This incredibly strange novel starts out with the premise that the existence of God, or God fragments, is proven scientifically as entities existing in the cosmos. Beings described as the Mentufacturer and the Intercessor, but their power of miracles, goodness and knowledge degrade with distance. Sometimes they are in the cosmic neighborhood though. It is the 22nd century and an empirical religion exists in which people shoot prayers magnified via radio, and sometimes a God takes an interest.
Ben Tallchief prayed for a new job, and next thing he knows he is allowed to leave for a settlement on another planet, named Delmak-O. The same story goes for Seth Morley. He’s stuck in a shitty place, but after a prayer he has the chance to move to Delmak-O. Thirteen people arrive on the unexplored planet, and none of them know for what purpose or whether God was responsible for sending them in the first place.
Despite being a very dark novel, full of death, it’s also a drily funny novel. Dick makes it a point to describe events from his characters’ perspectives, and his skill in creating odd characters and writing wittily increased over the years. Many pages concern characters bickering with each other while they are stranded on Delmak-O and nervous. They are all very distinctive and think in weird ways. Most of all, they are all extremely self-centered. There is almost no effective communication between them.
When they start dying one by one, I start thinking of what kind of message Dick is trying to convey with this story. A dozen very selfish people, all getting their prayers answered which leaves them stranded, and then they create a hellish place for themselves. Smells like a morality story, but there is still something very strange about this planet Delmak-O. Animals behave weirdly, and some turn out to be artificial. What is real here? Always a relevant question in a PKD novel.
I wouldn’t recommend this as a starter novel for those new to Philip K. Dick. A Maze of Death comes from a period in PKD’s writing in which his religious ideas began to get fueled more and more by his drug addictions and paranoia. He puts a lot of gnostic speculation in it. Certain themes come to the fore that have their seeds in earlier novels. For instance, he wrote similar ideas about localized God entities in earlier The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965). I think it adds an interesting speculative element that isn’t often found in SF novels.
Without spoiling anything, I can say that A Maze of Death ends with a couple of stunning twists. Some of the best of Dick’s career and it propels the novel into the realm of his best ones. I’m especially relieved because halfway through the story it all started to feel a little empty and drawn out. Compared to more complex novels like the previously mentioned Three Stigmata or Ubik, A Maze of Death reads like a very episodic story, moving straight from A to B, like a homage to “and then there were none”.
Only at the end does it gain the depth and layers that I was looking for. It has psychological ideas about how people cope with pressure and being cooped up with others for a long time. It has interesting ideas about religion, about human inventiveness in this aspect, and the whole story has a metaphorical dimension in which different environments seem to double for ideas such as limbo and purgatory.
I can’t see myself rereading it though. It’s a one trick pony.