Philip K. Dick, author of some of the greatest science fiction stories ever told (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Minority Report, Ubik, etc.), has a problem with reality or at least what we perceive to be reality. Each of his stories seem to press upon the reader the notion that what we see as truth is nothing more than a fluid concept that is as malleable as the mind wishes it to be. Such is the case in his 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle.
Before reading this, I only knew of its most basic concept the Allies did not win World War II, the Axis powers did. What we know of as the United States is divided into three parts; the western states have become the Pacific States of America (PSA), the eastern states are still the USA, but ultimately a puppet Nazi state, and the central portion of the US, the Rocky Mountain States, act as a buffer zone between the two.
The novel begins from the point of view of a Caucasian man, Robert Childan, in Japanese controlled San Francisco in what was PKDs present, 1962. He deals in high end American antiques basically kitsch and what he believes to be genuine artifacts from the Civil War and the like, to sell to Japanese businessmen and the upper echelon of Japanese society. From here we meet Mr. Tagomi a business man who works in trade and is in need of a gift for a visiting Swedish man, Mr. Baynes.
Also, we are introduced to Frank Frink a depressed man whos wife, Juliana, has left, and her whereabouts unknown, who regularly consults the I Ching for directions and guidance. As it turns out, everyone in the PSA makes their decisions based on this ancient text. Apparently, PKD used the I Ching, not just as a plot device for this story, but to actually write the story itself
As interesting as the individual characters become it is this alternate history that most fascinates me. We dont get a flat out recap of what and how things are different from the history we all know to have occurred, but instead, are given bits and pieces of this world as the novel progresses. The turning point seems to be the assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. There was an actual assassination attempt made by Giuseppe Zangara in 1933 but obviously, he failed. From this point forward, the world took on a different flavor. Not only were the events leading up to WWII different, the war was longer, Hitler never died (in the story he is in an asylum after the debilitating effects of syphilis have rendered him mad), Bormann has been Fuhrer for years, the Nazis have been colonizing space, eradicated the indigenous people of Africa and drained the Mediterranean Sea for farmland. Generally, up to some bad ju-ju.
Within this story, lies another. Throughout the Nazi controlled areas of the world, there is a banned book that is available throughout the Rocky Mountain States and the PSA The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. This novel supposes a reality wherein the Allies do not lose WWII sound familiar? Whats so ingenious and wonderful about this novel , The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, isnt that our reality is being reflected in this alternate history its that this alternate history of an Allied success is not our world either but another reality altogether.
How all of these pieces fit together is up to you, the reader, to find out for yourself. What Im so impressed with is how well PKD brings up the questions of fluid realities and the readers inability to determine what is real and what is not yet, being very accessible and relatively easy to comprehend without being too out there. PKD can get weird and this novel has its moments, yet manages to hover just above incomprehension.
Philip K. Dick knows how great science fiction is done a novel set in a world we can understand, with concepts that are completely on a different plane of thought. I would highly recommend The Man in the High Castle for anyone wanting to dip his or her toes into the fed up mind of PKD accessible and a wonderfully quick read with incredibly giant ideas.
Special guest appearance by the Embarcadero Freeway,
Cornelius J. Blahg
By the way… the cover image used above is the current edition available. I chose not to use the book’s other covers because they all have swastikas on them and I’m a liberal weinie who has a hard time publishing that image in any way shape or form. I don’t want the kind of traffic that image might encourage. That is all….