Visiting with the Classics – The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick

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).

I write mostly fantasy – urban, weird, secondary-world and sometimes, yes, historical. If you want to keep up with what I’m working on and get a monthly dose of free fiction, sign up to my newsletter. I won’t share your contact details with anyone.

This entry was posted in Visiting Classics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Visiting with the Classics – The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick

  1. Dr Clam says:

    You may have noticed I’ve been prompted by most of your sallies into the classics to go off and (re)read them myself. I was going to say that I wasn’t going to do so with this one, since I remembered being disappointed by a precipitous and unsatisfactory ending, but I have realised that I have forgotten the plot entirely so I probably will re-read this one, too. 🙂 I don’t think I have a favourite PKD novel – I am much fonder of his short fiction. Hmm, what would you think of an alternate history where a resourceful Connecticut Yankee-like alien is stranded on Earth in the 16th century and works out that they can get their hands on the levers of power to get a technological civilisation up and running by posing as an Archangel? Because I’ve been meaning to write that one for a long time…

  2. Lexifab says:

    The ending – at least with regards to the Grasshopper novel and Juliana’s expedition to meet the Man – didn’t seem all that sudden to me, but then I saw it coming a mile off with what I suspect is 20/20 vision based on fifty years worth of subsequent genre fiction. Had I been coming to it cold at the time it was written or in the decade or two afterwards, I suspect it would have seemed more of a “where did that come from?” shock. As it was I think PKD did a subtle but brilliant job of foreshadowing it.

    Then again, I had absolutely no idea where the San Francisco plot thread was going, so what do I know?

    As for your alt history story, I’d definitely read it! (Though it bears a superficial resemblance to the 1973 Doctor Who story “The Time Warrior”, Sarah Jane Smith’s debut, though substituting the words “16th” for “vague BBC Middles Ages” and “Archangel” for “cut-price potato-faced Merlin”).

  3. Dr Clam says:

    Yes, so I probably have remembered the ending completely wrong! Re-reading locked in, heading to the library…

  4. Dr Clam says:

    You see – having read it again – I still want to find out if Ed and Frank’s business was a success, and what Betty and Paul’s shtick was, and how the Goebbels v. Heydrich business is going to turn out. I realise I am too invested in the maya, and that is why I rebel at the Taoist resolution of the characters becoming aware they are characters in a book, finding it precipitous and unsatisfactory. Though (IMHO) that transcendental aspect is the thing that qualifies this book as ‘speculative fiction’. I have also realised that I would love to read a de-Nazified version of this book where it is about people with the same problems and the same resolution in the ‘real’ 1962. (Which, if the Grasshopper novel might would actually be a lot like VALIS. I think. Next PKD re-reading project, locked in…)

  5. Dr Clam says:

    Oops, text selecting and deleting fail: ‘Which, if the Grasshopper novel was about the Roman Empire still going on, might actually be a lot like VALIS.’

  6. Lexifab says:

    I wasn’t too invested in the jostling for the Chancellorship, but I assumed that paying attention to who was in charge of which group of assassins would probably make it clear who was going to win. Then again, I wasn’t paying attention so…

    Throughout the excruciating Betty and Paul dinner party (which I found more exquisitely cringe worthy than anything Ricky Gervais ever did) I formed the view that one of them had made a bet with the other that they couldn’t form a friendship or even a genuine connection with an American, and it was only their misfortune in choosing the frankly-awful Childan that proved them right. I imagine a scene after he leaves where one of them (probably Betty) crushes out their cigarette, sighs and hands over a silver dollar to the other, and neither of them speak of this dreadful business again.

    With the forces of destiny unravelling and no longer arrayed against her, I’m assuming that Juliana gets back together with Frank and sorts out the business side of their operation. If it’s down to Ed and Frank, they are in debt up to their eyeballs within a month, and Childan’s probably been arrested for trafficking counterfeit herbal medicines for the Chinese mob or something equally hapless.

    Hmm, I have a copy of Valis around her somewhere I think. I might do the same soon. (Soonish)

  7. Lexifab says:

    Oh, and interesting – I didn’t read it as the characters being aware they are in a book so much as the characters becoming aware that they are not in the “right” historical timeline. Then again I may be more invested in something like Lost than, say, something like Deadpool.

    (Interesting – I just checked the Lost wiki and The Man in the High Castle is not listed as one of the show’s many literary references, but VALIS is)

    • Dr Clam says:

      I realised I actually didn’t care so much about the jostling for the Chancellorship either and had just put that one in to obey the Rule of Three. And that ‘becoming aware that they are in a book’ was just my sloppy shorthand for ‘apprehending that they are in a level of reality that is in some profound way not the real one.’

      I think if I ever understand VALIS I will understand Lost and vice versa. Is the line “Ben is a great man” in the list as a Star Wars literary reference, btw?

      • Lexifab says:

        Hmm, dunno, but now that you mention it, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if that’s a deliberate SW nod. Not that it’s a good line or anything…

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.