Friday, December 23, 2011

Review of "The Man in the High Castle" by Philip K. Dick

Though not the first to create a work of alternate history, Philip K. Dick’s 1962 The Man in the High Castle is amongst the very best offerings of the sub-genre, if not literature relevant to an ever-globalizing world.  A thought experiment rather than a traditional novel, the book explores the idea: what if the allied powers lost WWII?  What would a world ruled by Nazi Germany and Japan be like?

The year is roughly 1960 and America has been divided into three parts: a Japanese controlled west coast, an American interior, and a German east coast.  The US as we know it could not be more altered culturally.  In the Pacific Coast State, white Americans are second class to the Japanese, the Chinese considered even lower.  Yi Jing, or, the Book of Changes is the ruling belief system and plays a prominent role in the lives of most of the main characters, decisions to confirmation.  Hitler still alive yet a senile non-entity, Goebbels, Haydrich, and the remaining members fight for control of his ruling party in Europe while continuing to spread Fascism.  Jews are still sought out and exterminated, hunting grounds expanded to include the Nazi territories of Africa, South America, Slavic lands, India, and even explorations to Mars.

But the setting is only informative; character ideology and interaction are the driving force of the novel.  Set predominantly in the Japanese controlled area of the west coast, multiple characters provide viewpoints into what life would be like in such a world.  Robert Childan, a dealer in expensive kitsch antiquities, tries to come to terms with Japanese etiquette and the meaning of art.  Mr. Tagomi, the Japanese ambassador to the Pacific Coast States, tries to retain a grip on reality while facing uncertain internal politics between the Japanese and Germans.  Fred Frink/Fink, a Jew in hiding, tries to balance the need for necessities while building a life for himself as a jewelry artist.  Juliana, Fred’s ex-wife, lives in the free state, trying to find meaning in a life turned upside down by the result of the war.  The characters’ stories told in pastiche fashion, The Man in the High Castle finds Dick shedding his reputation as a shabby scribe and subtly molding a story with mature, sensitive prose.  Achieving the delicate balance between proselytizing and under-statement, Dick combines content and form, and is therefore deserving of the awards he received for this novel. 

But if the writing and premise aren’t enough, Dick adds a degree of literary appeal few academics can not help but salivate over: the book-within-a-book.  Called “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” this subversive work of meta-fiction tells of a world wherein the allied powers win the war.  Not precisely in sync with the history we are familiar with, the book is an alternate reality within an alternate reality, and throughout Dick’s narrative numerous characters make mention of the work, its “fictional” outcomes lighting up their imaginations as much as Dick’s alternate reality lights ours.  So affected by the book, Juliana and her lover decide to pay a visit to the author Abendsen, the self-styled man in the high castle.  What they discover provides the base thematic juncture of Dick’s story: juxtaposition.

The characters never sure whether an art object is real or fake, whether people’s words, particularly Japanese etiquette, are sincere or only a formality, and ultimately, as in Tagomi’s case, whether reality is truly real, the scope of Dick’s novel is gloriously ambitious.  Coming through in flying colors on all fronts, however, little that is negative can be said about the novel.  Dick set personal expectations high, and as a result the standard for works of alternate history has been raised.  The book comes highly recommended for those who enjoy the sub-genre, are interested in thought experiments related to cultural studies, or who would just like to read a well written book about the effect the changes of war bring upon people.  Delightfully objective despite the non-politically correct elements which float on the surface, The Man in the High Castle is a triumph of speculative literature and is fully deserving to be read by fans as well as enemies of genre fiction, the category which the novel is mercilessly placed.

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