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. ”



Lynd Ward, “Madman’s Drum

Lynd Ward’s second graphic novel Madman’s Drum explores the inheritance of a father’s crimes, the perversion and insanity of a life committed solely to intellect, and the banality of evil.  Ward also explores the ways in which intellect provides a barrier to community, family, and happiness.


The setting of Madman’s Drum is unclear.  It seems to be a modern industrial economy with modern labor conflicts but is only one generation from sailing ships and the slave trade.  The protagonist ends the novel in late middle age, so I suspect the novel covers most of the 19th century.  Like Gods’ ManMadman’s Drum has something to tell us about the horrors of exploitation and the dissatisfaction inherent in the unstable industrial world but it does this from the perspective of the oppressors (a slave trade and a intellectual).

In his essay on Madman’s Drum, Ward admits that Gods’ Man was too simple, too black and white.  “The things that happen to the central character, from boyhood through adolescence to the final crisis of his maturity, are not unique to a distant time and place.  Given the modifications imposed by varying social systems, they can be encountered almost anywhere at any time.  They are things that spring from universal human relationships — for example, between child and parent or man and wife–and can include the problems of those who seek solutions in running away, as well as those who take the shelter of the family unit too much for granted and so are quire unprepared to cope wit the abrasive world outside.” (789)   He admits to being heavily influenced by the Sacco and Vanzetti trials.  Ward will place his protagonist in the role of persecutor in a similar trial.

The novel is broke until nine sections and is made up of 118 wood carving plates.  It is, however, much more complex and disturbing than the more hackneyed plot of Gods’ Man.
Part One introduces the father of the main character.   He is a slave trader and comes across an African playing a drum.  He steals the man and his instrument, sells his captive as a slave and returns home rich.  He has a family waiting for him in his home town.  He returns with a chest of gold and the drum he stole.  He uses his wealth to upgrade his home.  But lacking musical interest he places the drum on display, along with the sword he used to secure his family’s wealth.  The slave-trader becomes a respected member of the community.

Part two introduces us to the main character (I will call him “the intellectual”) and we see how he was put on the path of the intellect.  The father finds him playing the drum.  He disciplines his child and sets him to work mastering the texts in his massive library.  There will be no time for music, which the man associates with savagery.  Paradoxically, he desires to return to his old job in Africa.  The father is lost at sea.  While he paid for his crimes, the family inherits the wealth and the drum and his father’s lesson to his son to savor the intellectual over the emotional.


Part three explores the adolescence of the intellectual.  He ignores the life around him for his studies.  Embraces religion for the sake of his mother.  He even seems to write a book.

Part four, as a young man the intellectual turns his back on sex, drink, and camaraderie.  He is developing to be a strange young man. Learning in his books of ancient Egypt, he turns his back on Christianity by throwing a cross on the ground.  His mother trips on the cross and dies in the fall.  This section ends after his mother’s funeral.  He looks out his window and sees a flute player.  The player appears to him demonic and mad.

Part five shows us the intellectual in middle age.  He makes some astronomical discovery and but his results are taken with indifference by other astronomers.  Reaching the peak of his career, he chooses to marry.  Not for love, it seems, but as something he has to do.  He is brutally cold but perhaps his wealth and prestige encourage his future wife’s father of the power of the match.

Part six is about the misery of the wife.  She produces two girls for the intellectual but she is miserable.  She meets a musician who tries to seduce her.  In a plate, the intellectual is shown separated from his wife by a literal wall of books.  His wife enters into the affair with the musician, which somehow ends in her death.  (The confusion here seems to be universal.  Art Spiegelman comments on how confusing this part of the novel is.)

In part seven, the intellectual’s daughter gets involved with a labor organizer.  He is told of the man and his communist sympathies so he arranges for his arrest.  The intellectual’s daughter is dejected since the trial (which the intellectual plays a key role in prosecuting) ends in the hanging of the labor organizer.

In part eight, we learn of his second daughter’s love affair.  The intellectual tries persuading her to follow his path, but she rejects the intellect.  She meets a womanizer (or maybe a pimp) who seduces her and begins selling her to the men of the community.

In the final section, the intellectual learns that his daughter has become a prostitute.  The pimp returns a small flower belt and throws the intellectual out on the street.  He pleads for aid from the community, who viciously laugh at his misfortune.  Finally, surrounded by the graves of the people in his life he goes insane, takes the drum he was forbidden to use as a child and goes off with the flute player.


A very strong theme here is the danger of the rejection of the cultural, emotional, physical realm for brutish intellect.  The intellectual’s father found the drum – the symbol of the emotional and cultural realm – in “dark Africa” and acquires it by committing a brutal crime.  The intellectual, by rejecting the physical and emotional is able to participate in horrible crimes – including the unfair judicial murder of a labor organizer.  His intellect gave him the emotional distance required to be as brutal as he needed to be.  Although Ward would not have had the language, he is describing the banality of evil here.

Every attempt the intellectual made to move beyond his mind failed.  Religion, marriage, career, and law all are inadequacy to break him out of his isolation.  In some ways, they only reinforced his isolation.  At the end, he is baffled at the indifference and hostility of the crowd toward his losses.  These are, however, simply the end result of his perpetual indifference to his community.