The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K Dick

>> Friday, May 20, 2016

TITLE: The Man in the High Castle
AUTHOR: Philip K Dick

PAGES: 259

SETTING: Alternate version of the US, 1962
TYPE: Speculative fiction

“The single most resonant and carefully imagined book of Dick’s career.” – New York Times

It's America in 1962. Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In San Francisco, the I Ching is as common as the Yellow Pages. All because some twenty years earlier the United States lost a war—and is now occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan.

This harrowing, Hugo Award-winning novel is the work that established Philip K. Dick as an innovator in science fiction while breaking the barrier between science fiction and the serious novel of ideas. In it Dick offers a haunting vision of history as a nightmare from which it may just be possible to wake.
Alternate history. This is a world where the Axis powers won the war. Japan and Germany have pretty much divided the whole of the United States, and the rest of the world has changed in even more cataclysmic ways. The Mediterranean has been drained to create more farmland, almost the entire population of Africa has been exterminated, and South America is going in the same direction. Not content with world domination, the Nazis have began colonising the entire galaxy (I must say, the idea of "Nazis in Mars" struck me as funny, for some reason).

It's now just over 15 years from the end of the war and things in the US West coast have settled down a bit. And in this world, Dick unfolds several somewhat interlocking stories. There's a strange new book circulating called "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy", telling an alternate history of the war, where it's the Allies who've won. There's Frank Frink, a Jew who's just started a new venture making modern jewellery. There's Bob Childan, owner of an antique store which specialises in authentic American pop culture artifacts from before the war. There's Baynes, a supposedly Swedish industrialist, newly arrived in the US to meet with a high-ranking Japanese and impart some dangerous knowledge. And there's Julianna Frink, Frank's ex wife, who embarks on an adventure with her new lover to meet the author of the Grasshopper book.

So many storylines for a short book, and none of them go anywhere, or are peopled by characters who interested me in the least. And that meant I found the book pretty disappointing.

It's a book with a great idea. Dick builds up his world in great detail. I loved that he basically changes a few small things that happened during World War II and this means that events then unfold in what felt to me a pretty plausible way, leading to a completely different outcome. The Grasshopper book changes those events back to what actually happened in our real world, but then changes others as well, and we end up with a version of history where the Allies won, but that is not our real history. I really enjoyed the intricacy of that.

The thing is, though, I'm a reader who needs a bit of story and, most of all, characters I care about. I don't have to like them, but I must recognise some germ of realness in them, and I must care about what happens to them. That was not the case here at all. These people didn't feel real (particularly the one female significant character, who was a weird mix of stereotypes), and I never cared at all. There's no suspense, no narrative drive, nothing.

It felt to me like Dick wasted the potential of his concept, as well. He doesn't seem too concerned about the politics, either. There's a bit of intrigue, yes, but the author seems more interested in exploring concepts like authenticity and cultural appropriation. There was some interesting stuff there (the Japanese going native in the US and patronisingly asking Americans for advice in how to do authentic things was something that really hit home), but not enough.

I was left feeling I wasn't really getting it. I didn't particularly enjoy this, but there's something niggling making me wondering if I might not have to read it again to understand it.



Darlynne,  20 May 2016 at 16:28  

I've felt the same about most of Dick's work, particularly where I've seen a movie based on his bare bones writing that have only a passing resemblance to the original. In general, I just don't get him, except as the springboard for another's imagination.

Rosario 21 May 2016 at 08:47  

That was the consensus at book club. Several people had seen the movies and television series (including a recent one based on -or rather, inspired by!- The Man in the High Castle) and said that they invariably just took the premise. Seems like one of the few cases where it's best to watch rather than read!

jenmoon 22 May 2016 at 08:09  

Hear, hear. I hate it when someone gets a good idea and then just wastes it all over the place. That book was SO frustrating to read.

meljean brook 22 May 2016 at 22:06  

In general, I enjoy Dick's short stories much much more than his longer works -- probably because they are those really interesting ideas, quickly presented and then the story is over with, so there's no real time for the story (or the characters) to unravel.

Most of his novels are so full of fascinating concepts but difficult to slog through (VALIS, I'm looking at you, especially.) I think the one novel of his I really enjoyed was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. It just felt tighter overall and more complete as a story than some of his others.

I didn't really enjoy the recent Amazon Video adaptation, either. Granted, I only watched one and half episodes. Great sets, the acting was fine, the concept is still great -- but the story just wasn't working for me any better than it did in the book.

Rosario 29 May 2016 at 09:20  

Jenmoon: Agreed. Really interesting concepts kept popping up and then the action just moved away, leaving me going "no, no, tell me more about that!".

Meljean: Interesting. I might try some of his short stories, then. Are there any collections you'd particularly recommend?

I was tempted by the TV adaptation (the visuals did look pretty cool), but people at my bookclub were pretty lukewarm about it, as well. Oh, well.

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