Confined Choices
Door, Corridor, & Maze Stories

Essay by
Robert Wilfred Franson
February 2005

Confined-choice adventures

I've long been fascinated by stories which are structured around what seem to be very simple physical decisions, such as people faced with confined choices when arriving at a door, along an indefinite corridor, or within a maze of paths.

Here I've listed some of my favorites. These may be science fiction, fantasy, mystery, adventure. What they have in common is a physical location of door, corridor, or maze. Shorter stories likely have only the one setting, novels may be more widely spread. In all cases there is a strong sense of physically confined decisions (not just our common situation of constrained options) — apparently simple choices in a close or narrow range of action. The point of any confined-choice adventure is that it's not on the order of peas or corn; rather life or death, Heaven or Hell. They often have the feel of puzzles. Some have time compression verging on panic; others are slow and suspenseful.

Annotations: This list is a little like the StrataLink pages at Troynovant, but includes stories not reviewed here (or not yet) as well as some excluded items for contrast; and provides a phrase or two of annotation for each.

Exclusions:  I here exclude stories set in or depending on board games such as chess with prescribed moves, for instance Fritz Leiber's "Midnight by the Morphy Watch" or Eric Frank Russell's "Now Inhale". I exclude transport-channeled but free and outdoor railroad or river or path settings, for instance Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog, or Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and its later film avatar Apocalypse Now, or my own The Shadow of the Ship. You can feel the narrowing in Connie Willis' "The Last of the Winnebagos", but it's not channeled physically enough for my line here. I also want to differentiate, and exclude, stories whose plots may seem like corridors but really are knots, for instance Robert A. Heinlein's "By His Bootstraps" and "All You Zombies".

Marginal:  Perhaps an extension could be made for the pure arc story, Ross Rocklynne's "The Men and the Mirror" (1938). Surely there are not many of these. Or for dividing-wall or twinned-room classics such as Fredric Brown's "Arena" (1944) and Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s "Izzard and the Membrane" (1951); but the titles of the dividing-wall are, if not legion, at least a thin red line of heroic stories that should be classified elsewhere.

I may list other stories — above or below my line — as I discover or remember them.

A list upon a narrow line

"The Minotaur in the Labyrinth". The pre-classical Labyrinth was built by Daedalus on Crete. In this maze, Theseus fought the Minotaur, and escaped by following Ariadne's thread. The story (or myth) is available online, and nicely annotated, in the Bulfinch's Mythology: The Age of Fable entries on Theseus and Daedalus.

"The Lady, or the Tiger?" by Frank R. Stockton (1882) is the famous door story. This sharp little item is available online from Project Gutenberg: "The Lady, or The Tiger?".

"In the Walls of Eryx"by H. P. Lovecraft (1936) is set in a transparent maze on Venus. Atypical for Lovecraft.

The Killer Mine by Hammond Innes (1947) is a thriller set in a mazy underground tin mine in Cornwall which extends under the sea.

"What Dead Men Tell" by Theodore Sturgeon (1949) may be the story which first started me thinking that some of the simplest, most basic puzzles can be the most interesting. Analysis, really, in a corridor.

Sargasso of Space by Andre Norton (1955), the first novel in the series about the trading starship Solar Queen, has a dramatic climax within a underground maze.

Non-Stop (or Starship) by Brian Aldiss (1958) is vivid adventure within the mazy and overgrown corridors of a multi-generational spaceship.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner (1960) is a modern-England high fantasy which includes a terrifying journey by tunnel.

"Black Corridor" by Fritz Leiber (1967) is a sequence of high-pressure door choices, but without the possible turnings of a maze story. Included in The Change War collection (although not itself a Change War story).

The Man in the Maze by Robert Silverberg (1969) is a novel thoroughly dedicated to an extraterrestrial maze, physically, mentally, and thematically.

"The Lion Game" by James H. Schmitz (1971) is set in a high-tech, virtual maze of a closed-circuit teleportal network. A suspenseful Telzey Amberdon novella.

"The Mutiny at Falcon Sharp", my own science-fiction novelet (1973), includes a central corridor-type vision, a street of false-front buildings in a desert.

These are minimalist stories in one or two dimensions, if you like; but this points up how evocative such stories may prove in other directions.


© 2005 Robert Wilfred Franson

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Sometimes it seems as if we are walking down a long corridor flanked by closed doors. Then occasionally a voice is raised behind one of those doors loud enough for us to hear a few words. Or a door opens momentarily and we get a glimpse of people huddled deep in discussion. Uneasily we realize from these flashes of sight & sound that we are the subject of all the discussions going on behind those closed doors.

The corridor is the society we live in, the America in which we work and play. Behind those doors is govt. with its associated camp followers, the pleaders for special interests & causes. And we definitely are the subject of their every utterance

With all the media that supposedly informs us of everything we should know, flooding & intimidating us with words printed & spoken very little information is given us about those planners & their plans until the plans are finalized and we find ourselves obeying a new set of rules at the same time we are billed for the cost of enforcing the rules.

Ronald Reagan
"NEA" [National Education Association]
radio commentary, November 29, 1977

Reagan, In His Own Hand
edited by Kiron K. Skinner,
Annelise Anderson,
& Martin Anderson


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