Several thousand years on, no-one is quite certain of the details. But the meat of the story is this: Philoctetes was there at the cremation of Hercules, and was given Hercules's quiver of poisoned arrows. And something happened -- a snake bite, perhaps, or even a magical arrow dropped on his foot. Either way Philoctetes was injured on the foot, and it was a wound that would not heal. Sometimes they don't.
The Trojan War had just begun, and Philoctetes went to fight with the Greeks, who were laying siege to Troy. There was a problem, though. The wound. It stank. A disturbing reek that made the people around Philoctetes sick to their stomachs. It smelled like the dead. It smelled worse than that.
Philoctetes was sent into exile.
The seige of Troy dragged on for another ten years.
And then someone dreamed a dream, an important dream, an oracular dream: if the arrows of Hercules were brought to Troy, then Troy would fall. They sent a messenger to Philoctetes, and invited him back. But Philoctetes had no wish to return...
And because the good stories last and can be (perhaps even must be) infinitely retold, Philoctetes' wound is also Muller's, one of the grim trio of men who cross and recross the stage in The Man in the Maze, Robert Silverberg's 1969 novel, although Muller's wound is not a physical stench but a spiritual one: a communicable despair, the terrible odour of the human condition.
It is a good thing, The Man in the Maze, will suggest, that we are insulated from each other: we are wounded by living, by mere existence, and we could not stand the stink of each other's souls.
Science Fiction, more than any other form of literature, is a progress, and it comes with a sell-by date. Some old SF can become unreadable. Some reputations erode with time. What we respond to, once the sell-by date is past, is art and, perhaps, is also truth.
It was Robert Silverberg, an author of, amongst many other things, speculative fiction, who gave us a story in which archaeologists unearth the texts of the 1960s, fragments of Bob Dylan lyrics are puzzled over, lacunae to be filled. To some extent, we are in that position now with the speculative fiction of yesteryear. They are texts that cry out for context.
Silverberg has had a number of careers in his career as an author, and as a writer. Since his arrival in the world of SF he has displayed a wide-ranging intellect and a facility as a writer that gave him his early career as someone who could create a volume of competent fiction on demand. In the late sixties and early seventies he entered a period of remarkable fecundity and quality, half a decade where he cut deeper, grew honest and edgy as a writer, and made demands on himself as an artist that culminated in such novels as Dying Inside and The Stochastic Man. From there, Silverberg, exhausted, retired from fiction, then returned, using an SF writer’s perspective to take us into Elizabethan Africa in his historical novel Lord of Darkness, and out across the edges of fantasy in the Majipoor sequence.
The Man in the Maze is from the beginning of the edgiest period. I think of it as a bridge book, in that, while it is courageous, exploring new territory, with one foot in the New Wave camp, it is still mindful of its roots. From the past of SF we get the strains of Space Opera, replete with incomprehensible aliens and inexplicable artefacts.
We also get some strange glimpses into our present. Fiction that predicts and creates dates sometimes because it, of necessity, leaves itself out. In this novel, we find ourselves recognising the maze, in the way no reader could have done in 1969. The maze is an imaginative deathtrap -- at the time an astonishing imaginative creation, one that is dulled today only in that it is instantly recognisable as the environment of a computer game -- an exercise in reflexes and memory, judgement and imagination. The process of moving through the maze, using drones and volunteers willing to give up their lives is the process of navigating a game -- get to the centre of the maze alive, avoid capture, achieve your goal.
It is too easy to take the maze for granted, now, to let it fade back into the landscape: but the maze, in all its incarnations, is one of the characters in this novel.
I pointed earlier to the story of Philoctetes not to give you a key to the novel you are holding (there are no easy keys to good fiction, nor should there be), but to demonstrate the tradition that Silverberg's story is a part of.
The title is, I suspect, as important as anything else in grasping the shape beneath the tale. (It is the man in the maze, incidentally, not the woman, as a reader soon notices – the absence of women from the tale, except as courtesans and sexual memories, is one of the few things that makes it feel like something from our past.) As one begins to read, the identity of the man in the maze is obvious: it's Muller -- who else could it be? But as the journey through the book continues and concludes, one finds oneself wondering who the man truly was, and what the maze: the candidates are Ned Rawlins, who has an honest name and an open face, our young innocent; Dick Muller, the book's Philoctetes, the experienced diplomat and soldier and frontiersman, now in hiding and in exile; and Charles Boardman, the wily elderly eminence grise, manipulating events and people as best he can. They form a male triad, shading from honour and integrity to expedience and compromise: the male equivalent of a maiden, a mother and a crone -- or, more fancifully, father, son, and a particularly shifty Holy Ghost.
And each man, as the reader will learn, has been given his own maze by Silverberg -- a maze that moves beyond the physical, beyond the video game deathtrap. It's an invisible labyrinth he has to walk, and inside which he hides -- a maze of morals, a maze of ethics, a maze, and ultimately, of humanity.