Book Review: The Man in the Maze, Robert Silverberg (1969)

(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 EarthHawksbill 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.

Plot Summary

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

My main complaint is a timeworn one. Silverberg has serious trouble depicting female characters.  Richard’s lover is the only one in this novel and she is completely and utterly vacuous.  Every time she is appears in the novel Silverberg mentions her breasts — swimming, “O look, her breasts”, walking, “O look, her breasts,” talking, “O look, her breasts.”  Frustrating.  Misogynistic.  Silverberg is one of the worst writing in the 60s when it comes to women.  

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)

For more book reviews consult the Index

25 Replies to “Book Review: The Man in the Maze, Robert Silverberg (1969)”

    1. I feel like an old record when I critique his work — wonderful concept, great main main characters, interesting worlds, intriguing (occasionally disturbing) aliens, and, unfortunately, terrible female characters (a few every now and then aren’t so poorly conceived).

    2. Yeah, not a fan of any of the English language covers — I should have just picked up the French edition I posted — would have taken me twice as long to read, but, at least the cover would be better — haha.

  1. Man in the Maze is a good one, and I’m glad you liked it.

    I wonder if any critics have ever written about women in Silverberg’s stories. I know there has been some criticism of Gene Wolfe regarding how women are depicted in his work, and of course of Heinlein, who wrote some first person narratives with female narrators.

    Personally, I don’t find Silverberg’s or Wolfe’s treatment of women offensive; the attitudes depicted are those of their characters, not necessarily of the writers themselves (or so I tell myself.) For example, a lot of guys are really into breasts, and so Silverberg is just writing a realistic account of those guys.

    Heinlein is a somewhat different case, as he actually tries to write in a woman’s voice.

    Have you read any Henry Miller or Charles Bukowski? Their treatment of women in their semi-autobiographical works might interest (or dismay) you.

    What’s your next Silverberg? I think Dying Inside, Kingdoms of the Wall and The Second Trip are as good or better than Man in the Maze.

    1. Heinlein is one of the worst, without doubt. But yeah, Silverberg and women — I guess if there was one or two male characters who looked down on women and it was part of their character I’d think somewhat different of it. However, almost without deviance Silverberg writes the SAME female character over and over and over again. I remember an exception in Hawksbill Station — however, multiple times he remarks that she’s not attractive so her intelligence is thus presented in a somewhat different light. So, the attractive ones have no brains…

    2. Of course it is a writer’s right to present story from a character’s point of view, and if that character fixates on certain things, then so be it. That’s part of their character. But when looking at a larger sample of Silverberg’s work, I’d agree with Joachim that time and again we see very similar female characters, many identified by their breasts. This allows us to establish a pattern, i.e. to move from the “character” to “author” designation. It’s a caveat to Silverberg’s oeuvre: brilliant imagination, except with women. It’s a shame, too. He seems so capable, yet unwilling to present female as realistically as many of his male characters.

      (Regarding the Gene Wolfe comment, if you read Book of the New Sun, then Book of the Long Sun, you’ll notice a marked attempt to present female characters in a more realistic light. The vacuous hussies with jutting breasts remain, but there are also strong, responsible, intelligent, and sympathetic female characters that are better analogs to reality.)

  2. Haha… your criticism with female characters seems spot on if it’s anything like how he tried to write Avluela’s character in “Nightwings.” He just has an issue seeing beyond the breasts. He’s a good enough writer that I managed to overlook it.

    1. If you haven’t read much Silverberg, as I mentioned earlier, Hawksbill Station, The World Inside, and Downward to the Earth are places to start. This is a minor masterpiece but not his best.

  3. I’d actually, happily, forgotten there were female characters in this one.

    This is one of my favourites, though I have several Silverberg favourites. I had no idea it was based on a Sophocles’ play.

    Silverberg is at his best when at his most psychological (except of course for the absolutely marvellous Nightwings, which isn’t quite so psychological). Here there’s a redemptive arc from a terrible bitterness which is arguably justified, and an exploitation of innocence that’s also arguably justified.

    I have incidentally read some Bukowski. The difference is that Chinaski is sexist, but Bukowski can still write women. I love Silverberg, but he just plain can’t write women.

    Personally I’d put this one above The World Inside, though I did love the passionate defence of overpopulation in that one. 75 billion too many? Think how many possible Einsteins, Shakespeare’s, all that human potential made potential rather than merely unborn. It was such a refreshing take. The nightwalking scenes though were terrible. Women again…

    1. Wait, you thought The World Inside was a defense of overpopulation? I didn’t get that from my read through — I assumed it was a more dystopic look where the real thinkers see through the veneer of society and the self-less goal to reproduce reproduce reproduce yet were subsumed by the maw of society… I thought the nightwalking scenes made sense in a dystopic future where that is the goal. It’s not an endorsement of such activities but a formulation of society aimed at achieving what is considered the one “Truth” reproduction.

      1. Silverberg introduces the interesting twist by presenting the external “rural” society as primitive/superstitious and no “better” than the internal world. However, both are not options — rather, some hybrid — because the main character commits suicide. Also, if anything, the female characters are more interesting in The World Inside due to the female musician character who slowly realized the societal flaws.

      2. No, it’s an in-character justification not author level. It’s still interesting though because it’s such a different perspective, and because it’s nice to be reminded that what may be a dystopia to us may not be to everyone within the fiction.

        I agree with your interpretation of the wider book. My criticism of the nightwalking isn’t that it’s there. It’s that the men do it and the women passively receive them, which is Silverberg’s issue with women in a nutshell.

  4. SIlverberg is “of his generation” when it comes to women characters. Very few of the early male American authors come even remotely close to creating believable female characters. That said, I have fond memories of The Man in the Maze but The World Inside is a dull as ditchwater. Up the Line and Dying Inside are the best of the books in your nominated period. I did keep on dutifully reading him until Tom O’Bedlam. I remember throwing it across the room in disgust and never opened another book by him until this year when I read one of the retrospective short story collections from Subterranean. That was actually quite good. http://opionator.wordpress.com/2011/07/31/multiples-1983-87-the-collected-stories-of-robert-silverberg-volume%C2%A0six-by-robert-silverberg/

    1. I think Silverberg is worse than the majority of his generation when it comes to female characters…. But, I still enjoy his novels. I disagree with you on The World Inside — for some reason the historian main character resonated with me…

      1. Although the worst of the outright misogyny of those writing in the early part of the century mitigated, all the main male authors still refused to move beyond the objectified version of women. Without intending to be complete in the list, you can’t read Anderson, Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Pohl, Simak, van Vogt and the others without being aware of it. The only man who, to some extent, comes out of it with any credit was William Tenn whose satirical approach tends more to gender equality.

  5. I rather liked Tom O’ Bedlam, whereas Up the Line for me was mid-tier Silverberg. Fine but not great.

    Still, it would be dull if we all had the same favourites.

    William Tenn, I’ve only read one of his but he was good certainly.

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