Wednesday, July 14, 2010

SF Masterwork #73: The Man in the High Castle

Few works are more synonymous with the alternate history subgenre than Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Starting from the question “What if the Axis Powers had won the war?”, Dick portrays a version of the 1960s very different than our own. A conquered America is split between Japan and Germany, the two dominant superpowers who happen to have engaged in a Cold War of their own, complete with the threat of nuclear annihilation. Anti-Semitism is still rampant in the German state and Americans struggle to adjust to the cultural changes introduced by the conquering pair. A Jew hiding from Nazi persecution participates in the fabrication and forgery of “authentic” American artifacts to be sold to unknowing Japanese collectors. His ex-wife hopes to track down and protect the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a book of resistance propaganda portraying a present in which the Allies had won the war.

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.


  1. Good review! I didn't feel the clumsiness so much, and besides I usually expect it from Dick. He is not really a big stylist. Still, one of his better books in my opinion.

  2. I'll check it out, but I'm not too enthusiastic. The premise is just so incredibly unlikely and unrealistic, and that usually kills "What if?"-style Alternate History for me.

  3. It is not really a "what if" alternate history in my opinion. Actually, the "wrongness" of the world is explicitly stated at a few points.

  4. @Roland Thanks! I didn't think it was overly clumsy but I did feel like there was some aspect of the text (either Dick's prose style or the age of the language) that made it a little obtuse.

    @Wise Bass I agree with Roland that the wrongness plays a significant factor. The story isn't merely about exploring what if, it's about analyzing the deep implications of the question.

    And I don't think the Germans were as far away from victory as you think they were. The fact that you said that though supports my argument about the threat of Nazi domination no longer resonants the same way as it did in the 50s or 60s.

  5. It is not really a "what if" alternate history in my opinion. Actually, the "wrongness" of the world is explicitly stated at a few points.

    Didn't the review just say that it was a 1960s America that was conquered by Nazi Germany and Japan? That's alternate history.

    My point wasn't that it was just wrong, but that it was so incredibly unlikely for such a situation to occur that it basically wouldn't happen short of Magical Alien Space Bat-style intervention.

    And I don't think the Germans were as far away from victory as you think they were. The fact that you said that though supports my argument about the threat of Nazi domination no longer resonants the same way as it did in the 50s or 60s.

    The Germans were actually more or less going to lose once they failed to take Stalingrad (and quite likely even then). They didn't have the logistical or military capabilities to defeat Great Britain (particularly not with the British Home Fleet sitting in the North Sea), the Soviets had better leadership, more troops, and eventually better supplies (plus more ground to give up if necessary), and they had nowhere near the logistical capability, let alone the military capability, to even get anything resembling a significant number of troops near the continental US.

    On top of that, the US was researching nuclear weapons throughout that period, and they managed to successfully test them and get them ready for use not long after Germany surrendered. Still, they were originally intended for Germany, and that's what would have happened had the Germans held out longer - a nuclear strike on Nazi Germany, which almost certainly would have ended the war in Europe.

    The Japanese were even more limited. Merely striking at Pearl Harbor heavily strained their logistical supply lines for their Navy, and they were also burning up gobs of resources and men trying to hold China during the same period.

    In effect, Germany lost the war as soon as they went beyond the Sudentanland annexation, into the rest of Czechoslovakia, then Poland. Japan lost as soon as they went beyond Manchuria in China.

  6. Without debating the specifics of WWII, the Man in the High Castle presupposses a number of differences, not one simple turning point. In Dick's version, Roosevelt was assassinated, the Japanese destoryed the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and Churchill never came into power.

    And it is an alternate history, its just that the story isn't focused on that. Its obviously a significant factor in the book but its more of a backdrop for what Dick is hoping to accomplish rather than the centerpiece of the book itself. That's all I meant by saying it was not a "what if" novel, which in an of itself was a bit of an overstatement.

  7. The Man in the High Castle is a prime example of speculative fiction,an unclassified non-genre that combines ekements of science fiction with mainstream fiction,with which it shares the same concerns,such as care for characterisation and prose style or syntax.

    It explores philishopical and very real themes in an often fully realised and entertaining or humourous fashion laced with a science fictional wine,that is immune to conventions such as real possibilities and alternative history.The novel under discussion then,can be accepted as a rare piece of imaginative ingenuity and insight,as I would expect from a book belonging to the literature under discussion.

    Olaf Stapleton and J.G.Ballard were prime exponents of this alchemical,creative literature,Ballard himself only recently escaping the blandness of science fiction to be accepted and recognised by the mainstream as an author of unique literary creativeness and disposition.A pity the same can't be said for Philip K.Dick,who seems tied to the same old frontiers,at least in Britain.

    Please for goodness sake be tolerant and accept the novel for the unique piece of this literature to which it belongs,rather than trying to place it in closed areas.

    Peace to you all and thank you.

  8. I would say that the specifics of the alternative history posited in this novel are almost irrelevant to the themes explored. It's obviously more than a plot device, but thinking back on the novel I remember the characters, themes and events more than the actual setting.

    This was the first PKD I read (other than short stories) and it's set the bar almost impossibly high. Indeed, it almost feels like a different writer to the PKD of Ubik or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? While not as fun or thrilling as those novels, it is more coherent and satisfying and also shows a maturity that is surprising given this is one of his earliest works.

  9. I have to say I think you're right,so its almost impossible to argue for a case against your obviously coherent and well meant comments.It's not suprising when you see it on the same shelfs in shops,as the greats of literature!

    However,I think I can say that its so different to the other two books in tone and emphasise,it can't rellay be compared to those two.Also as you say,it was oiute earlier in his career,written only three years after his first but lesser masterpiece,"Time Out of Joint",so proberly would do an injustice to some brilliant,later books.

    Some years back when I was rereading all of his books,by the time I came to "Do Androids Dream of Electroc Sheep",I do remember thinking that I thought it was his best one.Whether this was from personal peference or because it really is an exception piece of literature,I don't know,but I did think the prose was very well done,and had something to recommend it as great work.

    I still think you have a very strong point though.