The Man in the High Castle

Despite having one of the most tone-deaf marketing campaigns ever, I am intrigued by Amazon's series The Man in the High Castle, based on the book by Philip K. Dick.  Someone evidently stole the library copy (thanks! Not yours, and no, paying taxes doesn't mean that book belongs to you!), so I snagged a Kindle copy with that Kindle Unlimited thing, which is proving useful for things the library doesn't own.  Having read several other novels and stories by PKD, I had high hopes for this one.  The concept is interesting, but I didn't feel like it was pushed far enough.  It's not a bad book by any means, but I definitely prefer Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? over The Man in the High Castle.

The main premise of The Man in the High Castle is that Franklin Roosevelt was assassinated in the 1930s, thus preventing the New Deal from gaining steam and putting a weak-minded President in office.  Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan win World War II and divvy up the North American continent accordingly.  Japan controls the West Coast, Germany the East, and the Rocky Mountains act as a buffer zone.

All of the action takes place in Japanese controlled and influenced areas, and PKD has created a really interesting idiomatic sentence structure to combine the formality of Japanese culture with English words.  Basically, two very different languages and cultures were forced to fuse, so the syntax is painfully awkward and stilted.  It didn't read to me at all like pidgin or anything offensive, but a thoughtful exploration of what English would be like if it were tied to a culture that values formality far more than American culture. However, the choppiness of the sentences might put some people off, or make them think that PKD can't write.  He can, and I know he can write stories better than this one, which is what put me off a bit.

It's fine--really.  I'm not even comparing it to other alternate-history novels I've read; I'm comparing it to his body of work.  And I think the idea of this is the most accessible, but it doesn't have particularly compelling characters.  The main characters are:

Childan, a shopkeeper specializing in pre-war American items, which are highly prized by the Japanese.  He's running short on trinkets to pass on to one of his buyers, a Mr. Tagomi, who in turn needs them for a very important guest coming over via rocket from Japan.

Tagomi, a businessman who is nervous about his upcoming meeting with a Mr. Baynes of Sweden and the possibility of learning about new polymer molds.  (Oooh!)

Mr. Baynes himself, who is not who he claims to be.

Frank Frink, a craftsman recently fired from an imitation-antiques factory.  He's Jewish, but has had cosmetic surgery and changed his name to avoid extermination.

Juliana Frink, Frank's estranged ex-wife who takes up with an Italian truck driver and embarks on a visit to meet the most famous and most banned novelist in America.

This is a novel in which both many things and nothing happens.  It's a snippet of life in an America that no longer exists.  On the West Coast, people have adapted to Japanese rule.  Most people consult the I Ching for every decision they make (PKD actually used the I Ching to guide the plot development, which explains a lot).  There is a lot of "consulting the oracle" going on in the book, and since my knowledge of how the I Ching works is precisely nil, I felt rather lost.  People are constantly worrying about day-to-day things because thinking about the African Holocaust is too difficult.  There are also Nazis in space, landing on the moon and planning to colonize Mars.  Meanwhile, Hitler has gone mad from syphilis and the Führer Martin Bormann is dead, leaving a power vacuum.  Who will the new Führer be?

Meanwhile, people in Japanese territory start reading a book.  It's a book prohibited by the Nazis on the East Coast.  Entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, it is also an alternate history novel positing a world in which the Nazis and Japanese lost WWII. Hawthorne Abendsen, the author, lives in a fortress somewhere in the Rockies--he is the man in the High Castle referenced in the title.  His fictional version of a world with victorious Allied powers is a step removed from what actually happened, which is also intriguing.  PKD essentially wrote two novels for this one book.  Juliana and her sort-of boyfriend, Joe, decide to drive to Boulder to see Abendsen.

Frink, after being discharged from his job, opens up a shop with a former co-worker where they make, not imitation "antiques," but actual pieces of art.  This is the first new art produced by Americans in a long time, and it is a subversive and treasonous act.

But I'm not here to write a detailed plot summary--you can get that anywhere.  Although, intellectually, I understand what this novel is trying to say, I simply didn't connect with it on the level of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  PKD returns to the theme of perception and reality, but instead of replicants imitating human beings, or memories imitating other memories, as in We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, this is the reality of things, which I don't think are nearly as interesting.  Trusting the authenticity of a thing is much less existential a crisis than wondering about the authenticity of your own mind.

The idea of the Nazis being successful is by far the scariest part of the book.  I shivered reading the list of Nazis still alive in this version of history: Göring, Goebbels, Seyss-Inquart.  While the main characters are under Japanese control, they definitely have it better than the people on the East Coast, or anywhere else under Nazi control, for that matter.  It took only 15 years for them to destroy the population of Africa.  The whole population.  And they don't take well to sharing victory.

I keep sitting here, waiting for something else to say about this book.  I don't have anything else, really.  I can understand why it won the Hugo.  I understand why it would make a compelling cinematic event.  But for me, it pales in comparison to PKD's other works.  I am glad that I read it, but I would not read it again.


  1. I read this only a few months ago and was quite tickled by the idea of an alternative universe novel within an alternative universe novel. I was a bit bemused by the loose-ends ending, though a friend of mine tells me that was deliberate. I have to admit I haven't got around to Androids yet. I should. Perhaps I'll see if I can download a copy. It's a pity PKD didn't live to see Bladerunner become a classic in its own right.

    1. Androids is exceedingly fun because you are constantly wondering what is true and what isn't. I do know that the ending of Blade Runner is substantially different from the ending of the book. I prefer the book ending :)


Post a Comment

Popular Posts