Over the years, "The Man in the High Castle" has gone from being an obscure novel, to the book that people mention when discussing Dick's greatness. More recently, it has been the inspiration for an Amazon TV series of the same name - now on its third series.
Clearly, one small book needs to be changed a little to become a repeating series - but TV and film adaptions of Dick have long been known to dip into his ideas and his invented worlds and transpose their own casts and characters.
Written in 1962, barely a generation after the end of the second world war, and noticeably, at the time of the cold war's highest tensions, "The Man in the High Castle" reimagines a world where the Axis powers won the war - and as a result, Germany rules the world, but Japan is now in control of the Western United States even as the Reich has spread to New York and the Eastern seaboard. We learn that the terrible price that the Jews had to pay, continued, but spread further as the Germans exterminated most of Africa. At the same time, the old joke (probably a new joke in 1962), that the Americans won the space race because "our German scientists were better than their German scientists" is inverted in that the Nazis are colonising Mars, and that rocket propulsion allows privileged Germans to cross the Atlantic in less than an hour. These fantastical trappings are talked about matter-of-factedly, as Americans have gotten used to this new world. In California, where most of the novel takes place, the Japanese are reasonably benevolent conquerors, bringing with them a decorum and a sense of proper behaviour that even the brash Americans are beginning to take on board. The gradations of "favour" that an inscrutable Japanese businessman is aware of would take a lifetime for an American to learn, so of course, some follow the Japanese and become regular users of the i-Ching as a way of organising their life - the gnomic utterances of the oracle providing the wisdom of history rather than the rashness of individual decision.
Against this backdrop a more mundane tale is taking place. Bob Childan makes a living selling Americana to rich Japanese who are fascinated by the Old West. Frank Frink is a Jew who fled the East coast Reich and now works in a factory where they partially make fake Colt 45s made to look like genuine antiques. His ex-wife Juliana has disappeared into the unconquerable middle America which acts as a buffer zone between Japanese and German conquests, and he regrets losing her. In the Japanese areas there is a surprising new bestseller, an alternate history where the Germans lost the war. The author of "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy", Hawthorne Abendsen lives in Wyoming in "the high castle" protected from potential marauders by its isolation. Amongst the Japanese, Tagomi is a high ranking trade official waiting for a visit from a "Swede" Baynes who is due in from Europe to talk business.
These somewhat unpromising plot points provide the "action" whilst a wider tableau takes place off screen. Hitler is alive, syphilitic and mad, with various factions of the Nazi high command still jostling for position - and part of that factionalism is at the heart of the story - with a plan being considered to wipe the Japanese off the planet, as also non-Aryans. When Juliana meets Joe, a truck driver, he suggest an adventure - to meet Abendsen. Nothing is quite as it seems. Joe is not the Italian he purports to be, but a German spy, and Baynes is also a German, passing on information about the planned destruction of Japan by certain Nazi factions. The antiquity market is a slightly strained metaphor for what is happening in America - for the "real" America that we know hasn't happened: the post-war boom, the American dream, are stunted, never happened. There's some similarities with Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged", with Abendsen the equivalent of the mysterious John Gaunt, and the concentration on the American production line - Frink is manufacturing jewellery, but the Japanese suggest it could be better being mass-produced as trinkets for the poor.
In some ways its a clunky novel. The characters never seem much more than ciphers, and though there is some description of this alternate world, Dick doesn't go into many details - he talks briefly about the world as it now is, but this is no great feat of imagining a particular world; rather, both this world and the world depicted in "The Grasshopper...." are both fictions. The i-Ching is used throughout the book as being a guiding force - but for what? For chance and misfortune seem to be the actors in this new world. The characters own lives seem "small beer", hardly worthy of our attention. Yet the reason the book has endured, and won an award in 1963, are because, as ever with Dick, it is the potency as well as the elasticity of his ideas that inspires. On one level this could be seen as a pulp fiction, about the good and the bad, with the world situation as backdrop, but there's something much stranger - like in Ballard, for instance - in the way he sees the world - with the i-Ching as a central character. Abendsen is not the "man in the high castle" after all, but has moved to a suburban house with his wife; whilst we are left in all sorts of doubts as to which version of Nazism will triumph. In many ways the book has a circularity to it - so by the end we could just as easily believe this is the fake world, and that the world shown in Abendsen's book - a resurgence Britain, a new empire, is the real. And both have aspects of our own. What if all of them are true?
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