Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick

The Gollancz SF Masterworks series contains no less than fourteen books by Philip K. Dick. A often heard criticisms of the series is that they can't possibly all represent the best of what the genre (or Dick himself) has to offer. I think there may be some truth to that and unless I develop a real taste for Dick's work, I don't think I'll read them all. The Man in the High Castle is generally accepted as one of his better novels however, he got the 1963 Hugo for it for one thing, and the idea behind it appealed to me. This novel is the last in the original Masterworks series. It says number 72 on the cover but it should be 73. Gollancz relaunched the series with a new design, reprints of some of the titles and a number of new additions after this book.

The Man in the High Castle is set in an alternate 1962 where Japan and Nazi Germany have won the second world war and divided the world between them. The list of atrocities the Nazis committed is even longer than the one in our world and includes among other things, the depopulation of Africa and the creation of Lebensraum by exterminating most of the Slavic peoples. The US is split in three nations, the west is a Japanese controlled puppet-state, the East coast is run by Germany and the mountain states are something of a buffer. An out of the way place neither of the the superpowers is much interested in. After Hitler's health and last shreds of sanity gave out, Bormann ran Germany as the new F├╝hrer. News of his death unleashes a power struggle in that could disturb the uneasy peace between Japan and Germany.

Dick follows a number of characters all located in the American west, giving us an idea of what a totalitarian and marginalized US society might look like. We see the story though the eyes of a number of ordinary people and small players in the machines of government of both Japan and Germany. One of the things I found fascinating about the novel is how he American characters adapted to the Japanese culture being dominant. Although none of them seem entirely comfortable with it, the ones that come into regular contact with the Japanese are constantly aware of the cultural difference. Antiques dealer Robert Childan is a particularly good example of this. He has acquired a certain insight into the Japanese way of thinking but it is clearly incomplete, leading him to constantly doubt his own judgement.

Another clear example of the influence the eastern way of thinking has gained in the US is the wide spread use of the ancient Chinese Book of Changes, the I Ching. Several of the characters us it to divine the future and help them make decisions. Dick himself also used its predictions to plot his novel, leading to a number of irrational, or perhaps I should say surreal changes of direction in the story as the characters try to wrap their mind around the cryptic text of the oracle. At one point in the novel, the I Ching even suggests that Germany and Japan have lost the war. One of many points in the novel that makes the reader and characters question the reality of what they are experiencing. Reality and (false) perception were also quite important in the only other book by Dick I've read: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

The I Ching is not the only book that deeply influences the major characters. Dick employs the story within a story and has the characters read a novel in which the author describes a world where Germany and Japan have lost the war. It is of course quickly banned in German held areas of the world and this makes the book even more interesting. The history in this book, titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, deviates from the one we know as well, creating a second alternative history in the book. In effect, the author is having the characters ask the reverse 'what if' question. When reading this, it pays to have a general knowledge of the period.

One of the things that struck me about the novel, and in my opinion contributes in large measure to the realistic feel of this alternative history, is the ease with which the characters push away the knowledge of the atrocities being committed in various parts of the world. It's something of a mild discomfort for some of them, sometimes they even wonder if the world would actually have been better if the Axis powers had lost the war (surely the communists would have taken over!). Other characters, part of the groups specifically targeted by the Nazis, also seem to have gotten used to the dark cloud hanging over them. It's frighting what people will ignore as long as they are able to get on with their own everyday lives.

With its many twists and turns,The Man in the High Castle is not a particular easy read. It's quite a strange story really, with an unexpected, open ending. Maybe it suffers a bit from the fact that lots and lots of alternative world war II histories have been published after it. I enjoyed reading it but I don't think I see the masterwork many other readers seem to feel it is. Then again, it is a deceptively deep novel, perhaps one reading is not enough to do it justice. I may have to give it another go in a year or so.

Book Details
Title: The Man in the High Castle
Author: Philip K. Dick
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 249
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-575-08205-2
First published: 1962

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