The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Published in 1962
Genre: Alternate history, speculative fiction
“For a week Mr. R. Childan had been anxiously watching the mail.”
While this sentence might be used to begin any type of novel, The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick relies on its innocuousness to segue into a world very different from ours. The year is 1962 and the Allies lost World War II, leaving Japan and Nazi Germany to divide the conquered land and lay claim to the world. Being almost two decades since the end of the war, many people have found new roles within the new society of the North American continent, but some patriotism still stirs in the hearts of those who remain.
After the war, Japan and Germany split up the U.S; Japan has control of the West coast, Germany has the East coast, and the Midwest is a sort of neutral zone. The Germans have perfected rocket travel and are using their technology to colonize other planets and fly from continent to continent. Despite these technological advances, there are oblique references to genocide committed in Africa by the Nazis and slaves are seen in San Francisco.
The majority of The Man in the High Castle takes place in a San Francisco, California very different from the one we know. It is now part of the Pacific States of America under the Japanese Government and those who lived in America during the war have found themselves new vocations. The aforementioned Robert Childan sells pieces of Americana and art to the wealthy and affluent Japanese, causing his subservience. Frank Frink, who also lives in San Francisco, is a Jewish American who decides to go into making jewelry with a partner in order to create authentic pieces rather than fakes that are sold in stores like Childan’s.
The main action of the book revolves around a book written by author Hawthorne Abendsen. Titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the book is about what would have happened if the Allies had won the war (getting a little meta here). After reading his book, Frank’s ex-wife Juliana and an Italian man named Joe drive to meet Abendsen in his reclusive hideout known as the High Castle.
Political intrigue pushes the story throughout The Man in the High Castle; despite being allies in the war, Japan and Germany do not trust each other. Rudolph Wegener, a Jewish German traveling under the pseudonym Mr. Baynes, pretends to be a Swede who has come to meet with Mr. Tagomi, a member of Japanese foreign business. Espionage and distrust lead to a shootout in Mr. Tagomi’s office during a clandestine meeting and infighting rears its head not only between the former allies, but within their own governments.
No one in the book is who they seem; **Spoiler Alert** Joe ends up being a Nazi Kommando who was sent to kill Abendsen to stop him from writing. Juliana cuts his throat in a hotel room after she learns he was using her to gain entry to the High Castle and she makes her way to the Abendsen’s home in order to warn him that he is being plotted against. Dick’s characters are fleshed out and go through their own individual arcs; Childan is no longer as oppressed and stands up for himself, Tagomi refuses to sign an order arresting Frank Frink for being Jewish, and Juliana exercises her autonomy by making her own decisions in order to protect herself when the need arises.
Dick tailors his writing techniques to specific characters depending on who is the focus of the story. While most of the characters showcase proper grammar during their descriptions and narration, Childan’s inner monologue and actions are written like someone speaking English as a second language. He consistently leaves out articles (a, the) and this style mimics the same for Mr. Tagomi’s parts in the story; this shows the effect of Childan spending so much time dealing with the Japanese.
The little violence that is present in the book is fast and sudden; the shooting Mr. Tagomi’s office is done in a matter of seconds, as is Juliana killing Joe. Both instances have implications that consequently send reverberations into the future of their lives and both characters are forced into violence through self-defense.
The presence of the Japanese and their effect on society is constantly felt. Taoism, yin and yang, and the I Ching all cling to the foundation of the world in the book. Multiple characters consult the I Ching as a sort of oracle and its role in the climax of the book leads to The Man in the High Castle’s open ending.
The premise behind The Man in the High Castle is reason enough to pick up this book. Dick writes with a clear vision of the possible outcome of the second World War and transcends the niche of science fiction that he was so often thrust into. I was ecstatic to learn that this was a book written by him after first becoming aware of the television show and, though I haven’t seen it, I can say that the source material offers plenty to draw from.
Verdict: 4 alternate histories out of 5
Recommended for: People who like to think “What if?”, fans of stories within stories, those who like open endings, if you didn’t laugh reading the author’s last name in this review when I referred to him by it, and you!
Not recommended for: People who don’t like to think “What if?”, those who dislike stories within stories, fans of closed endings, or those opposed to personal interpretations of literature and art.