist, a linguist, a computers specialist, a repairman, a custodian, a sexy secretary, etc.).  Conveniently, the mission is never explicitly stated, so they can only know they each have an essential role, they cannot know what that role is.  One of the many fantasies of late capitalism is that we matter, that our job has a purpose, that the world needs us.  Liquid relationships proves that this is not even true of our children.  If we die, there is a step-mother waiting at the bar on the corner – more beautiful, more playful, and with a higher income.

The solution to the dilemma of late capitalism, to the world that we live in, is not more fantasies of freedom.  It is to realize our slavery, our insignificance, our hatreds and our passions.  We should wake up to the chains around us and fight to smash them as described in Lu Xun’s iron house parable.  “Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation. But you know since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the pain of death. Now if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn?  But if a few awake, you can’t say there is no hope of destroying the iron house. ”



6 responses to “Philip K. Dick, “A Maze of Death” (1970): Alternative Reality and Freedom

  1. Pingback: Philip K. Dick, “Introduction” | Neither Kings nor Americans

  2. so true! we are living in a world, where increasingly, any freedom we know is a delusion and in reality we are living in another sphere altogether from the one which we know and perceive.

  3. “A Maze of Death” is a brilliant novel that is also difficult to come to terms with.The space opera scenario as a means to explain the mystery of the book,seems limiting.Dick had a liquid imagination capable of producing a range of options running from the pseudo religious to political explainations.”Ubik” is superior in this respect,as the half lifers,can’t break free from their “delusion”,even though they come to know the truth of their situation.I wish AMOD would have been more like this.The subject of space travel had already been dealt with earlier in a light-hearted way,with the Nosers bought from the equivalent of a second-hand car-lot.

    The theology in the novel could have contained some marvellous transformations.The experience of Maggie Walsh after death on Delmark-O,was one of Dick’s best ever scenes,but nothing ultimately comes of it.Some relief is offered when the Intercessor,a fabricated entity,comes to the rescue of Seth Morley,and is excellent.It brings into sharp focus the difficulties of knowing which is the true reality.Fortunetly for Seth,he escapes from both of them.

    If Delmark-O is merely a nightmarish delusion,then how does the Intercessor,also the Walker-on Earth in the earlier dream sequence,come through the walls of “our reality”? Faith of course is the key,and it seems the only way to find a way to the truth.A similar event occurs in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”,where even though Wilber Mercer is exposed as a political fraud,his existance is still concrete due to the strength of internal beliefThe transaction is one of necsessity that he must exist for the sake of moral balance.

    The point of this though is,that Delmark-O and the gods who inhabit it exist,and probably has more substance than the reality of those on the cripped space craft,but can’t perceive it because they lack the strong faith of Seth Morley.With it goes the freedom they could obtain form their miserable existance.

    Strangely enough though,when they enter their next hallucinated fugue at the end of the novel,something it seems as alterted in their mindsets.No explaination is offered for how or why the characters would do this,but once again they are bound for Delmark-O,minus Seth of course.His wife Mary,asks where he is,but when questioned who he is,she no longer cares,and prepares for a return journey to the nightmarish Delmark-O.

    I feel that as with other novels of his,such as “Time Out of Joint”,a large part of the end of the book is missing,probably due to editorial interferance.The abruptness of the ending
    doesn’t allow for what could have given a more rounded sense to conclude the novel.”Ubik” is again superior in this respect.

    The freedom and responsibility we are after then,cannot be achieved without the faith and the strength to embrace our predicament.Until we do,we’ll be stuck with our own miserable daily lives.

    • Thanks. I guess because I think I am quite original in fulling unraveling the work-labor theme in Dick, I am pretty fond of Maze of Death.

      About the endings. I know what you are saying. It may have been editorial interference, but when you are looking at the 1962-1970 period some of that may have been rushed. I just re-read Galactic Pot-Healer and noticed that it takes half the novel to get to Ploughman’s Planet. And you still have rising action in the second to last chapter.

      My analysis of Dick has relied more on the settings, descriptions of societies, and institutions that I have not been too bothered by the absence of satisfying endings. I am not one to try to unwind the ambiguity he often throws at the end. The twist ending maybe had its day, but they are so predictable now and they do not really go anywhere….

      As you know, my other blog is looking at the stories now. Maybe I should write on the ending problem there. Most of the twist endings in those stories are a bit lame, even by Outer Limits standards. But hey, he was instrumental in developing that device in sf.

    • Oh, I am not sure where I wrote my blog or in the book manuscript, but I do a entire rip on the Noser (or their equivalent in other books) as U-Haul trucks. This novel is the best on that, complete with the loading and unloading after learning the truck is defective. I wonder if that was based on a moving experience Dick had.

  4. I thought the ending of GPH was satisfactory…’s a much funnier,different kind of book,without the surreal mystery.That was great,but thought it could have been resolved differently.I don’t know about you,but AMOD seems to have been largely inspired by Franz Kafka,the mysterious building on Delmark-O being I think reminisent of the castle in the novel of the same name….what would have happened if they had entered it,or who is inside it?

    The actual situation of the characters in the book though,is nearer I think to “The Trail”,with the mystery of who is doing the murders,streching into a sort of infinity with the Gods,particularly the Form Destroyer if Spectowsky’s book can be belived, as the main suspect,similar to that of Joseph K.,who never discovers the crime he is guilty of,nor the authorities who have indicted him… is an unfished novel,that leaves unresolved questions.In Amod however,this is despite the fact that a secret police force headed by a General Treaton,is behind the grim game the characters are “playing”,and they later appear on the scene.

    More importantly though,is the fact,that after the Intercessor takes Seth Morley off to begin his “new life”,his wife Mary begins searching for him,and goes to find the others,who unfortunetly have gone back into mind fusion.Seeing this,she attempts to join them,despite having already started their fugue.As I’ve already said,she finds herself again,with no memory of the previous time of course,back in the world to begin the journey again to Delmark-O,minus Seth this time of course,for obvious reasons.Prehaps strangely,she remembers her husband,but when asked who he is,she no longer seems to be interested and her memory of him is vague.The point is,since she is late for participating in the shared fusion,is her experience unique.It seems unlikely within the pages of Dick’s literary fiction,that they would personally choose from a human standpoint to go back to a place of psychadelic nightmare,but why should she then?

    As I said the novel is proberly unfinished due to Dick’s own diction or else editorial tampering.The book I think,probably needed a rewrite,like “The Unteleported Man /Lie Inc”,but even more importantly,as that one I think never amounted to much anyway.If he had lived longer he might have done,who knows?

    The scene where Seth Morley is helped by the Walker-on Earth,[the Intercessor]made a very big impression on me when I first encountered it,being the first PKD novel I read.Here was somebody not writing about religious faith,but God as a commonplace reality…!It makes sense with what happens later near the end of the book.It also predates his 1974 experiences.

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