Maniac, the new love it or hate it Netflix series from writer Patrick Somerville and director Cary Joji Fukunaga, is a lot. Like, a lot. Though it recalls the style of Kebrick and the off-kilter humor of Charlie Kaufmann, there’s no other show quite like it. It’s so dense with references and internal callbacks that it’s more or less engineered for the streaming era: a show that demands multiple careful viewings if you want to catch everything.
It’s also been described as “genre-less,” because it actively deconstructs just about every genre—and makes said deconstruction part of the narrative. This is a show about mental health—literally every single character, including an artificially intelligent computer, suffers from one recognizable mental disorder or another—set in an alternate universe rich with subtle worldbuilding. In other words, it is a show that trusts its audience.
And who are we kidding: it’s not genre-less. It’s pure sci-fi, and gleefully so: a dystopian cityscape, an maniacal supercomputer, and pharmaceuticals that cause everyone, including the audience, to question reality. If you’ve already binged it and you’re jonesing to repeat the experience, we’re sorry to tell you there isn’t a single book out there that replicates the experience. You’re gonna need, like, 10 of them.
Ubik, by Philip K. Dick
Any discussion of Maniac practically must touch on the influence of Philip K. Dick on the proceedings,most especially one of his greatest novels, Ubik. The book is set in a future where humanity has colonized the moon and developed psychic powers, but as usual, Dick uses that worldbuilding as background to a story in which reality shifts constantly and the characters—forced together via ominous and mysterious events—might all be lingering in a sort of virtual reality, protected from deterioration by the mysterious titular product. While it lacks a morbidly depressed artificial intelligence, there’s little doubt that Ubik was on the minds of the creators of this show; it’s certainly another story that has to be experienced twice to be fully understood (or not).
Amatka, by Karin Tidbeck
Amatka tells the story of a depressed researcher who travels to the cold and unforgiving colony of Amatka, a society that relies on a curious, shapeless goop that can be formed into objects by naming and labeling—a kitchen pot can be constructed by labeling a quantity of the stuff a pot, and then regularly reinforcing that reality by touching the object and naming it. Failure to do so means the object will eventually dissolve back into goop—but a disaster that killed many colonists some years ago means naming everything has become very difficult, solely for lack of manpower. Tidbeck’s story follows the Maniac script, starting off with a weird but orderly premise and then slowly bursting its seams as reality melts. What’s most fascinating is the way Tidbeck makes the fragile nature of her reality obvious from the very beginning, and yet still uses its slow deconstruction as a powerful storytelling tool, just as Maniac makes its fluid reality obvious from the first time we meet Jonah Hill’s Owen, and witness his “popcorn problems” firsthand, but still gets weirder from there.
Paprika, by Yasutaka Tsutsui
Tsutsui’s novel (which was adapted into a visually stunning anime) is also concerned with a dramatic sci-fi technology designed to cure mental illness—in this case a device that allows therapists to enter people’s dreams and combat their inner demons directly. The device works effectively against mental disorders, but there is a huge potential for abuse, which becomes a terrifying reality when someone develops a miniaturized version of Paprika that can be carried around in secret and used to invade dreams, and thus control minds. The parallels are obvious, and Paprika shares Maniac’s jittery vibe of paranoia. After all, once you let someone into your head, how can you trust anything you see, hear, or experience?
Haunted, by Chuck Palahniuk
If the idea of a group of people voluntarily submitting to a terrifying experiment intrigues you, Chuck Palahniuk offers up the literary equivalent in his novel/collection Haunted. Responding to an advertisement, a group of aspiring writers agree to be locked into an abandoned theater for a combined writer’s retreat and reality TV show. The book alternates between the short stories each writes while there,and the rapidly deteriorating conditions inside the theater as everyone basically goes collectively insane in an attempt to ensure their fame and/or infamy once they emerge from the experience. If Maniac’s aura of an experimentation gone awry is your jam, this book is for you.
The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. Le Guin
If the creators of Maniac haven’t read The Lathe of Heaven, I’ll eat my shoes. Le Guin’s classic tells the story of a man named George Orr, whose dreams actually alter reality—whatever he dreams becomes real for everyone, but Orr remembers the prior versions of reality. Orr uses drugs to stop himself from dreaming, but this drug abuse lands him in the care of a psychiatrist, who slowly comes to believe in Orr’s power, and then attempts to harness it to make the world a better place—with seriously unexpected consequences. The underlying idea—that science will always try and fail to solve human frailty—is a core conceit of Maniac, and both narratives seem to suggest our subconscious thoughts and private dreams can affect the real world.
Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem
Lem’s revered novel is one of the greatest philosophical works of sci-fi ever written, a contemplation on existence and memory that leaves the reader with more questions than answers. The story of a research ship orbiting a sentient planet covered entirely by a living ocean—a planet that is perhaps studying the crew as much as they study it—shares with Maniac the weaponization of memory and guilt: as the planet reads the minds and souls of the crew and presents simulacra of their memories to… Well, that’s the question. Can we truly comprehend such an alien intelligence as a sentient planet? Can we and it understand our respective motivations? It’s easy to see parallels between Maniac‘s GRTA and the ocean of Solaris, both of whom use the characters’ own minds against them.
The Fold, by Peter Clines
If the delirious laboratory setting and wacky group of scientists, technicians, and orderlies populating Maniac’s drug trial facility are what draws you in to the show, Clines’ mind-bending story will scratch that itch. When a group of six scientists seem to have created the world’s first functioning teleportation device, they’re filled with excitement and doubt—but when several of them come back from their test runs suffering various mental and physical ailments, the nature of exactly what they’re working with starts to become terrifyingly clear, and leads to a humdinger of an ending you won’t see coming.
Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch
Crouch’s sci-fi adventure considers what happens when the unreliable narrator is you. Jason Dessen is knocked unconscious and abducted, only to wake up in an alternate universe where his life has gone very, very differently. The question of why he’s been brought there, what happened to the version of him that belongs in that reality, and whether he hasn’t simply gone mad, permeates the story in the same way self-loathing and self-distrust permeate Maniac, whose main characters have very good reason to doubt their own senses.
The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway
One of the hallmarks of Maniac is the way tiny details from the characters’ lives pop up later in their dream states; you have to pay attention to every actor and every piece of set dressing in the show, because so many of them turn up later in different forms. Now imagine everything you ever thought, remembered, or imagined could suddenly and randomly take corporeal form, and you have Harkaway’s novel. In the future, technology is developed to create “go-away bombs” that literally make things cease to exist, burning them out of the pattern of the world. The bombs leave behind pollution in the form of a cloud of “stuff” that takes any nearby information from the thoughts of people and reforms itself around it, making thoughts real. The nightmarish world that results is hilariously horrifying, as people’s weirdest and darkest ideas suddenly spring into terrifying reality.
The Butterfly Kid, by Chester Anderson
We saved the weirdest for last. Published in 1967, this novel is hard to find now, probably because it is very 1960s, but it’s brilliant in its own way. When aliens dose humanity with a drug that causes them to manifest hallucinations into reality, everything goes bonkers pretty fast—but Chester Anderson and his friends are no newbies when it comes to hallucinatory drugs, and find a way to turn the alien plan against the invaders. The trippy, non-serious tone of the book, and its narrative warping of reality, lines up neatly with the Maniac’s pliant grip on what’s real and what’s not (this is a story where one character briefly turns into a hawk and then starts shouting “I’m a hawk!,” after all).
What did you think of Maniac?