This month, I’m looking at an author whose work I already love: Philip K Dick aka PKD. The Man in the High Castle is his Hugo Award-winning 1963 alternate history novel, and arguably his most famous work (at least up until Ridley Scott adapted one of his short stories to make Bladerunner in 1982).
I have been passively avoiding this book for the longest time. No idea why. Presumably it has something to do with an aversion to its the alternate history premise – it’s set in the United States after Nazi Germany and Japan won World War Two. I’m not sure whether my aversion is to the premise in general or alternate history stories in general. I have a sneaking suspicion that down deep I don’t really think of them as science fiction. If so, it’s a weird prejudice that I have yet to properly examine. On the evidence of this novel, it’s a flawed bias, because this is a terrific book, and a powerful work of speculative fiction.
Set mainly in a San Francisco in its second decade of Japanese control, the novel is told from the perspective of several loosely-connected characters: Robert Childan, a dealer in authentic American antiquities; Frank Frink, a silverworker who is hiding his Jewish heritage; Juliana Frink (Frank’s ex) who has fled California for the non-occupied Colorado; and Nobusuke Tagomi, the head of the Pacific Trade Mission in San Francisco. It is set against a backdrop of a leadership crisis in Germany, the far-off centre of the world, where the lieutenants of the ailing Chancellor are jockeying for position.
The plot, which lacks the freewheeling looseness (or perhaps subdued chaos) that I normally associate with PKD’s novels, concerns a clandestine meeting between a Swedish business envoy and a retired Japanese admiral, neither of whom is what he seems. A strange subplot concerns a subversive underground novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, by a mysterious author – the eponymous Man – which posits an alternate history where the Axis powers lost the war. That subplot takes on increasing significance as events progress to fraud, betrayal, espionage and assassination.
PKD posits a San Francisco slowly adapting to the Japanese occupation. Its culture is suffused with Asian influences – Japanese customs of gift-giving and formality in interpersonal behaviour have been embraced, the taxis are pedecabs driven by a Chinese underclass, and a young Japanese business and bureaucrat upper class have supplanted their American predecessors. Most significantly, the majority of characters are obsessed with the I Ching (Book of Changes), consulting it for oracular wisdom at every significant moment. The book doesn’t quite go so far as to assign a streak of cultural fatalism to its cast, reflected in their devotion to a divinatory tool, but there’s definitely a tendency for them to accept the capricious winds of fate. The differences between our history and the fictionalised Allied victory of Grasshopper suggest that PKD’s interest is in how much of history turns on significant moments and events, and that despite the fervent hopes of some of his characters, there’s no such thing as destiny but only the next choice, and the next one and the next.
The book explores racism as expressed through power differentials through a number of characters. Frink’s (illegal) Jewishness is suspected but overlooked until he becomes linked to political events; Childan is a character wildly disoriented and unmoored from his own moral compass, his awkward deference to a young Japanese couple making an attempt to befriend him through into disarray by his inability to reconcile with his racism; Tagomi (easily the most likeable male character) struggles to reconcile his national pride and weary sense of duty with his growing fondness for his new American home. Several characters pass (with varying degrees of success) as members of other nationalities or ethnic groups.
It’s far from the earliest example of alternate history – “What if the South won the Civil War?” stories commenced almost immediately after the guns fell silent – but TMitHC certainly kicked the subgenre’s popularity in the SF field into high gear. Star Trek, Doctor Who and just about every other SF franchise with a whiff of time travel trot out alternate timelines changed by key historical events often enough that it’s no big deal any more. Here’s a surprisingly long list of alt-history/alt-future fiction.
The Man in the High Castle might have supplanted Ubik as my favourite PKD novel (I’m not sure – I’ll have to read them both again). Until now I was iffy on whether I would be interested in the recent television series adapted from the novel. I held off watching until I could read the book – now I have to admit that I’m fascinated (especially if the show expands beyond the unsettling tipping point where the novel finishes).
(Incidentally, I apologise if you are bored by the rather simplistic cover image in this article but (a) this is the cover of the copy that I actually read and (b) most versions of the cover of this book contain WWII-era German and/or Japanese iconography, which I avowedly do not apologise for excluding from my blog).