Paper-thin characterizations help sink Robert Silverberg’s 1969 science-fiction tale ‘The Man in the Maze’

January 30, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 30, 2019

Every so often, I’ll think about books that I read, or at least tried to read. A long time ago, probably when I was a teenager, I stumbled across a promising book in my local library’s science fiction section. It was set in an ancient and deadly maze constructed millennia ago by a mysterious alien race that had long since gone extinct. The heart of this sprawling, city-sized labyrinth housed a former interstellar ambassador who lived in self-imposed exile after having been tainted in the course of making first contact with an alien species. This contamination, which took place unbeknownst to the ambassador, left him telepathically emitting a flood of noxious emotions that quickly sickened anyone who entered the same room as him.

Into this tableau enters a starship crew on a desperate quest: To evade the maze’s numerous dead ends and lethal traps, reach its center and recruit the embittered exile for a dangerous mission that could save humanity from extermination.

This seemed like a surefire premise for a science-fiction thriller. Unfortunately, experience belied expectations; my teenage self began reading this book but never finished, put off by meandering philosophical and psychological digressions that hopelessly bogged down what I’d expected to be an action-packed story.

Hazy memories of this book surfaced in my rambling brain a few months ago. I wondered what the novel was called, and who’d written it, and how it had ended; but I figured I would never find out.

In fact, I would. Several days days ago, while trawling my library’s science-fiction catalog of digital books, I noticed a Robert Silverberg title called The Man in the Maze that pricked my interest. A glance at the description confirmed my hopes: This was the book that I’d encountered many years ago!

I checked out the 1969 novel by the prolific American grand master; shortly thereafter, I eagerly began reading. Unfortunately, I found that the tale indeed is lacking, although not necessarily in the ways deemed by my younger self.

The story’s setup is much like I remembered. The exile is one Richard “Dick” Muller, onetime consultant-at-large, who now makes his home in the maze on the planet Lemnos. What had escaped my recall are the two men seeking to enroll Muller’s aid. The man in charge is Charles Boardman, “eighty, now, with almost half his lifetime behind him.” Boardman is a few years older than Muller, though not as physically fit and — significantly — neither as charming nor as scrupulous as Muller fancies himself to be.

‘The Man in the Maze’ by Robert Silverberg (1969)

Boardman’s aid is Ned Rawlins, about 22 years old, undertaking just his second interstellar journey. Rawlins is his supervisor’s opposite in nearly every way: Young, fit, handsome, innocent and noble.

The pair are introduced as their (unnamed) ship arrives in Lemnos’s outer atmosphere. During the descent, Boardman shows him their destination:

“What you’re seeing is the outer embankment. The maze itself is surrounded by a concentric ring of earthen walls five meters high and nearly a thousand kilometers in outer circumference. But —” 

“Yes, I know,” Rawlins burst in. Almost immediately he turned bright red, with that appealing innocence that Boardman found so charming and soon would be trying to put to use. “I’m sorry, Charles, I didn’t mean to interrupt.” 

“Quite all right. What did you want to ask?” 

“That dark spot within the outer walls — is that the city itself?” 

Boardman nodded. “That’s the inner maze. Twenty, thirty kilometers in diameter — and God knows how many millions of years old. That’s where we’ll find Muller.” 

“If we can get inside.” 

When we get inside.” 

“Yes. Yes. Of course. When we get inside,” Rawlins corrected, reddening again. He flashed a quick, earnest smile. “There’s no chance we won’t find the entrance, is there?” 

“Muller did,” said Boardman quietly. “He’s in there.” 

“But he’s the first who got inside. Everyone else who tried has failed. So why will we —” 

“There weren’t many who tried,” Boardman said. “Those who did weren’t equipped for the problem. We’ll manage, Ned. We’ll manage. We have to. Relax, now, and enjoy the landing.” 

As Silverberg telegraphs in this passage, Boardman isn’t planning to make a forthright appeal to Muller’s sense of service. Unfortunately, the consultant’s scheme isn’t particularly interesting, and all of the characters are relatively bland. Muller, the center of the book, mainly comes off as churlish — not the kind of individual I generally want to spend a few hundred pages reading about.

The book’s treatment of women is even worse, as Silverberg and his characters mainly value them as sex objects. From a dramatic perspective, they chiefly operate as foils to demonstrate how virile, influential and accomplished the men in the book are.

The external menace that prompts Boardman and Rawlins’ recovery mission is a truly fascinating and entirely alien species, a fairly original science-fiction creation that’s much more interesting than the rubber-faced aliens SF movies and television shows of the era could depict. Some of Silverberg’s other creations — the Lemnos labyrinth, the aliens that corrupted Muller in the first place, the easily duplicated drones that help Boardman and Rawlins — were also innovative, at least at the time the book was authored.

But none of the characters are as lively as the concepts. In this way, The Man in the Maze is typical of much of even the best of American science fiction in the early decades: Suffused with interesting ideas but weighted down by dime-store psychology. I think this book could serve as the basis for an interesting movie or TV adaptation, but only if its characters were fleshed out.

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