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Monday, July 15, 2019

Reading List: The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K. The Man in the High Castle. New York: Mariner Books, [1962] 2011. ISBN 978-0-547-57248-2.
The year is 1962. Following the victory of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II, North America is divided into spheres of influence by the victors, with the west coast Pacific States of America controlled by Japan, the territory east of the Mississippi split north and south between what is still called the United States of America and the South, where slavery has been re-instituted, both puppet states of Germany. In between are the Rocky Mountain states, a buffer zone between the Japanese and German sectors with somewhat more freedom from domination by them.

The point of departure where this alternative history diverges from our timeline is in 1934, when Franklin D. Roosevelt is assassinated in Miami, Florida. (In our history, Roosevelt was uninjured in an assassination attempt in Miami in 1933 that killed the mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak.) Roosevelt's vice president, John Nance Garner, succeeds to the presidency and is re-elected in 1936. In 1940, the Republican party retakes the White House, with John W. Bricker elected president. Garner and Bricker pursue a policy of strict neutrality and isolation, which allows Germany, Japan, and Italy to divide up the most of the world and coerce other nations into becoming satellites or client states. Then, Japan and Germany mount simultaneous invasions of the east and west coasts of the U.S., resulting in a surrender in 1947 and the present division of the continent.

By 1962, the victors are secure in their domination of the territories they have subdued. Germany has raced ahead economically and in technology, draining the Mediterranean to create new farmland, landing on the Moon and Mars, and establishing high-speed suborbital rocket transportation service throughout their far-flung territories. There is no serious resistance to the occupation in the former United States: its residents seem to be more or less resigned to second-class status under their German or Japanese overlords.

In the Pacific States the Japanese occupiers have settled in to a comfortable superiority over the vanquished, and many have become collectors of artefacts of the vanished authentic America. Robert Childan runs a shop in San Francisco catering to this clientèle, and is contacted by an official of the Japanese Trade Mission, seeking a gift to impress a visiting Swedish industrialist. This leads into a maze of complexity and nothing being as it seems as only Philip K. Dick (PKD) can craft. Is the Swede really a Swede or a German, and is he a Nazi agent or something else? Who is the mysterious Japanese visitor he has come to San Francisco to meet? Is Childan a supplier of rare artefacts or a swindler exploiting gullible Japanese rubes with fakes?

Many characters in the book are reading a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, banned in areas under German occupation but available in the Pacific States and other territories, which is an alternative history tale written by an elusive author named Hawthorne Abendsen, about a world in which the Allies defeated Germany and Japan in World War II and ushered in a golden age of peace, prosperity, and freedom. Abendsen is said to have retreated to a survivalist compound called the High Castle in the Rocky Mountain states. Characters we meet become obsessed with tracking down and meeting Abendsen. Who are they, and what are their motives? Keep reminding yourself, this is a PKD novel! We're already dealing with a fictional mysterious author of an alternative history of World War II within an alternative history novel of World War II by an author who is himself a grand illusionist.

It seems like everybody in the Pacific States, regardless of ethnicity or nationality, is obsessed with the I Ching. They are constantly consulting “the oracle” and basing their decisions upon it. Not just the westerners but even the Japanese are a little embarrassed by this, as the latter are aware that is it an invention of the Chinese, who they view as inferior, yet they rely upon it none the less. Again, the PKD shimmering reality distortion field comes into play as the author says that he consulted the I Ching to make decisions while plotting the novel, as does Hawthorne Abendsen in writing the novel within the novel.

This is quintessential PKD: the story is not so much about what happens (indeed, there is little resolution of any of the obvious conflicts in the circumstances of the plot) but rather instilling in the reader a sense that nothing is what it appears to be and, at the meta (or meta meta) level, that our history and destiny are ruled as much by chance (exemplified here by the I Ching) as by our intentions, will, and actions. At the end of the story, little or nothing has been resolved, and we are left only with questions and uncertainty. (PKD said that he intended a sequel, but despite efforts in that direction, never completed one.)

I understand that some kind of television adaptation loosely based upon the novel has been produced by one of those streaming services which are only available to people who live in continental-scale, railroad-era, legacy empires. I have not seen it, and have no interest in doing so. PKD is notoriously difficult to adapt to visual media, and today's Hollywood is, shall we say, not strong on nuance and ambiguity, which is what his fiction is all about.

Nuance and ambiguity…. Here's the funny thing. When I finished this novel, I was unimpressed and disappointed. I expected it to be great: I have enjoyed the fiction of PKD since I started to read his stories in the 1960s, and this novel won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1963, then the highest honour in science fiction. But the story struck me as only an exploration of a tiny corner of this rich alternative history. Little of what happens affects events in the large and, if it did, only long after the story ends. It was only while writing this that I appreciated that this may have been precisely what PKD was trying to achieve: that this is all about the contingency of history—that random chance matters much more than what we, or “great figures” do, and that the best we can hope for is to try to do what we believe is right when presented with the circumstances and events that confront us as we live our lives. I have no idea if you'll like this. I thought I would, and then I didn't, and now I, in retrospect, I do. Welcome to the fiction of Philip K. Dick.

Posted at July 15, 2019 12:16