Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Upon the Starship Sophocles

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 51
Robert Silverberg, The Man in the Maze

A bizarre alien encroaches on the human space, stripping defenseless mankind of our free will. We can't communicate with these aliens, so we can't fight or appease them. Our only hope is Dick Muller, who, in mankind's first contact with extraterrestrials, was permanently maimed and cannot live with humans anymore. However, his precise injury enables him to show the aliens we are a thinking species. Unless he rejects the human race that previously rejected him.

Over a sixty year career, Robert Silverberg has used science fiction’s heightened realism to examine the strange circumstances which make humans distinct. Recognized classics like Dying Inside, about a psychic losing his telepathic ability, or Son of Man, about humanity’s distant future, embrace themes of constant versus changeable human characteristics. Silverberg’s contribution to Ellison’s Dangerous Visions, “Flies,” features a man cursed to violate human society’s unwritten rules. Humanity is Silverberg’s most copious, productive inspirational topic.

Everyone around Dick Muller can sense his soul. It rolls off him like waves of odor, a stench of humanity nobody should have to endure. Unable to remain around humans, he retreated into The Maze, a mysterious alien artifact on an otherwise lifeless world. Filled with deadly traps, ravenous vermin, and unexplorable technology, nobody could possibly reach the center of The Maze… except Dick Muller. Now humanity’s most ambitious representatives must tempt Muller back out.

Robert Silverberg
Structurally, Silverberg bases this 1969 novel on Sophocles’ ancient Greek tragedy Philoctetes. His modern retelling stays short, sweet, and to the point. It doesn't pause for discursive considerations of the meaning of life or the nature of the human beast; that would belabor a subtle point and lose the larger meaning. Silverberg creates sophisticated characters, drops them into a situation pushing humanity to its breaking point, and lets symbolism arise without particularly talking about it.

That said, Silverberg doesn’t create some deep-space action spectacular. The whole piece carefully considers humanity’s animal limits, and what makes it possible to live with one another. Its most profound passages are talkfests where human interlocutors Boardman and Rawlins (representing Sophocles’ Odysseus and Neoptolemus, respectively) use reason, evidence, and sometimes flat-out lies to persuade Muller that humanity deserves saving. Silverberg preceded current trends by decades in suggesting that humankind’s innate worthiness isn’t obvious or necessary.

Silverberg’s deeply conflicted trio reflects different responses to this central question. Boardman has flippant disregard for moral niceties like truth or loyalty; he measures strategies by their outcomes, not their ethics. He represents Odysseus, a character often sanitized for classroom reading, so some audiences may experience shock at his naked amorality, undiluted by sentiment. Yet Boardman also campaigns most blatantly for humanity’s preservation. Like Homer's Odysseus, Boardman has one operant moral principle: winners win. Period.

Muller entered The Maze nine years earlier, knowing its lethal traps, hoping to die. Yet the stench of human nature, which makes him intolerable to other mortals, opens The Maze to him; he survives despite his best efforts. His enforced isolation has let him uncover truths about himself, truths which first harrowed his soul, until he couldn’t deny them anymore, so he embraced them. Facing himself alone inside The Maze, he has become completely human.

Between Boardman’s Nietzschean morality and Muller’s sickeningly obvious humanity, Rawlins represents, well, us. He sees the threat jeopardizing humankind, and hopes Muller, whose visible soul will show the telepathic aliens we’re sentient, will agree to return. But unlike Boardman, Rawlins has scruples. He considers some tactics off-limits, because he’d rather lose free will than lose his soul. When Muller first shows him how repulsive a human soul is, however, he’s forced to question even that.

Silverberg squares these three characters in a nexus of honesty, lies, and half-truths so intricate, we cannot know which truth to accept. The honest characters are also the most hideous; the lying schemers have our interests at heart. This intricate balancing act, set against a background of inhuman lethality and apocalyptic threat, demonstrates why readers love science fiction, because by pushing reality to its brink, it has a unique ability to tell the unvarnished truth.

This silver-age SF gem presaged such Silverberg classics as Dying Inside, a more singular meditation on similar themes. It also dovetails into the New Wave of science fiction, in which the great source of speculation isn't scientific advancement, but the limits of the human being. All in all, it becomes a forward-thinking insight using a framework as old as time. Deeply challenging, it belongs to a class of book that just doesn't get written anymore.

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