Wednesday, July 14, 2010
The Man in the High Castle is a clear example of alternate history at its strongest, but at the same time it manages to be so much more. Alternate histories, at their cores, represent a combination of reality and potentiality; challenging the bedrock of immutable history through the simple question of “What If?.” Although Dick does address this question as it relates to the outcome of World War II, he seems more interested in the relationship between history and reality itself than the specifics of an America occupied by Imperial Japan. The details are there, certainly, but as the book progresses they seem to fade more and more into the background.
Instead, Dick focuses his literary energy on the trio of subplots mentioned above. The links between these threads are tenuous at best and while there are brief moments of excitement, the majority of the book is fairly dry. Dick forgoes thrilling chase scenes or pulpy gunfights, opting instead to use his characters as philosophical surrogates in his own examination of the various ways the past can shape the present. This results in a startling depth to Dick’s work, one which elevates The Man in the High Castle from a simple alternate history to a definitive genre Masterwork.
The quiet scenes in which the characters contemplate their reality are the highlights of the book and fortunately there are many. Dick utilizes multiple methods to kindle these thoughts, ranging from the monologue of a rich counterfeiter who argues that it is not the actual history of an object that matters but rather the belief surrounding it to the a connoisseur of American antiquity weighing the artistic merit of a unique but abstract creation. The most effective device however, is Dick’s fictional novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a doppelganger for The Man in the High Castle itself. He returns to this book within a book repeatedly, using the in-universe alternate history to self-referentially analyze the allure and impact of an imagined reality. In true PKD fashion, all of this talk of belief and actuality ultimately creates an atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty, inviting the reader to read and reread passages which at first seem innocuous.
While Dick’s alternate vision of America must be praised for its depth and relative originality, the quality of the text itself varies throughout. I would hesitate to say the book was an easy read. Not because of the philosophical questions Dick raises (though they do inspire distraction) but rather a consequence of the often clumsy prose that demands careful rereading and the disjointed narrative style that prevents the reader from fully immersing in the work. It’s difficult to conclude if the sometimes awkward language is the fault of Dick himself or merely the result of fifty years of change, but the difficulty of reading the end result is still the same.
Even ignoring the sometimes problematic prose, the weight of years has surely reduced the shock value this book must have once produced. Published in 1962, The Man in the High Castle originally spoke to an audience for whom World War II was a distinct memory, not a history lesson. The culture being replaced was their own, not some version of American life that has changed significantly in the past fifty years. Now, half a century later, the story still resonates with readers but significantly less so than it must have with the men and women to which a Nazi-dominated globe was a frightening possibility.
On a surface level, the narrative and some of the more cosmetic attributes of The Man in the High Castle show signs of wear. However, the deeper aspects of the book feel no less poignant, provoking the same questions of reality, culture, perception and history that likely elevated it to win the 1962 Hugo Award so many years ago. A true genre must-read, Dick’s Masterwork is a book that speculates about speculation itself.