Alternate histories constitute a significant sub-genre in science fiction (although sometimes they stray more into fantasy), even if their writers’ grasp of historical subtlety is not always commensurate with the size of their endeavour. It’s very hard, for example, to simply say: ‘Imagine a world in which the Roman Empire never fell’ and to convincingly carry off a story that builds on that premise. I mean, yes, I can imagine that Rome never fell, but it’s very difficult to picture modern Romans still speaking the language of Cicero and Virgil (qv.) two thousand years later. Novels like Bring the Jubilee , set within one hundred years of the American Civil War, work in part because the settings are still comparatively close in time to the events that they change.
For Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle, this principle is fully adhered to, with startling results.
In an alternate reality in which the Axis powers have triumphed in the Second World War, readers attempt to work out the real meaning of a scandalous, and banned, but nevertheless bestselling book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, written by “The Man in the High Castle.” Grasshopper tells the tale of a world which might have been… a world in which the United States and the Allies won the war. Dick’s book follows various threads of different interconnected lives without ever really bringing those characters together, but the payoff is almost worth the confusion.
To explain too much of this alternate universe would be to give some of the book’s chilling effect away, but let me cover the basics. It is fifteen years after the end of the Second World War. The Eastern United States has fallen to the Greater Nazi Reich, following the use of a German atomic weapon against Washington D.C. The West Coast is under the sway of the Japanese Empire, which is at a tremendous technological disadvantage to their Nazi co-rulers. The general area of the Rocky Mountains is a “neutral zone,” with functioning cities and commerce (Denver is a minor backdrop for the latter part of the book, as is Cheyenne, Wyoming).
The book follows several characters, including ex-soldier Frank Frink and his pal Ed McCarthy, metalsmiths in San Francisco, hoping to set up a jewelry business. Meanwhile, Juliana Frink, Frank’s ex-wife, is living in Cañon City, Colorado with Italian war veteran Joe Cinnadella, who is fascinated by a book banned by the Nazis, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, written by a man in Wyoming called Hawthorne Abendsen, “the man in the high castle,” this title referring to the alleged fortifications which protect him from German agents who might object to the prophetic bent of his work. Grasshopper, a book-within-a-book, depicts a world other than the one in which the Axis powers won, and is a detailed view of the differences of that other world. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Nobusuke Tagomi, a senior Japanese official, is disturbed not only by events surrounding an agent of the Reich, Rudolf Wegener, but by his own readings of the I Ching, a millenia-old oracle which aids its users in divining the future.
I have two great complaints about this book, namely, one: that the plotting never brings the characters together, and never advances the action beyond a single revelation at the end, which really just poses more questions than it answers, and two: like most people, I feel that if Dick wasn’t going to give at least a hint of a resolution in The Man in the High Castle, he could at least have written a sequel. Dick famously never wrote a sequel because he couldn’t bear to immerse himself in the lore of the Third Reich again (and he would soon spiral into the patterns of self-destruction which would hasten his death). This fact, combined with the fact that the book ends rather abruptly, might be called a classic Dick move by some. Personally, I find it both aggravating and strangely admirable in the same instant to be left hanging by an author, much in the same way that life itself is never really finished.
If you are reading this because you want to know what the hell happened in the 10-part Amazon adaptation, or what is coming next, you’re going to be disappointed. I’ve enjoyed the ambitious Amazon take on The Man in the High Castle so far, and now hope quite fervently that they go ahead and at least make a second season. But although the streaming version preserves many aspects of the original, it is its own animal, with new characters and a significantly different plot, albeit built on the same skeletal framework. I will even go so far as to say that I think that the series does some things better than the original book: the visual impact, for example, of seeing “American” Greater Nazi Reich flags, for example, or of the German embassy rising over the San Francisco skyline; these are things which the book never quite does, but are valuable to the story. Indeed, the televised version is almost a darker tale (if that were possible), but it seems very much to exist in the same world as Dick’s book, right down to Tagomi’s I Ching-induced hallucination (?) which ended the tenth episode and the first series (the scene was also present in the book). But at the end of the day, you should read The Man in the High Castle for itself, as for all its obfuscation it answers the crucial question: “what would happen if someone used a 3,000 year-old mystical text to plot a science fiction novel?”
A note on the text: on re-reading The Man in the High Castle I was finally able to enjoy my copy of the Library of America edition, Four Novels of the 1960s. Edited and with notes by Jonathan Lethem, this is another beautiful edition in the Library of America series. These are beautifully-made books, archival quality paper, sewn bindings, ribbon bookmarks – the whole bit. If you’re looking for a series of books to really properly grace your shelves and American authors are your bag, you might consider these editions. They are pricey, but considering the inflated prices of even mere trade paperbacks these days, entirely worth it.
Reviewed 9 December 2015.
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Find your copy of the Library of America works of Philip K. Dick, Four Novels of the 1960s, available from booksellers around the world, at AbeBooks.com (titles link directly to search results). Your purchase helps to support this blog, for which I thank you.