The end of genre is at hand. It did not die in a massive burst, and there was no single moment to point to that nails the coffin shut. No, it is the way things die when the demographics shift. The radios that play that song dwindle into the AM bands, go out like little lights, with a few hanging on a while, for old time's sake. This is happening. This is our future. Genre existed to create a space for the marginalized dreamers, the outsiders, and the strange. But, everyone is strange now. Our biggest movies are genre. Our biggest musical acts are bisexual aliens. Everyone loves comic books, now. The conventions make the front page news all over the world. Like all good, American things, our young people love it more when it comes back to us made strange by a foreign culture. It's not the Beatles, this time. It's Anime.
As part of the above interview at SF Signal, J. M. McDermott says of his most recent novel, Maze:
It is science fiction. It does not read like science fiction most of the time, because the landscape is alive and hungry and you have no tools that you do not peel from tree bark and fallen stones in this place.
He is certainly right that Maze does not read like science fiction most of the time. For much of the first half of the novel, populated by monsters, djinn, speaking lights and abandoned cities and predatory satyrs, I remained convinced that I was reading a work of the more obscure kind of magical realism. Only as I fought my way forward into the book's second half did I begin to catch lucid glimpses of what McDermott might be up to. Even now that I have finished reading those glimpses remain partial, and I find myself wishing there was more story to come, even though while I was reading it I found the existing text perplexingly unforgiving at times.
Maze begins straightforwardly enough, with a statement of fact:
My name is Maia Station.
I was born in the sky, on a station. I never expected to be anywhere else. I was a scientist, but I can't remember how to do anything scientific after ten years surviving in the maze. The tools I took for granted before this life are gone. The great coils and conductors and artificial constructs that I used to treat like toys are as distant as the stars in the sky. My memories of the station and my memories of here are all disjointed, as if everything before the maze is wrapped in silver gauze—my mother, my childhood friends, all the things I did and learned—until the tear, when I woke up in the maze, and the sand ground away my mind.
I don't know how it all happened—how I arrived here from there. None of the others do, either. (p. 1)
If this opening reminded me of anything, it was Vincenzo Natali's 1997 movie Cube, in which a small group of disparate individuals awaken to find themselves trapped inside the eponymous cube, a seemingly inescapable series of interlocking puzzle boxes, whose intricacies they must solve in order not just to escape but to stay alive. Cube is a kind of ultimate locked room mystery, in which an obscurely malign environment seems selectively designed to feed off the weaknesses and past trauma of those captured within—as indeed, in a disappointing climb-down from mystery to conspiracy, it is ultimately revealed to be.
Anyone picking up Maze hoping for the literary equivalent of a Rubik's Cube has made a mistake. Whether it is a happy or an unlucky one will depend on the temperament of the reader.
From the above plainspoken opening we are drawn rapidly down the maze's passageways into a world of dead ends and vagaries, a set of circumstances we have as little hope of properly unraveling as Maia Station herself. The narrative is presented in four sections, each from the point of view of one of the maze's inhabitants. Though these characters' lives overlap and intersect, each of their stories cast a separate light on events. Maia Station comes from far in our future and it is perhaps for this reason that she is least able to adapt mentally to the primitive conditions inside the maze. Her account of what has happened to her is fractured and confused. That of her daughter, Julie, who was born in the maze and knows no other life, seems more linear and more logical as a result. Wang Xin, who came to the maze as a young boy after falling off his bicycle, has become a seer and a warrior, a leader whom the maze's other inhabitants look to for guidance. Joseph, whose journey to the maze is chronicled in more detail than any of the other characters', appears most tormented by memories of his former life and his inability to understand what has happened to him.
Joseph is a corporate lawyer in Fort Worth, Texas. His time is not our time. A flu pandemic has caused seismic damage to society's infrastructure. The big cities are in terminal decline, terrorized by gangs of squatters who wage interminable turf wars over food and territory. Yet this is still a world we recognize. Joseph has a job, an apartment, work colleagues. When we first meet him he has just returned from a high school reunion where a chance meeting with a woman named Karen "Parks" Rogers has rendered him sleepless. It is in this enervated condition that Joseph first notices a ball of light hovering above his bed:
I reached a hand out. I cupped the glowing ball of dusty light in my hand. I pulled it close to my face. I looked down and knew it was a woman in my hand, although I had no evidence either way. I just knew this puff of light was a woman. (p. 34)
Joseph absorbs the light into his lung, and a short time later "a huge, broken blister" that has erupted on his chest breaks, and a woman emerges. The woman calls herself Jenny. Jenny takes up residence in Joseph's apartment, from where she kidnaps him—and his erstwhile schoolfellow Parks—out of Fort Worth and into the maze:
The sink opened for us then. Like some kind of snake, the sink rose up, widened its mouth and wrapped over us, we shrank, spilled head over heels like water and tumbled into the sink. I don’t know which, I remember both.
The pipes pressed against my skin. I didn't fit. It was musty and damp. It was full of small maggots that wiggled towards the fresh air on both ends of the sink, that were smashed into my body, my face, my ears, nose and mouth. I clung to Djinni's body.I felt the cats moving around my ankles, all screaming into the maggots. (p. 53)
Joseph emerges into a world he cannot comprehend. An abandoned city sits on a hill. At the foot of the hill the maze begins, a vast labyrinth of passages and halls that extends infinitely in all directions. Desperate for food and water, Joseph stumbles into the maze's entrance, where he encounters first a savage beast-man who tries to kill him, and then a tribe of Neolithic humans who take him in, feed him, and begin to teach him the rudiments of hunting and survival. They view Joseph as a helpless innocent who talks in riddles they neither care about nor understand. They fear Jenny, or "Djinni," as they might fear a ghost of legend, a malevolent spirit. The maze's corridors are alive with monsters, animal, vegetable, and mineral. The people of the maze display little curiosity about the maze's origins or what it might mean. It is simply the world as they know it. Their main preoccupation is not with whys and wherefores, but with finding enough food to last them through the vicious winters, when snow descends upon the maze and they must sometimes resort to cannibalism to survive. If Joseph is to survive also, he has no choice but to abandon his former existence, and accept that the maze is now his world, too:
Fort Worth was a dream in the night. I had no way of explaining the journey here, the things I had faced.
We had encountered an alien, if you want to call her that, for truly she was alien to us. We had fallen through the wormhole, if you want to call it that, for truly there were worms. We had slipped between the fabrics of realities we did not understand . . .
We lived here, in the maze . . .
We made the best lives for ourselves that we could.
What else could we do? (p. 90)
Wang Xin's story takes place a decade or more later. He shows us Joseph: older, more experienced in the ways of the maze and with children of his own. The tribe, dissatisfied with the old methods of hand-to-mouth survival, seek a safer living environment and more reliable and sustainable methods of harvesting food. Wang Xin believes he can see a better life for them all, and sets out across dangerous terrain to lead them towards it. The tale he tells is ripe with prophecies, betrayals, and new beginnings. Another decade on, Julie Station's testimony describes a community of peasant farmers, living in an established community complete with familial relations, nascent religion, gossip, adultery, friendship, and feuds. Julie has never forgotten her mother's scientific insistence on questioning the surface appearance of things. Refusing to accept the traditional role of woman as home-maker and stock-keeper, she is driven to transgress the existing social order in more ways than one:
Everything can turn a corner and fall headlong into one of the endless tesseracts that end in the maze, where stone halls and dangerous traps and hungry beasts wait for all strays.
Who made the maze?
My mother had said aliens. Lucius' sister had preached about Neophilism and Lucifer. Sara said Loki, the trickster god. Ascalon's wife sang of a spider king, weaving stone webs and sleeping unseen in our grove, eating souls that had fallen into his web.
We hadn't had anyone new find our village since I was a little girl, and that one died before I got to know him and ask him about things. (p. 163)
Who made the maze? Julie asks. Of our four "strays" it is only Julie who asks that question. Maia and Joseph are more preoccupied with how they arrived there. Wang Xin seems content to expand and enhance the life he has fallen into. If Joseph, speaking in the language of myth and superstition ("ghost," "monster," "beast") seems like the protagonist in a classic portal fantasy, then it is surely Julie, speaking in the language of empirical enquiry ("alien," "scientist," "tesseract") who best represents this novel's central and defining allegiance towards science fiction.
For although Maze can be read on one level as precisely this kind of portal fantasy (McDermott has stated that one of the original inspirations for this novel was Jim Henson's movie Labyrinth ), it is primarily a book about questioning rather than acceptance. As readers, we can enjoy the manticores and minotaurs, the ice flowers and the rose deer; we can luxuriate in the richness of the creative act that brought such a confounding environment into being. But the deliberate interplay of different narrative strands, the confrontational nature of the text suggests we would be doing the novel a disservice if we did not also pause to ask not only who built the maze and how did our protagonists arrived there but what the maze is for and what it might represent? Are the people of the maze truly native to it, or are they all strays in origin, different only in that some of them are more recently arrived than others? Is the city on the hill evidence of a more advanced alien civilization, or are the Neolithic villagers themselves the decayed descendents of those that built it? Are the monsters really monsters, or machines that elude adequate description in a world where the technologies that produced them have fallen into extinction?
When we enter the maze, are we in fact stumbling into a microcosm of our own past, present, and future?
Maze answers none of these questions, and makes no apologies for refusing to give up its secrets. Indeed, it could be argued that Maze is a novel about secrets, or to put it more precisely, a novel about the nature of the unknown. What McDermott offers us in Maze is nothing short of our own private encounter with the alien. An encounter with the alien, by definition, should elude and defy any kind of easy explanation. Like Joseph and Maia, we might fall back on accustomed imagery to rationalize our experiences—minotaur, monster, maze—because for the moment we have no other. We must spend a long time looking and exploring before we can even begin to come up with the language—a new language—to adequately describe what we have seen.
Reading Maze, I could not help but be reminded of Annihilation, the recently published first installment of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy, which similarly poses as fantasy but whose underpinnings and core conceits are as rigorously science fictional as anything by Aldiss or Clarke. Both novels make informed and original use of what we might dub the Roadside Picnic trope—a tract or zone of land that is amorally hostile to exploratory incursions, most deadly in the fact that it is not in fact magical or supernatural but simply incomprehensible by current human standards. Those who enter it seek to interpret it via a frame of reference that simply slides off it, smashing their outmoded science and often themselves on its own irrelevance.
We might go one further in surmising that Maze is not just a science fiction novel, but a novel about science fiction itself. In a literary climate where much of the speculative lexicon has become devalued, overused, pulped for our easier digestion into a kind of comfort food for the imagination, McDermott has set about the business of ripping down that infrastructure and starting from scratch, presenting us with the raw materials of enquiry and suggesting we do a bit of work for ourselves for once. What is a maze after all, but a space to explore, to confront unexpected dangers, to get lost in?
As a reader, I found Maze to be a powerful and provocative work that lingers in the mind and that demands subsequent investigations. As a writer, I leave the book with the refreshed conviction that it is always possible to reinvent the boundaries, to write science fiction that is new, powerful and brimming with mystery.
Maze is a wake-up call, a kick up the arse, a light in the lung. As a novel it is tough meat, but like the minotaur jerky that feeds the maze's inhabitants throughout the winter, it sustains.
Nina Allan’s stories have appeared in Best Horror of the Year #2, Year's Best SF #28, and The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2012. Her story cycle The Silver Wind was published by Eibonvale Press in 2011, and her most recent book, Stardust, is available from PS Publishing. Nina's website is at www.ninaallan.co.uk. She lives and works in Hastings, East Sussex.