by Ursula Le Guin

This story is a good one to start the semester with, for a few reasons.

First, it’s very short, so students who enroll late can read it right before class, or even during class (I set aside 10-15 minutes for this on the first day).

Second, ‘Mazes’ shows very effectively how we’re defining sci-fi in this class. There’s no advanced science or tech in ‘Mazes,’ but it’s still sci-fi by the Philip K. Dick definition we adopt: it ‘dislocates’ some aspect of our real world and thereby produces a ‘convulsive shock in the reader’s mind, the shock of dysrecognition.’

The shock of dysrecognition in ‘Mazes’ is almost palpable. Once you understand what’s going on in this story, your perspective is disrupted; familiar things seem strange; everyday things are suddenly puzzles that demand explanation. That’s what makes it sci-fi. Moreover—and another reason why it’s a good story to start with—it shocks us into seeing language differently.

‘Mazes’ is about a catastrophic communication failure. There are two characters: the narrator (‘I’) and the alien (‘it’). The narrator is dying, apparently of starvation exacerbated by profound depression, both of which could probably have been avoided if the two characters had achieved communication. Why couldn’t they? In answering this question, we have to think about what communication is—for the narrator, for the alien, for us.

Here are some questions to get the discussion going. (ALERT: I’m going to try not to spoil the central surprise of ‘Mazes’ here, but if you’re worried you should go read the story now and then come back!)

  1. At what point in the story did you experience the big surprise? What were the clues in the text that led you to it?
  2. The narrator understands the mazes as a medium for communication: ‘It seemed pretty clear that…a first approach toward communication was being attempted.’ (71) How does the narrator try to use the mazes to communicate? What kind of messages does the narrator try to send? How is this kind of communication similar to and different from ‘typical’ (human) language?
  3. What is the alien trying to do with the mazes, and how? In what ways is this similar to and different from ‘typical’ (human) language?

Students of speech-act theory can think about illocutionary force as they consider #2-#3: perhaps one of the characters is using the mazes to ‘utter’ directives, while the other is using them to utter expressives.

As the narrator recognizes, part of the communication problem is due to a difference in modalities. The alien and the narrator use different parts of their bodies to ‘speak,’ and the alien’s anatomy is too different for the narrator to interpret or replicate (‘that is too foreign a language’ (75)). Of course modality mismatches don’t have to lead to communication failure—spoken English, typically interpreted by human ears, can be made interpretable to the eyes or hands instead (English alphabet, Braille, finger-spelling), and we’ll read about other solutions in ‘Story of Your Life’ and Embassytown. But these solutions take time, collaboration and usually technology, and the narrator of ‘Mazes,’ starving in solitary confinement, doesn’t have those resources.

The more profound problem in ‘Mazes’—which may not be surmountable—is that the narrator and the alien have different assumptions about what the maze is for, and by extension, what language is for. They’re bringing in completely different cultural conventions around communication.

‘Mazes’ helps me understand Wittgenstein’s aphorism: “If a lion could talk, we could not understand it.” (Philosophical Investigations, Part 2, XI, p. 225). When I heard this the first time, I thought: Why not? If you actually got to the point of sharing a small vocabulary with a lion, a set of signs that you both recognized, wouldn’t that mean you understood each other?

‘Mazes’ shows us how two species can appear to share some vocabulary but still fail to understand each other, because they have different beliefs about what words are for. The two characters in ‘Mazes’ do in fact share some potential words: the leaves, the food pellets, the knobs, the various gestures and postures they make with their bodies, are all available for interpretation. But each character has been acculturated to interpret these ‘words’ in profoundly distinct ways, to do different things with them. One uses leaves to entice, the other interprets them as a ‘ritual or superstition’ (71). One fails to see the intentionality of the other’s movements; the other sees intentionality where it is absent. The only sign they both understand is the narrator’s rebellious act of defecating on the knobs—presumably because both species happen to share the same cultural attitudes about this act. Otherwise each of the character’s habits, beliefs, Lebensformen (Wittgenstein’s ‘forms of life,’ Philosophical Investigations §19) are utterly foreign to the other.

Some more questions to think about…

  1. Our daily lives are sometimes full of communication failures. Think of some examples from your life. Are these incidents qualitatively different from the communication failure in ‘Mazes,’ or just different in scale?
  2. In our own lives, we can and sometimes do use language in the way the narrator tries to use the maze (e.g. poetry). What would it be like to live in a society where language was used primarily in this way, and only secondarily for transmitting information? (Here’s a passage from Metaphors We Live By (Lakoff & Johnson) that I was reminded of when thinking about this: “Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way…we would probably not view them as arguing at all: they would simply be doing something different. It would seem strange even to call what they were doing arguing” (5).)
  3. There’s a huge power imbalance between the two main characters; the alien is a ‘giant’ that has used physical force to take away the narrator’s freedom. Certainly this imbalance enhances their communication failure; do you think it also entails communication failure?
  4. The surprise at the heart of this story could be attributed to another communication failure, one between the narrator and the reader (and enabled by the author). What kinds of expectations did you have going in to this story, and why? How did Le Guin encourage your assumptions at first, then shock you?
  5. We talked about lots of other stuff–communication across neurodivergence, differences in metabolic rates (e.g. trees), the possibility that all ‘successful’ linguistic communication is illusory… Feel free to comment further on any of this, or any other aspects of the story.

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