The Man In The High Castle


At this point it’s impossible to say anything new about Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, so I’ll start by saying something really old: this is a fantastic book. It’s deep, man.

In brief: the Allied forces have lost the war and the United States has been carved up between Japan and Nazi Germany, with a Rocky Mountain no man’s land in between. Americans cope haphazardly with living under these two varieties of totalitarianism; the Germans have razed Africa, sent rockets to the moon; on the Pacific Coast, American merchants sell pre-War folk “antiques” to interested collectors — bottle tops, lighters, civil war guns, baseball cards. Somewhere near Denver, a man named Hawthorne Abendsen writes a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a science fiction novel that postulates President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s survival of an assassination attempt and subsequent re-election, setting into motion a chain of events which culminates in Nazi war trials and a cold war between Britain and the United States. Everyone in The Man in the High Castle is reading The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, despite the fact that it’s banned in most of the occupied U.S.A. So, yes: it’s an alternate history novel that contains a second alternate history within its pages. Characters even debate whether or not Grasshopper qualifies as sci-fi:

“Oh no,” Betty disagreed, “No science in it. Nor set in future. Science fiction deals with future, in particular future where science has advanced over now. Book fits neither premise.”

“But,” Paul said, “it deals with alternate present. Many well-known science fiction novels of that sort.”

If we take seriously the conceit of fiction, then we must acknowledge that there can be no binary between the real and false, since there exist, potentially, multitudes of realities. Dick’s characters aren’t gazing across the uncanny valley at us, a mirror reflection: the alternate present they consider while reading The Grasshopper is different still from our world. It’s dislocated, and no more “real” than ours simply because the Axis fell. You can imagine a novel within-the-novel within-the-novel where history plays slightly differently. The Italians rise, Fascism fails, an agrarian future — or maybe a doomsday scenario?

In Dick’s canon, the distinction between “real” and “unreal” is necessarily vague, because he recognizes that the things we take to be the most unquestionably real — history, for example — are often the least tangible. What is history but a collective myth? How is it anything but a culturally-determined collection of words and stories in an individual’s mind? What is the difference between a regular Zippo lighter and the one that was in FDR’s pocket at the time of his assassination? Nothing but an idea.

This double narrative is the most literary (and obvious) presentation of High Castle‘s interlocking theme of the confluence of true and false realities. The buying and selling of American antiques to the Japanese, for example, who fetishize the “historicity” of objects, is thrown into question by the presence of counterfeit objects. And yet, the counterfeit is often better than the original, functional, at least identical, the electric sheep, if you will.

Should I stick to my trend of only reviewing Dick with poems? It seems like either I do that, or I continue into an unreadable graduate dissertation on the novel — there’s no real in-between. Perhaps, to stay true to High Castle‘s Eastern leanings, I should work in Haiku. After all, the events of the novel are determined (both within the narrative and by Dick himself as he wrote it) through consultation of the I Ching; when one of its main characters queries the oracle, essentially, about why the novel was written, it replies with Hexagram 61, Chung Fu, “Inner Truth:”

In Hexagram 61, the water stirs the still lake, making apparent the visible effects of the invisible: the true, concealed state of things is ever-present and yet impossible to grasp except in such moments of clarity. A classic Dick theme — that every character in The Man in the High Castle is living a false reality, a collective hallucination that history is material. Only through the water-ripple that is metaphor can the illusion be perceived, and then only fleetingly, before the lake calms.

Consult the oracle:
Can winter turn to summer?
Imperial red.

Supplemental Materials:

Space Canon Review of Dr. Bloodmoney (an acrostic)
Space Canon review of Martian Time-Slip (a sonnet)
Space Canon review of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
Space Canon review of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Space Canon review of Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said
Amazon link: The Man in the High Castle
Conceptual Fiction Review of The Man in the High Castle

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2 Responses to The Man In The High Castle

  1. What a very good review.

    I imagine, still, that The Man in the High Castle is a sort of key to the alternate reality it describes…like…how do I explain it…a couple of centuries from now, some physicist will read it and realize how narrative has to be incorporated into some calculation to account for a complex time-space system. That didn’t explain it. Oh, well.

  2. Paul says:

    I stumbled across this following links from boingboing, but having just finished The Man in the High Castle about a week ago, I thought I’d comment. I can’t help but read this book except from within my particular historical perspective, so what hits me hardest is the idea that if in the book, High Castle, the reason that Grasshopper was written was that in fact Germany/Japan didn’t win the war, then in our world, the reason that High Castle was written is that because in fact Germany/Japan did win the war. I can’t help but feel an erie prescience emanating from High Castle, especially given the claims that Bruce Shneier and others have been making for the last decade: the terrorist won the moment we turned in to a society of fear. The leap I can’t make, and maybe it’s because I am a product of a later time, is what does Dick claim that the effect of WWII on the real world was. Did it lead to a fascist society, just one that is masked in freedom? Does it have to do with the control of individual liberty, as illustrated in the Frank Frink part of the novel, where perhaps the oracle is saying that even though the war was won by Germany, they didn’t succeed in destroying individual’s? This is what I’m thinking about anyway.

    As an aside, I was miracled my copy of this book while walking my dog. I sat down on a bench in the park and saw it sitting on the ground nearby. Knowing of Dick, I of course picked it up and thought it was a strange enough thing to have happened. All the more strange now that I’ve read it. I gave it away immediately.

    Very glad to have been directed to this blog.

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