Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Man in the High Castle (1961)

Philip K. Dick's breakthrough novel, his only Hugo Award winner, feels in many ways barely like science fiction at all. In fact, it is widely considered a landmark in another genre entirely, the alternate history. The concept is butt simple: Japan and Germany won World War II, and carved up the United States much like Germany was carved up in our present time stream (it is likely symptomatic of Dick's sway that I make reference to a specific "time stream"). Japan and Germany are quite a bit like the US and USSR, with relations having turned chilly between the wartime allies and a cold war setting in. Well, that's about it. The Japanese are very wise, the Germans are very evil, and a shattered America is a place of lost dreams and ennui. One suspects massive opiate addictions. The action, such as it is, is set in San Francisco, under Japanese occupation and control. The characters are largely listless and accepting of the world as it is, though numerous narrative strands show some of them attempting to face down tides of history (or maybe that needs scare quotes: "history"). The principals organize their lives and decisions by consulting the I Ching. A bestselling book everyone seems to be reading or at least aware of, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, is a speculative fiction in which Japan and Germany lost World War II. That plot point is a little too cute for my taste, but again, Dick has a way of pushing past the obvious, here traveling into a kind of proto-string-theory vision of a multiverse with infinite parallel universes. There is a method for traveling between realities that some of the characters have stumbled on, including quite possibly the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy aka the man in the high castle, which is located in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Cheyenne is also an important place, a capital city, in at least one other Dick novel, Now Wait for Last Year. Hard to fathom the fascination—maybe because it's inland, with further protections, necessary in times of great conflict, afforded it by the surrounding mountains. I'm also hard put to say exactly why The Man in the High Castle works so well. It's thoroughly conceived and imagined and for the most part resists the impulse to clonk one over the head with its obvious points. Nonetheless, somehow, I always find myself righteously clonked by this little beauty.

In case it's not at the library.


  1. The one PKD book about which I can use the cliche, I admire it more than I like it. It's the book I'd recommend to people in an "if you only read one of his books, read this one" mode, but I prefer the more wildly messy drug books that followed. Still, you've convinced me to read it again.

  2. It's a funny little beast -- perhaps his most successful, or at least recognized, but really not that typical of him except in subtle ways. Maybe that's because it's so relatively controlled, which means it makes some sense to recommend it as the "only one if only one" pick. It's good enough that it could lead people to other titles.

  3. It's funny, I never taught HIgh Castle, even though it's perfect for college English ... the alternate history angle is weird in an understandable way, and as you note, other than that angle, it's a fairly "normal" book for him. The one I used most was Now Wait for Last Year, because it's my favorite or close to it. I also used Scanner Darkly a couple of times in a combo with the movie. And UBIK once. Honestly, I don't think my students much liked him ... they never knew what he was up to, and while I gave some good essay assignments, I don't think I did a good enough job of placing Dick in context.