We hear a lot these days about the death of the book, and computer games or the Internet are often high on the list of those responsible for this anticipated death. Diana Slattery's novel, The Maze Game, aptly demonstrates why electronic texts do not necessarily herald the death of literature, even in its print form. It also, however, suggests ways in which our ideas about narrative might be transformed and expanded -- not replaced -- by the possibilities inherent in a new medium of distribution. Slattery succeeds in presenting an engaging tale that is part love story, part world-reinvention story, and part theoretical exploration of the nature of language.
Don't let the theoretical exploration part scare you, though. There is a story here and it is compelling on the "what's going to happen next" level. However, the novel puts its action within a frame that raises questions about what it means to use language and what it might mean to have a visual language that one can move through, literally; such questions mean that the novel stays in your mind, providing that added pleasure of reflection, after the initial pleasure of the story has passed.
Before I continue, let me try to explain The Maze Game in a bit more detail. Slattery has developed an extremely complex world whose intricacies extend beyond the novel itself, and so my summary will necessarily be long.
The Maze Game is a science fiction novel, set on a future Earth. Earth has been radically transformed by the invention of immortality, which led to the consequent social problems of over-crowding in the time before the novel's setting. The capacity for immortality is now called the I-Virus, and treated like a communicable disease, spread through the transfer of bodily fluids, predominantly blood. The problems of overpopulation have been resolved by strict breeding controls, and the problems of scarcity that are implicit in a population of immortals have been solved by the MTA, or Mass Transit Algorithm, a means of shifting any object between points which has put the resources of the universe at the disposal of the immortal humans.
Most people in this future are immortal Lifers. The only mortals left are a group of specialized athletes know as Dancers who participate in the Maze Game. The Maze Game is a duel between a Dancer and a Player (one of the Lifers) in which each tries to negotiate a maze made of language glyphs more quickly than the other. If the Player wins, the Dancer performs a final ritual dance on the game board and then is killed at the end. The Dancers are idolized by the wider culture, functioning simultaneously as objects of sexual adoration and as sacrificial victims whose continued mortality creates the possibility for risk, and hence meaning, in a culture that has become stagnant.
The Dancers come in four Sets or types: Bod, Swash, Chrome, and Glide. Each caste of Dancers has its own style of negotiating the maze and a corresponding attitude toward life. Bods emphasize embodied strength to move through the maze, and they tend to respond instinctively and directly, often violently, to interpersonal conflicts. Chromes are cyborgs and rely on technological enhancement to negotiate the maze; they try to deny emotion and the body in all other aspects of their lives, becoming the machines they resemble. Swashes are centred in emotion and use the seductive potential of the body's gestures, rather than brute power, as they move through the maze. Swashes tend to live as if their lives are always spectacles or performances, even outside of the game. Finally, Glides move in carefully controlled ways that are rather like Tai Chi, based on an implicit energy in the body, a control over and connection among all its movements. Glides are the most spiritual of the Dancers, and those most connected to the Lily whose form inspired the shape of the glide glyphs.
As well as the four types of Dancers, there are four ways of knowing or being in the world, characterized as four minds. Each style of Dancer emphasizes one of these minds over the others, but the novel insists that we recognize that each person must find a way to integrate all these various aspects of him- or herself. The four minds are the island mind (reason), the gut mind (body), the sea mind (emotion), and the Lily mind (spirit). Because each Dancer needs to find a way to integrate these various minds into his or her dance, Slattery makes clear that all these various aspects of the self are integral to the process of reading and producing meaning through language. Language is more than just a simple and transparent system for referring to objects in the world, but is instead a way of understanding these objects and shaping them to reflect our selves. You might say that language in The Maze Game is something you grok.
The narrative part of the story concerns the story of the Millennium Class, the group of Dancers being trained to compete in the 2000th anniversary of the invention of the Game. Our main characters are the chief Dancers for each caste: The Bod Dancer, MyrrhMyrrh; Angle of the Chromes; Daede of the Swash caste; and T'Ling the Glide Dancer. Their struggles with their personal commitment to the Dance above all else -- which means accepting a mortal life and a young death -- and their relationships with each other are spun into two of the main threads of the plot. The final main thread is the apparent breakdown of the Game itself, which means the breakdown of the entire culture that has been stabilized by it. The Game has given meaning and pattern to Lifer culture, but now appears to be failing and falling into stagnation, as has everything else.
The Maze Game is based on the glyphs of glide, a visual language that emerged among an exploited slave race who were imprisoned and bound to the harvest of the Lily, which can be processed into a potent narcotic. Forbidden to speak, these slaves evolved a language of gestures that could be hidden within the movements of their work. The Game itself evolved out of the spectacle of torturing the mortals, who originally lived only to serve as slaves. Their owner, Joreen, designed the idea of electrocution as entertainment as a response to his ennui with eternal life and his own personality's, shall we say, quirks. There are two aspects to the Maze: language, and torture through electrocution. Initially, slaves were compelled to "dance" through their involuntary jerkings and their attempts to escape when placed on an electrified floor capable of administering varying jolts under Joreen's control.
Over the course of the novel, we learn the history of Joreen's invention of the Game and of the first dance, that of the Dance Master Wallenda who danced as a way to reassert control, insisting on making his death a performance rather than just something he submitted to or was dominated by. Wallenda's original role was as a jester who led the selected slaves to the electrocution floor. In response to the particularly gruesome death of a young girl named MyGlide, he staged the first Dance as a protest against his role, a refusal to continue being complicit in the torture. Joreen's response to this rebellion was to infect Wallenda with the I-Virus, refusing to allow Wallenda to escape into permanent death and instead insisting that Wallenda share responsibility for the birth of the Game out of the spectacle of torture. A second narrative thread develops the backstory of the 2000 year conflict (and, in some cases, romantic tensions) among Wallenda, Joreen, MyGlide, and Oh-T-Bee, the artificial intelligence who makes possible both the Game and the MTA Algorithm. This history is revealed slowly over the course of the novel as Wallenda explains the true origins of the Game -- which are not generally known -- to the Millennium Dance Class.
Wallenda's sacrificial act opened space for torture to evolve into the Game, and for the former slaves to regain a degree of control over their lives through participation in it. By the time the novel opens, Joreen is no longer in control of the Game and it has become the cultural and economic (through betting) centre of Lifer culture. The former slaves have combined their gestural language with the electrocution floor, developing a concrete Maze of language that is formed by how the glides intersect. If a Player negotiates the maze more quickly than a Dancer, the Dancer performs a ritualized Dance that culminates in electrocution. If the Dancer defeats the Player, his or her ratings rise in a sports-like record of Game statistics, and he or she continues to the next match. Each year, one Dancer survives to be the final Dancer, and this Dancer then performs his or her dance regardless of the outcome of the final Game. The Dancers devote their entire lives to training for this event, and developing a personalized Dance that is the external expression of their mind and soul. In this new culture, death is an honour.
If all of this sounds complicated and confusing, it is. The Maze Game is a very complicated novel and what complicates things even more is that the novel is an extension of a larger project that includes a website, interactive software tools, the novel itself, and an interactive game (which is still being developed). These other materials can be found at the Glide website. The site is a necessary companion for understanding the action of the novel and the questions it raises about language, consciousness, and the creation of meaning. Slattery writes on the introductory page that as she was writing the novel, "it became evident that the Glide language was intricately involved at every level of the story, and was, in a sense, both generating the story, a driving force in the evolution of both events and characters, and, itself, a character in the story."
The website contains a description of the larger project, examples of the glide glyphs (which are also printed in the novel), a discussion between Slattery and her collaborators in developing the visual language, and two interactive software tools. The software tools are The Oracle, a random generator of three-glyph poems, which are used by the characters in The Maze Game in a manner similar to the I-Ching, and The Collabyrinth, which allows people to play with the Glide glyphs in an editing space in which they can modify the glyphs and create their own mazes of glyphs. The website is an important supplement to the novel because it allows the reader to see how the visual glyphs of Glide work (more on this below) and because it extends the novel's thematic exploration of the connection between styles of language use and consciousness to the world outside the novel and the reader's own consciousness. To fully understand the novel, the reader must develop at least a rudimentary understanding of Glide.
Within the novel, the maze for the Game is constructed out of the visual glyphs of Glide, glyphs that can move or morph from their initial state to a second one. The Dancers and the Players (via avatars) move through the maze created by the language glyphs, choosing paths at their intersections. Thus, the process of moving through the maze is like the process of reading. The questions the novel asks, as Slattery announces on the website, are, "What does it mean to move through a maze of language? What meanings are made when syntax is on the move? How does meaning manifest when the signs won't stand in line, but link into mazes, or worse, when the signs will not stand still?" The novel explores these questions through the interpersonal relationships among the characters, which they work out through their exchanges of glyph Oracles and through their participation in the Game and its language mazes.
The game itself and the language maze are thus metaphors about how we move through language and produce meaning by moving through it. The novel suggests that the ritualized deaths of the Game are the only location where meaning continues in this future world because immortality has robbed life of meaning for other humans; nothing has consequence or closure except the Game. The meaning of the glide glyphs change depending upon the order in which they are linked or stacked. Since these meanings function as both literature and oracle, the novel suggests that the path we choose through a text, how we produce meaning, shape who we are and who we might become. The shaping power of language is explored in the novel through the personalities of the Dancers as they are shaped by their Dance styles (which are also, of course, styles of language use). It is also explored through the structural importance of the Maze and its strict systems of ritual as the foundation for Lifer culture. The novel ultimately suggests that we can change the world by changing the way we use language to describe it.
The most interesting and useful questions The Maze Game raises, it seems to me, are those that are informed by its poststructuralist theories of language. I mentioned above that the reader needs to be able to read the Glide language in order to fully comprehend the novel; such comprehension is necessary because the last third of the novel increasingly includes Glide Oracle poems as part of the text. If one cannot read these poems, one cannot understand either their effects on the characters' motivations or -- more importantly -- the way in which the translation produced by the character within the text is only one among a number of ways of reading the glyphs, a reading which thus provides insight into the character's mind and furthers the novel's exploration of the close relationship between language and consciousness.
This is obviously a novel that is deeply concerned with theoretical questions of language and meaning. The models to which it has been compared -- Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, Eco's Foucault's Pendulum -- put it firmly in the postmodernist camp. The way that the Maze works as a representation of language reveals many things about poststructuralist theories of language and about the experience of reading New Media texts (what we used to call hypertext). However, the particular brilliance of Slattery's combination of narrative with interactive and non-fictional explorations of these ideas is that she lets you experience language as a concrete medium that shapes its readers directly and personally. Reading this novel, I had something like the experience recounted by Sheri Turkle in Life on the Screen in which she explains that her first visit to a virtual world online made all the years of poststructuralist language theory in grad school click into place in one of those, "So that's what they were all talking about!" moments.
The Maze Game provided a similar sort of "Eureka!" for me when I finally saw something of the relationship between the medium and the meaning that fuels scholarship on communication theory and the history of the book. In brief, here are some of their claims and the ways that I see The Maze Game illuminating the theory through concrete example.
First, there is the idea that language is a game and that meaning is produced through the creative interaction of both author and reader. As with game theory of narrative, within the space of the novel language signs, glyphs, have meaning based on how they are connected together. The spaces between signs create their own meaning, when other glyphs become apparent as the "connected" meanings of various glyph orderings. The spaces between the glyphs are where the readers -- Dancers and Players -- must move as they find their own paths. The reader has control over his or her path through the text, and both Dancer and Player are equally authors in the meaning that is produced from the maze they both traverse.
The Maze Game also makes literal, and thereby reveals, the materiality of language practices. The text explores New Media ideas about immersive environments as new sorts of textual experiences and about the embodied experience of reading a text. Slattery's device of having the dancers move physically through language is an ingenious way to focus our attention on the embodiment of language, texts, and readers. Within the novel, we see attention paid to the value of embodied knowledge through descriptions of how the Dancers learn to negotiate the maze, using all of their minds -- including gut, sea, and Lily, as well as the rational, logocentric island.
Finally, the novel draws our attention to the importance of power dynamics in the experience of reading, again through making literal the notion of access points. The MTA (mass transit algorithm) is another metaphor for textuality and reading, a system that connects all points to all other points. However, not all individuals have the same access to all points and the degree of access one has is shown to have significant material consequences within the novel. Finally, the competition between Player and Dancer within the maze also has to do with language and power. The better reader, the one who perceives the most connections and paths through the texts, is the one who will win. Further, how one is positioned before the reading experience begins is also shown to have significant material effects. Although either Player or Dancer might lose, the consequences are fatal only for the Dancer.
Experts I have spoken to within the field of New Media texts maintain that one must learn the language from the website first; however, I found that my experience was very different and that I was able to learn the language only through encountering it embedded within the narrative of The Maze Game. My experience may have something to do with my history as an SF reader and the relationship I perceive between Slattery's media experiments in The Maze Game and characteristics of the SF genre.
One of the important things that New Media texts are supposed to do is establish a more democratic relationship between the author and the reader. A New Media text, because it allows the reader to choose his or her own path through the text, and because it allows multiple paths through the same text, frees the reader from the constraints of traditional printed literature, which tries to guide us through a single "correct" sequence of events to arrive at a single, stable meaning. For the purposes of this discussion, I'm going to leave to one side the question of whether or not print texts are as singular and constraining as this theory assumes and simply focus on the claims for uniqueness made for New Media texts and the place of The Maze Game in this debate.
As well as being more democratic (Landow), hypertext is reputed to produce a more active reader than often required by print texts due to its interactivity (Moulthrop) and to foreground the ways in which meaning is collaboratively produced by reader and author (Bolter, Ryan). Such texts draw attention to the necessary interactions between the reader's body and the technology of the text which prevents us from adopting that disembodied "view from nowhere" (Haraway) that denies how our ideas and interpretations are a product of our own biases and experiences. Finally, critics argue that the forms of New Media texts move us towards reading strategies that are more fluid and open-ended, and less focused on linear logic (Bolter, Landow); and thus allow us to escape an obsessive focus on cause-and-effect sequences. New forms of expressing our ideas thus might enable new forms of thinking them.
I'll leave it to you to decide whether you think New Media texts produce such a utopian revolution in literary culture. The point I want to make here is that The Maze Game both is and is not a New Media text in the sense that these critics mean. While the novel clearly raises questions about language and meaning consistent with New Media ideas, it does so in the form of a traditional, linear, print narrative. Although the text is supported by a website and interactive software tools, as I noted above, these things didn't help to me grasp the ideas about language that New Media texts have to offer. Instead, I needed a story.
I think the hybrid form of The Maze Game works well for people like me, who have some anxiety about diving straight into New Media texts. The novel uses SF's strength in creating new worlds in order to suggest that perhaps there is some profit in treating texts as games instead of as worlds. For this reason, I think that The Maze Game is an interesting and provocative fusion of New Media and SF concerns. It offers a new way of questioning our assumptions about reading through an increased focus on the material embodiment of our texts, on the technologies through which we experience them. SF is the perfect genre for Slattery to use to raise these ideas, because SF readers are skilled at both analyzing the relationship between a technology and the culture that uses it, and at accepting new premises upon which a world might be built. Only with the SF genre can an author make language literal and expect that the readers will be able to take it, well, literally.
The existence of a companion website that asks us to move beyond and outside of the text shows how the novel works to bridge the gap between New Media and print text cultures. New Media texts allow us to see the materiality of language, and The Maze Game's engagement with this trope is nothing new in the world of New Media theorizing. However, it does perhaps offer something new for the world of SF, something that the genre might benefit from thinking about more in our analyses so that we truly don't separate form from content. One of SF's great strengths, and perhaps its greatest contribution to society at large, is its serious engagement with the social consequences of technology. The Maze Game extends that engagement to the technologies of literature through which we experience SF itself.
Copyright © 2003 Sherryl Vint
Sherryl Vint is an Assistant Professor at St. Francis Xavier University. She is currently working on a project about animals, alterity, and science fiction. She completed a dissertation on representations of the body in science fiction in 2000. You can send her email, or see her previous appearances in our Archive.
Bolter, Jay. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext and the History of Writing. Hillsdale, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1991.
Haraway, Donna. "Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective," in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge, 1991. 184-202.
Hayles, N. Katherine. Writing Machines. MIT Press, 2002.
Landow, George. Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Johns Hopkins UP, 1992.
Ryan, Marie-Laure. Cyberspace Textuality: Computer Technology and Literary Theory. Indiana UP, 1999.
Ryan, Marie-Laure. Narrative as Virtual Reality; Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. Johns Hopkins UP, 2001.