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Entry updated 23 November 2020. Tagged: Theme.

Labyrinths and mazes have a long history, and distinctions between them have long been blurred. The archetypal maze was a two-dimensional pattern, often cut in turf, to be traversed voluntarily as a kind of ritual Game. Even traditional hedge-mazes like Hampton Court's in London do not offer serious physical barriers; thus the narrator of Alasdair Gray's Five Letters from an Eastern Empire (1979 Words Magazine; 1995 chap) chooses not to play, stepping over the inches-high hedge. Further mazes in this sense include the subset of floor-tiles which must be trodden in the proper order to avoid death in Walter M Miller's "It Takes a Thief" (May 1952 If; vt "Big Joe and the Nth Generation" in The View from the Stars coll 1965), the Pattern in Roger Zelazny's Science Fantasy Amber sequence opening with Nine Princes in Amber (1970), the shifting shadow-maze of Gene Wolfe's "A Solar Labyrinth" (April 1983 F&SF), and Destiny's garden in Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novel Season of Mists (graph 1992). The last is a knowing concretization of the title story of Jorge Luis Borges's El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan ["The Garden of Forking Paths"] (coll 1942), whose maze or labyrinth branches not spatially but through Alternate-World pathways in Time.

Unlike such mazes, labyrinths tend to comprise enclosed and physically imprisoning systems of walls that block the intending solver's view, and impose on those who enter them a sense that they were constructed, with some purpose in mind: perhaps primarily for the aesthetic joy of creating a solvable puzzle; or perhaps in order to impel those who enter to achieve, after ordeals of decipherment, a particular goal (see Godgame; Secret Master). They may ramify through three Dimensions, like the spaghetti corridors of the Mile-High Tower housing the "Egg of the Phoenix" in Robert A Heinlein's Glory Road (1963). Notable examples from outside Genre SF include the Stone Lanes region of Gormenghast in Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan (1946); the Mines of Moria in J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955); the deeply claustrophobic mine-workings in Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960); the oppressive Underground labyrinth of Ursula K Le Guin's The Tombs of Atuan (1971); the Empty Palace mirror-labyrinth in Susan Cooper's Silver on the Tree (1977); and the Library in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1980). The labyrinthine Library of the House Absolute in Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols) extends and ramifies far beyond the building that supposedly contains it, as do the internal passages or portals of the small-seeming cottage in Diana Wynne Jones's House of Many Ways (2008). The Labyrinth of Robert Silverberg's Majipoor sequence – opening with Lord Valentine's Castle (November 1979-February 1980 F&SF; 1980) – is, like the House Absolute, an Underground palace. The Great Maze of Sheri S Tepper's True Game sequence proves – in Jinian Star-Eye (1986) – to be the Theatre of Memory of a Gaia-like planetary consciousness, in which old traumas are endlessly replayed. An ever-expanding labyrinth found within an "ordinary" US home in House of Leaves (2000) by Mark Z Danielewski has a similar Little Big ambience [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], further complicated by layers of textual obfuscation and unreliable narrators.

Scientists' laboratory-test mazes are frequently encountered, perhaps most famously in Flowers for Algernon (April 1959 F&SF; exp 1966) by Daniel Keyes; another notable example is William Kotzwinkle's Doctor Rat (1976). Enigmatic and deadly Alien labyrinths play important roles in Algis Budrys's Rogue Moon (1960; vt The Death Machine 2001), Robert Silverberg's The Man in the Maze (April-May 1968 If; 1969), Arkady and Boris Strugatski's Roadside Picnic (1972; trans 1977) – filmed as Stalker (1979) – and M John Harrison's Empty Space: A Haunting (2012). A more playful example is the "Maze on Minos", one of many wonders of the universe created by vanished Forerunners in the back-story of Terry Pratchett's The Dark Side of the Sun (1976): this cannot be mapped since its pattern differs for each visitor. There are many more. Negotiating the booby-trapped labyrinths of the film Cube (1997) and of Alastair Reynolds's Diamond Dogs (2001) demands considerable Mathematical skill, with swift penalties for error.

In Games, the threading of Monster-infested labyrinths was the main action of early Adventures and Role Playing Games (of which Dungeons and Dragons was the first example to become widely known), and took on a new kinetic quality in Videogames, in particular the First Person Shooters that came to prominence with Doom (1993) and Quake (1996).

Labyrinths may also be Prisons or places of exile, like the legendary original built by Daedalus (see Edisonade) to hold the Minotaur (see Supernatural Creatures); the titular cave system of Piers Anthony's Chthon (1967); the maze containing the underclasses of the evil City SoGo in Barbarella (1968); the Labyrinth Prison used to punish offenders in Iain M Banks's The Player of Games (1988); the heavily booby-trapped Labyrinth of Ephebe (the Discworld analogue of Classical Greece) in Terry Pratchett's Small Gods (1992); and the seeming Pocket Universe of Susanna Clarke's Piranesi (2020), a labyrinth-like edifice, crowded with statuary (including multiple Minotaur figures in the quasi-central entrance room), which may extend to infinity in all horizontal directions. Some labyrinths are minimalist: an apparently endless corridor with a hidden Möbius twist in Theodore Sturgeon's "What Dead Men Tell" (November 1949 Astounding); stripped down to a few concealing angles in Jack Vance's The Dying Earth (coll of linked stories 1950); stripped further to one-dimensional reductio ad absurdum like the proposed linear maze (short but containing infinity) of Jorge Luis Borges's "La muerte y la brújula" ["Death and the Compass"] (May 1942 Sur) or the endless succession of escalators in Thomas M Disch's "Descending" (July 1964 Fantastic); or to a single, conceptual false turning and annoying dead end in Robert Sheckley's "Redfern's Labyrinth" (in The People Trap coll 1968). Conversely, a few are cosmic in scale: the total Library of Jorge Luis Borges's "La biblioteca de Babel" ["The Library of Babel"] (in El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan, coll 1942) is numbingly vast, provably dwarfing the physical universe yet provably finite; the infinite titular labyrinth of Avram Davidson's Masters of the Maze (1965) has entrances and exits that connect all of space and Time; attempts to map the complex interior of a Space Station in J G Ballard's allegorical "Report on an Unidentified Space Station" (10 December 1982 City Limits) are foiled by the realization that, if only in Perception, the structure is relentlessly expanding towards isomorphism with the universe itself; and Alasdair Reynolds's Pushing Ice (2005) offers a labyrinthine Macrostructure comprising a vast network of tubes, each of sufficient diameter to contain moons or planets. The human mind loves to construct and explore mazes of every possible size. [DRL]

see also: Hypertext.

further reading

  • Adrian Fisher and Georg Gerster. The Art of the Maze (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990) [nonfiction: illus/hb/Georg Gerster]


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