Book Review: The Man in the Maze, Robert Silverberg (1969)
February 5, 2012 § 24 Comments
(Ron Walotsky’s cover for the 1978 edition)
4.5/5 (Very Good)
The Man in the Maze (1969) is yet another glorious novel from Silverberg’s best period (1967-1975). Silverberg adeptly recasts Sophocles’ play Philoctetes (perhaps more of a loose inspiration) in an inventive and fully realized science fiction future where man has newly come into contact with interstellar beings. As with some of his more serious works (The World Inside, Downward to the Earth, Hawksbill Station, etc.) the tone is that of a dark and brooding rumination. The setting, a massive and unexplained ancient maze/city on the planet of Lemnos, is the perfect backdrop for the thought-provoking human drama that unfolds.
Our hero, Richard Muller, is a one-time diplomat famous for contacting — and apparently assessing the peacefulness — of the first interstellar beings discovered by humans on the planet of Beta Hydri IV. He returns to Earth but instead of a hero’s welcome everyone who comes within proximity of him, including his lover, experiences intense and uncontrollable revulsion (some even become physically ill). Eventually scientists discover that the Beta Hydrans altered his mind to emote waves of amplified emotions (horror, hate, disgust, etc). After a while Richard, dismayed at his pariahism and the lack of cure, exiles himself. He locates the most remote and dangerous place to hide, the maze/city on Lemnos. This backstory is slowly revealed over the course of the work.
Nine years later, Charles Boardman (the diplomat who suggested that Richard visit Beta Hydri) and Ned Rawlins (the naïve son of one of Richard’s friends), undertake a well-equipped expedition to Lemnos to extricate Richard. The reason: humanity has been contacted by another alien species which enslaves various alien races which it can’t tell are sentient — i.e. those who can’t communicate telepathically. Richard, finally resigned to living alone in the maze under various delusions of his self-martyrdom for humanity’s sake, would not welcome his own people returning to him even in this time of need if their real revulsion towards is obviously evident.
But Boardman has a plan. Richard will only have contact with Ned. A backstory is invented, a plan targeting Richard’s honor is hatched… But first the horrors of the maze must be traversed and Ned’s idealistic reluctance to engage in the elaborate simulation must be overcome before Richard can be compelled to re-enter a world where mankind recoils at his very presence.
The Man in the Maze is an amazing work of character-driven science fiction. Be warned, the purpose of the maze itself, what can be incorrectly construed as the main mystery of the novel, is not explained. Instead, the characters — their flaws, motivations, and slowly revealed pasts — propel the novel. There isn’t much in terms of action besides a few perilous journeys within the maze amongst its unusual and deadly pitfalls. Instead, characters evolve, dialogue abounds, characters undergo internal crises, and ruminate on their own shortcomings.
The Man in the Maze is highly recommended for all science fiction fans who enjoy character-driven works.
(Don Punchatz’s cover for the 1969 edition)
(Tibor Csernus’ cover for the French 1973 edition)
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