James Dashner’s The Maze Runner is a “Young Adult” novel (the heroes are teens; the ideal readers are probably a bit younger) in the Puzzle Box corner of the labyrinth genre, an imitator of the movie Cube and probably a cousin to Lost on television. Not having read any Young Adult works other than Harry Potter for many years, I found it hard to get over the sense the characters were a bit too cardboard, running around on a stage with a plain backdrop and too few props. Dashner obviously figures his target audience wouldn’t be willing to sit through a paragraph of description of much of anything.
But that’s a bit of a problem in a story set in a giant baffling artificial structure. What little world-building the author has time for has to establish the entire setting, because the world of the story is completely unfamiliar and nothing can be assumed. As a result, the labyrinth where The Maze Runner takes place is a little threadbare, even sketched-in. Basically, a crew of amnesiac teenage boys get delivered (one a month) to a little village at the safe zone at the center of giant maze with unclimbable walls. There’s an artificial sky with a sun that rises and sets, and every evening four giant doors slide shut, closing off the village while the maze rearranges itself. The maze is mostly featureless except for some vines hanging on the walls in anticipation of an action scene and the words “WORLD IN CATASTROPHE: KILLZONE EXPERIMENT DEPARTMENT” stamped on the walls. Only two rather undistinguished types of creatures patrol the maze: passive camerabots and hostile blobby robomonsters with various sharp implements sticking out on flailing mechanical arms. If this place sounds less intriguing that Hogwarts, that’s because it is. But the story tries to pull many of the same emotional strings as Harry Potter: the hero, Thomas, is assigned almost messianic significance by his fellow labyrinth-inhabitants for surviving close encounters with the beasties in the maze, some of them willing to follow him to the ends of the earth but others jealous and fearful. Obviously there’s great wish-fulfillment potential in inviting youthful readers to rationalize their positive and negative relationships with other kids in this light, but the kids including the hero are so nearly interchangeable that it’s hard to care very much about their relationships. Of course, Thomas’s amnesia has the benefit of stripping his backstory of any unique features that would prevent the reader from identifying with him in any way.
(Occasionally Thomas’s internal dialogue will compare something in the maze to a familiar concept from a child’s common experience, and whenever this happens the narrator will inevitably break in with a disclaimer that Thomas only remembers the familiar concept in a fragmentary way that tells him nothing about his past. Eventually even this rationalization breaks down, but the narrator keeps jumping in to mention how confused Thomas is about how inconsistent it is what he can and can’t remember.)
The love interest, Theresa, is just as bland as Thomas. Here’s a triumphant moment of hers near the climax of the story, awkwardly shoehorning in an extra recap of the plot for the slowest readers while indulging in the strange tendency of girls in boys’ stories to point out that they’re girls:
She smiled and folded her arms. “If you’re going to decipher a hidden code from a complex set of different mazes, I’m pretty sure you’re going to need a girl’s brain running the show.” Her grin turned into a smirk.
What’s worse, The Maze Runner suffers from the fallout of the unfortunate decision which must have been made by science fiction writers around the sixties (I’m going to blame it on Heinlein and Dick) to assume that psionics is a real concept that will eventually be scientifically proven and which should therefore be thrown into science fiction books with no further justification. Theresa and Thomas can inexplicably read each other’s minds, and I’ll be damned if this superpower of theirs has any decisive impact on the plot whatsoever, other than occasionally saving the author the trouble of making his characters go to the same room when he wants them to talk to each other. Given that these kids’ romance is about as chaste as Luke and Leia’s, I figure the forthcoming second book in the trilogy will reveal she’s his sister.
Okay, now for a few more serious spoilers. And that means it’s time to trick the blog software into making line breaks.
It seems like Dashner’s in too much of a hurry to race these characters through the plot, throwing events at them so fast they never get a chance to face their situation and make their own decisions. Before Thomas has gotten the full tour of the boys’ little village or so much as set foot out in the maze, a comatose girl gets dropped into their community announcing in a trancelike state, “Everything is going to change.” And then the boys notice that she’s clutching in her hand what appears to be a note sent by courier directly from the author, informing them that all the characters have arrived and no one else will appear in the box. Sending these messages to the characters so early prevents the world of the story from feeling like a place with consistent rules that need to be understood. At this point in the novel, the hero hasn’t had enough time to figure out what happened the last time everything in his life changed. But what’s the point, for him or for the reader, if everything will inevitably get magically shaken up again? And the puppet-master “Creators” of the maze continue to intervene to push the kids toward the solution again and again, as Thomas and the girl prove to be essentially deus ex machinas sent to push the rest of the kids toward a solution (maybe the Creators got bored after waiting two years for the rest of the kids to solve the relatively simple maze). It seems they have memories of the maze’s secrets from their former lives that bubble through the surface of their amnesia at convenient moments.
The only explanation Thomas ever comes up with for the experience is that the maze was a social-Darwinian scheme to winnow the kids down to those with the most intelligence and physical mettle, but the plot simply doesn’t bear this out. The kids are repeatedly led by the nose toward their next line of inquiry, at which point some completely unforeseeable and unavoidable threat picks one of them off, and the rest are left to trudge onward in a state of even greater depression than before. (Probably the real “explanation” for the brutal violence is that it happened in Cube so it’s now supposed to be obligatory for the labyrinth genre.) Eventually, Thomas develops an intuition that he and his comrades were selected for their imprisonment because they were unusually intelligent, but I don’t buy it. They might be unusually regimented and harmonious in the face of disturbing circumstances (disproving the author’s claim in interviews that he drew inspiration from Lord of the Flies) but these kids are afflicted with the special brand of cluelessness reserved for stories where one hero has to make all the intellectual breakthroughs while still serving as a plausible surrogate for even the lowest common denominator among his young fans.
But maybe these criticisms don’t fairly accept the book on its own terms. It’s a puzzle box story, so how does it work as a puzzle? Toward the end of the book, once the way out of the maze has been revealed to the heroes via psychic newsflash, they inexplicably start telling each other “The Maze can’t be solved.” Luckily the ending isn’t that much of a copout. There is indeed a solution, and it involves figuring out the pattern of the movements of the maze walls and escaping through a specific, physical place in the maze where there’s an actual, literal, non-metaphorical exit. The problem is, the reader doesn’t get to participate very much in the pleasure of discovering the solution to the maze. I can imagine hints the author might have dropped to give the reader a chance at guessing at it, but I don’t think any of them actually appeared in the story.
Of course, the solution’s nothing mind-blowing, and it’s probably not worth focusing on. But what about the reason the maze was built in the first place? Isn’t that the real puzzle of the story? Well, without explicitly spoiling it, I’ll just say that the world outside is embroiled in a completely off-the-wall crisis totally lacking in any resonance with or logical connection to the events inside the maze. We’re invited to assume that the “Killzone Experiment” has some connection to the kids’ ability to cope with the crisis. In the interview I mentioned above, Dashner also claimed to be influenced by Ender’s Game, but in Ender’s Game the “training” Ender received had a specific purpose in combating the alien threat, and that purpose was revealed in a satisfying twist ending. Although The Maze Runner is much more explicitly presented as a puzzle, it doesn’t have any comparable moment where the pieces of the plot fall into place.
Matt Carey is the editor of Labyrinth Inhabitant Magazine.