Robert Silverberg’s bibliography is massive. The guy wrote tons of stuff. In 1968, the year he published The Man in the Maze serialized in Worlds Of If, Silverberg released three other novels, 8 books of non-fiction and 8 short stories, according to this glowing review on Fantasy Literature. Ah, quality and quantity.
Then again, this novel is just 192 pages in a pocket edition – the good old days of brevity. Today, a story like this would be published as a novel of at least 492 pages, adding lots and lots of world building and an attempt at deep backstory for the characters. In other words: authors and publishers alike would try to give it the veneer of serious literature. The wonders of word-processing indeed – it only makes the length and depth of Dune or LOTR all the more impressive.
So, what we get in The Man in the Maze is ideas condensed to their basic form, draped in a fast paced action/mystery story to make the medicine go down. It’s snappy pulp, yes, but it has deep ambitions – or does it?
I was drawn to read more of Silverberg since I read his classic Dying Inside, a fantastic fuck off to intellectual snobbery, that even today is mistaken as serious literature with metaphors about dying. His tone just felt right.
What about The Man in the Maze?
Well, again, Silverberg’s prose goes down easy. Again, great pacing, structurally sound. There’s the mystery of what exactly happened to the protagonist, retired diplomat Richard Muller – aliens altered him on Beta Hydri IV, and now he kind of broadcasts his mind… Hello again, paranormal psychological powers – sixties SF seems to be full of those. There’s also the mystery of the alien city yet other aliens left behind millions of years ago: a city inside an intricate and deadly maze on the planet of Lemnos, and Muller – against all odds – has sought refuge there. He does so because other people can’t stand to be around him anymore – as the darkness of his subconsciousness radiates all around him. And finally, there’s the mystery of yet other aliens, overlords threatening the human galactic civilization – a threat Muller’s unique curse might help solving.
Great premises indeed, and Silverberg keeps things interesting, only slowly revealing more details on the nature of all these parts. It’s very well composed, masterfully even.
On the other hand: do not expect too much: the main narrative is centered on Muller and on two other characters that try to enter the maze – Machiavellian Charles Boardman and young buck Ned Rawlins. The book has only three characters, that’s it. Sure, there’s a cardboard spaceship crew that hardly has dialogue, and the typical 60ies SF all lust no brains female love interests in a few flashbacks, but they are of no importance.
So what we get is a strange hybrid: on the one hand a kind of technological action feast, with the maze itself as a protagonist, and on the other hand a psychological study of those three characters, and how they interact. The alien mysteries that Silverberg set up work really well to keep the tension going, but in the end they turn out to be a sideshow only, and ultimately they are underdeveloped – as I said: they would get 100 pages per alien race extra if this book would have been written today.
So now that we have whittled it down to the 2 main dishes: are they tasty?
The maze: cool, but underdeveloped too. Silverberg has some neat ideas for sure, but as we don’t get to know much about its history, it feels more like a set piece, than something crucial to the story.
The man: well, it’s the same old affair: is humanity worth saving? Aren’t we all loathsome beasts underneath this veneer of civilization? I’m afraid Silverberg doesn’t offer a lot of interesting insights to the reader from the future. 2020 it is, and social and psychological sciences have moved on. The questions Silverberg asks are cartoon questions, nice for a pulp novel, but hardly developed enough to engage a reader like myself. There’s the ruminations on hubris, on our dark side, on the pragmatism of the old and the idealism of the young, on the nobility of the soul. But it seems Silverberg can’t really make up his mind about any of it, and as a result Muller’s bitter misanthropy doesn’t convince.
His template is the ultimate in seriousness though: Greek tragedy, Sophocles even – Muller was based on the Argonaut Philoctetes who got a festering wound with a terrible smell that made it impossible for other people to be around him, so he sought refuge on the island of Lemnos. It might be heresy, and I haven’t read the Sophocles play, but in general lots of old Greek myths were not much more than cartoons either, augmented by centuries of scholarly interpretation – and Neil Gaiman of course.
All that doesn’t mean the characters are uninteresting: they each have a distinct voice, and the interplay between them works well. Purely as a story – not as philosophy – their interactions kept me engaged throughout the book.
I guess the verdict is simple: this is highly enjoyable sixties SF, and if you’re into that age of the genre, you’ll probably like this a lot too. There are heaps of badly aged vintage science fiction out there, but this holds up well – except for that bit of sexism, obviously. Silverberg really understood his craft, just do not expect the sophistication of Dune or Stand on Zanzibar.
A solid beach read, in the parlance of our times.