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?
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Amazon link: The Man in the High Castle
Conceptual Fiction Review of The Man in the High Castle