A Solar Labyrinth vs Stalker


Gene Wolfe, an American science fiction and fantasy author, who is also linked to inventing the frying process that makes Pringles, and whose writing is strongly flavoured by his Catholic faith, released a collection called Storeys from the Old Hotel. This contains work written over a span of twenty years and the genres vary from historical, science fiction, fantasy and many blendings of all three. Hidden among the lot is a labyrinth story that should be better known. It is a multi-layered, fractal masterpiece, in cahoots with Borges certainly and it tips its hat knowingly.


The premise is quite simple and rather light. We are told that a wealthy man referred to by the pseudonym Mr Smith has a mansion somewhere in the Adirondacks and has built himself a very unusual maze as a folly for his guests. He has placed many historical objects, some fake some real –the guests at least are never sure– in such an arrangement that the shadows thrown form a moving labyrinth. As the sun rises the paths appear and move throughout the day, so that the solution can only be found as you move along its tracks, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time might leave you cut off from the correct path, or perhaps you can rejoin it later on as parts are opened up to you. How long you play this maze might determine your success, but the only way to truly master it would be, like its master, to play it regularly and learn its shifting trenches of ink. At midday the maze disappears and by this time most of the guests have drifted off and only Mr Smith, this rarified Willy Wonka, is left because only he sees that it is all a game, one that we continue indefinitely whether our eyes are open or closed.

The story is clearly about artifice, our perception of time, and, of course, the moving landscape of history –how we literally excavate the past and place it in a mock-up of something that may never have existed in the first place. His maze (or labyrinth) includes the real and the mythical, and the importance of those objects –Arthur’s sword, the minotaur, a Toltec sun-god, a barometer speak of the many forces that create new lines of sight and yet each path means that another is obscured from us.

Our sight always includes blindness.

Reality and identity are so many labyrinths in one. Culture and society shape what we can think or see. The culture that worshipped a sun-god could not see the world the way we do today, but we are no more enlightened about its ultimate meaning. We record civilisation for the future, a long shadow thrown backwards than nudges forward toward the light: but as Mr Smith knows, this is just a game.

Stalker is a 1979 Russian science-fiction film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. It is based on a book called Roadside Picnic, but it veers away from its source material and becomes something mercurial, brooding and more philosophical. In both the book and the film a trio of men approach someone known as a Stalker, a person who can guide them safely into the Zone.

The Zone is an alien crash site and it is guarded closely by the government. There is an illegal trade in alien artifacts gathered from the site and it is said to be very dangerous because inside the Zone the rules of reality have been warped. There is also a myth surrounding a room somewhere in the Zone where your innermost desires are granted. The three strangers, the Stalker, the Writer and the Scientist are lured into the Zone by a desire for forbidden fruit. The Writer wants to find inspiration and the Scientist claims that scientific curiosity is his only motivation.

After getting past the soldiers and using a railway cart to enter the Zone, the film shifts from rich sepia tones to colour. They are in an Eden-like splurge of grasses and an apocalyptic wasteland of human debris that clogs up the rivers. Fog rolls by. It is completely silent. The Zone is not that strange in essence, and looks like any number of war zones, but Tarkovsky elevates it to the sublime with his long takes and his use of water as a kind of life-giving blood and sentient well of memory, dredged by the litter of human objects, gurgling through this dream-like labyrinth.

Stalker hands one of the men some strips of white gauze and instructs him tie to each one to a metal nut. After a lengthy dialogue and more obliqueness they descend towards the stone house in the distance and Stalker throws one of the bits of gauze forward and then tells the professor to go first and walk towards where it fell. Stalker always goes last. They continue like this, picking up the gauze and throwing it again. When one of the men starts pulling at some plants, Stalker scolds them saying that the Zone wishes to be respected: it punishes those who do not show respect. He says that, in the Zone, the convoluted path always poses less risk.

Eventually the Writer, like the viewer, finds it all too ridiculous and storms ahead. He is stopped by a command which he assumes came from one of the others, but they each thought it was the other who spoke. Stalker explains how the Zone comes to life when there is a human presence, old traps disappear to be replaced by new ones. Safe spots become impassable. The labyrinth is capricious, but most importantly it depends on them. The human conditions is tied to its very structure.


Here then we have a metaphysical labyrinth. A sentient landscape, a quest, philosophical anti-heroes, the ‘way’ determined by your actions and motives. The film seems to be a deconstruction of the hero’s journey –a path for the wretched rather than the valiant. The magical object is a kind of Aladdin’s Lamp, but one that reads your buried desires, rather than simply obeying your commands. Everything here is turned inside out, and it is what flows inside that matters. Heroes are men of deeds and words, but we rarely see their interior life. Here you may enter as an empty shell, but if you gain something along the way you might reach your goal, only it won’t be what you expected. Things change every minute inside the Zone. The only permanence is your faith.

Both of these labyrinths have a metaphysical element. Both are ephemeral, and contain invisible walls. The walker/stalker must believe those walls exist and pay respect to them. In the first story, the walker is free to abandon the game at will, although many choose not to because that belief has a piece of the sacred in it –the ability to construct a social reality is part of learning to live with others, to participate together in a game so that winners and losers all feel connected to each other: the child that wields a stick as a sword to defeat a monster is really not that different from an adult walking into a store to buy milk with a handful of metal counters. Near the end of Stalker, all three men lay defeated, huddled together. They are too afraid to enter the Room and discover their innermost desires. Their faith has settled on each other, and it is with this bond they reject the fairytale ending and leave the centre of the maze and return to their ‘beginning’ with nothing more than they started with.

Sometimes not getting to the centre is the way to complete the journey.

Sometimes the shortest distance between two points is not the path.


Digital Fire

You wake. Not

by opening your eyes:

they were already open. A

whiteness of light curls

around both rims and

tears well

up, stinging more. You make it go dark

with your hands because both eyelids have been removed.


An empty stage, dank and womb-like. The protagonist walks forward into the spotlight and asks for direction from someone unseen. There is a trapdoor at stage centre: it leads down, via a set of roughly hewn steps, to a perfectly white square that glows.


This was the dream that spilled in along with consciousness and now you cling to its message in a bottle, shielding your eyes from sand-blasting light. It becomes clear that you have amnesia and no amount of sifting uncovers a speck of memory.


Lying naked, backbones grinding against rough concrete like tectonic plates. Head shaved: maybe it always was. Feeling the plateaus and clefts of your body, trying to create a satellite image. Gradually letting in some flakes of light but when you take away your hands to look around the circular valleys flood anew and you are forced to look through these blurry portholes. The room is small: about three metres wide and four long. There is a metal door in the furthest left-hand corner. Directly above, on the ceiling, there is a bank of flat screens. Below the screens a narrow groove or slot runs the width of the ceiling.


Looking down the centre-line of your body and seeing your waist encased in a white block of plastic or resin that is a metre and a half wide, and just less than a metre tall. Not seeing your feet, but feeling them restrained on the other side. Wriggling your toes just to check this. Almost immediately the screens change.


They fade to a camera shot from above showing the top and bottom half of your body with the block in between. Your legs are restrained by straps, and are spread outwards. Moving your feet left and right in unison and watching them in real time on the screens. They click off again after a few minutes.


The plastic block seems moulded perfectly around your waistline, gripping you like a vice. You breathe out and depress your abdominal muscles, but still there is no room for shifting your body. You try and put fingers in between your stomach and the wall, but there is no gap to squeeze them into. Sucking in your stomach only reveals more plastic. This seems impossible.


The screens come on again, showing video footage from various cameras in fixed positions. There is no audio. You are watching a man enter a house. The interior is modern, minimalist. There are abstract impressionist prints on the wall and a Georgia O’Keeffe. On the floor, children’s toys stacked in a corner. The purple head of a dinosaur protrudes from the pile. It is smiling without teeth. The man creeps upstairs.


The camera now switches to the top of the stairs. You find yourself staring back at yourself as you approach the landing. You are wearing a suit and have short cropped hair. It is strange to recognise yourself in an image that was only broadcast a moment before: the first mirror already carries the effect of semblance. Getting to the top, the man softly opens the first door on the left.


The camera switches to inside the room. It is the main bedroom, slightly more decorous, in a deep red with black furniture. There is a single form under the duvet of the king sized bed. The man approaches the bed and the figure under the duvet stirs. There is a prolonged scene of on-screen violence. It is hard to look away because you feel you have to reckon with its authority. Did you do this?


When it is over there is a chaos of blood like one of the paintings, and the man is up to his elbows in it and wears a slanted grin cut into his smooth features. The video repeats two more times, begging at you to remember.


Then the screens go blank again for a few minutes before clicking on and displaying a column of text flowing downwards. It is too quick to read, but you decipher some of its import. It seems to be a legal document, possibly a reading of rights. Finally the screen shows ‘Final Sentence: Repeat until Memory Corruption Limits Conscious-Awareness’.


A blade descends from the ceiling through the groove. When it reaches the top of the plastic wall it makes no contact and continues downward: there must be a slot running vertically down the block creating a guillotine across your waist. You watch with a detached horror, your body making its own tensing and futile spasms away from the enemy.


Shouting turns to a guttural shrieking once the blade is half a metre from your skin. Now it is just inches from your waist. You hear a bestial cry leave your lips. Any moment the blade will kiss, pierce and then cleave your flesh. You shout profanities to try and separate yourself from your body; to exist in the words. But the pain never comes. Looking down again you see the blade slide neatly until it hits the floor.


Is this a trick like the magician in the box who is cut in half?


The blade quickly rises and retracts back into the ceiling. Gone. There was no blood on its edge. The screens switch to showing the camera angle from above. You see the top half of your body staring back, but on the other side of the wall there is nothing. No legs, hips or groin. You become aware of not feeling the lower half of you body. You wave your arms about and watch them in real time on the screens. It must be a trick.


The screens changes. In black letters, white background it shows ’14:40:25’ with the seconds ticking. Then it shows the overhead shot as before, but this time your legs are in the picture. It is not live. He blinks as he looks up at the camera. Then the time ‘07:25:09’ appears, overlaid.


The door creaks open on rusty hinges and two hooded men in overalls enter carrying long silver rods with a fine, almost invisible, string, a little like oboes. They crouch down and the man’s eyes bulge as he realises what you also realise. You both watch onscreen as they begin by combing the strings lightly over the surface of the man’s skin. They do this deftly and with a slight bobbing at the elbow. At each stroke a wafer thin piece of flesh peels back, red and runny underneath. The man clenches his teeth and then emits a kind of squeak. The men repeat and repeat their movements, and eventually return to exposed flesh to take another slice. You become transfixed by his face: the contortions are of such an ecstasy of pain. Eventually he blacks out and they stop and bandage some of the wounds and inject a substance that seems to wake him up again. Time ticks on and they take slice after slice and they fall into a litter on the floor, occasionally brushed aside as the men work. Playback increases to four times speed and then resets to normal speed at 10:25:00. There are a pair of red, glistening stalks and bundles of waddled flesh.


The men leave and this immediately heralds the finale: the waist chop. The blade falls from the ceiling as before and you hear it slowly crunching through bone.




The man has gone limp and does nothing but close his eyes and emit long moaning sounds that barely sound human. The two men appear carrying a sort of plug, and this is positioned and then shoved into the exposed waist area that is gurgling red. The inside surface is glowing white hot to cauterize the arteries and exposed flesh. Once in place they seal the edges with some kind of adhesive and there is no more blood.


They return with brushes to sweep away the skeletal legs and bigger bits of flesh. They lift a grate and into that goes all the human waste. They lug in large bottles of bleach and tip it over the floor and brush and spray it all into the grate. Eventually there is little sign of the preceding amputation and, their work done, the men leave.


The image is overlaid with ’15:21:02’ and keeps ticking. You move your arms. It is back in real time. Did they take your legs? Did that happen? Abandonment and terror floats you. Nothing else happens. You have been left to deal with your fear; to give in or try and becalm it.


At 17:00:00 the door creaks open, freezing your body. A single man enters and walks around the block. He kneels next to your head and you stare up. He is wearing a black latex mask under the hood and you lock your gaze with his and try to find a soul in the night sky. Feeling a slight scratch you look down to see a syringe in your arm. Everything fades to black.


The nameless actor addresses the crowd in soliloquy. Life is refracted through his voice, but he has no life. No parts to assimilate into story. He can ask only questions which are never answered. But he keeps asking, he must keep asking. His gaze is drawn to the white square at the bottom of the trapdoor. Its glow is cauterising. Black letters, skin atop of the lava, form into distinct shapes spelling out ‘Exit left’. The actor looks to the left of the stage and there sees a door with a single red light above it.  


Waking in a glass cube, upright, with the block beneath you. You lean on your hands for support. You are upright and the plug at your waist sits upon a conveyor belt. It is dark all around and there no sense of depth to the shadows. There is a vague light from up ahead, a small rectangular door that has plastic banners hanging down, like the entrances to cold rooms in a meat factory. Passing through you emerge in yet another limitless space with just the hum of the belt beneath you.


Gazing into blackness that returns nothing. Suddenly a noise, from somewhere above: someone screaming and the grind of metal. It is there and then gone, the only indication you’ve had of other prisoners. Your slow procession continues and your mind jangles with fear barely able to focus on one thought before another replaces it. And then you feel a pull to the left. Looking, straining into the darkness you think you see a small pinprick of red light. It comes and goes, and it might be an illusion but something draws you there. Extending your arms and pushing upon your palms you notice that the plug is attached to a plate on the conveyor belt. Grabbing the metal edges of the belt and resisting the motor is useless, and your moving body rips open your grasp. Then you try leaning over, uncomfortably, and grabbing the border on one side only. Hand over hand you twist your body and your abdominal muscles crunch painfully but the plug turns slightly before you are forced to let go. You repeat the process again and again, slowly swivelling around. Eventually, the plug unscrews from the base and you push yourself off, crashing onto your side a few seconds later.


Anticipating men rushing to the room, you quickly raise yourself up again and try moving in a pendulum motion, pushing your body forward by swinging on your arms. You seek out the faint light, and panic as you fail to locate it. Then it seems to appear, a phantom eye blinking at you. You push forward like a mechanical puppet. Ten or perhaps twenty minutes pass by, and your weak arms are tiring and beginning to fail when your head hits a metal pane. Unsure why you are even doing this you push forward and the surface swings inward. On the other side there is a dimly lit corridor. The walls and floor are bare concrete, dirty and soiled. You wonder if this is fire escape. A renewed sense of purpose allows you to propel yourself forward a few more metres before you reach a full stop, panting.


On the bare floor you notice some shards of glass; long slivers abandoned there among other debris. You pick one up and feel a sense of déjà vu as you rotate it between your fingers. Then comes the marching echo of a booted group of men. You slip the piece of glass up inside your mouth, between your cheek and gums. The boots burst through the door and soon rough hands are grabbing you and a sharp blow to the head brings darkness.


You wake in a glass cabinet, on display. The cabinet is at waist height in a small room; smaller than the torture chamber. Opposite you is another TV screen and to the left of it a door. The floor is alive with flames licking at the base of the cabinet and dancing in tremulous agony. It seems rather pantomime. The monitor clicks on and the recording of the murder you committed plays, over and over. Hours tick by and your skin sweats in great beads that roll into your eyes, making them ache. Then the gas flames switch off and the door creaks open. A man stoops through the door and approaches you. Under a wide hat a cracked face with stony eyes takes you in and then smiles. A voice full of glass beads addresses you.


“Good morning”


You stare incredulously at this apparition. He is whole. It never occurred to you that it could be morning.


“You probably want an explanation.”


“I want everything and nothing. Tell me who you are and why I’m here. Tell me or leave.”


“It is quite simple; I am not here to provide you with a backstory. That you will never have, not any more. I am here out of a sort of scientific interest. You see, you are a unique specimen. There are not many of your type left in our society: the man who kills and kills locked in a cycle of passion followed by a strange empty remorse. It is a curious sickness. We thought it was eradicated. We punish those who sin with a diabolical apparatus, but for the likes of you we have created something special. If hell exists I believe it can’t be much worse than what we do here.”


“I am innocent.”


The man laughs hoarsely and begin to cough. He takes out a white square of cloth and wipes something away from his lips.


“You do not remember. That is not innocence. I assure you that you are a killer. It is a part you cannot remove. It swims in your blood as it shakes from side to side. It dances through fields behind your eyes. It may lay dormant for a while but eventually it rises up and calls you. A call you must answer. I wanted to look you in the eyes. I wanted to see the eyes.”


The trapdoor leads down to the white glow emanating below the stage. You discover what the man before you has not yet realised: you do remember something. You found a weapon and then you planted an image as deeply as you could, so that even when your memories faded you would look for the red light. And then you waited because you knew he would come back; you knew he would have to see his work finished.


And as he leans in to deliver his last line you put your hand to your mouth and deposit the shard. And then in one swift motion you grab the back of his head and slit his throat. He falls like a bag of stones.


Except you don’t actually do this. Your hand freezes as the milky glass bites, atom to atom, the pink skin. You are not a killer. The choice has been made. You relax your grip and the man pulls away from you. He does not start quickly and seems in no rush to distance himself.


“Well done brother. You have shown yourself to truly be on the narrow path.”


“I said I wasn’t a killer.”


“And you spoke truthfully, but this last test was necessary. Do you know how many times you have died? We killed you over and over, took away your memories –the years of abuse from an alcoholic father, the suicide of your mother, your filthy sexual acts, the mature stage of your killing–, grew you again in a vat with your adult brain structure intact and repeated the process, torture/death/torture/death, until every last drop of evil was squeezed out of you. Pain is the ultimate truth, there is nothing outside it. When your body is ecstatic and trembling there is no language to spoil you. You must cower before it and let it burn through. You have been cleansed.”


“But I found the glass? I wanted to kill you.”


“We planted that memory. You followed a script. The only thing left to find out was if you would act on it. Some call me reckless for risking my life, but I believe in our process. And you can see I am still here after all these years.”


“What happens to me now?”


“You re-enter the world. We grow-in new memories. You wake up in a job, with a family. You become useful, a contributor. You never remember this.”


“Why not just have sent me to the gallows.”


“We have saved 3,387 and returned them to the flock in just over five years. Not bad is it? Our mission statement is to save, not slaughter.”


And with that he shakes your hand and says something like ‘it’s been a pleasure’ and leaves the room. He said that there are a few papers to sign and then you will just have to die one last time. When you wake up it will be in a new body and there will be no pain in the light.


You look down at the shard of glass in your hand. You know what you want to do but realise it won’t make any difference. Living has ceased to be voluntary.


You are now just a piece in an infinite game.