The Man in the High Castle
Philip K. Dick
London: Penguin, 2014
It is fifteen years after the conclusion of World War II and the world has been conquered by the Axis powers. Since the USA decided to adopt an isolationist policy, the Soviet Union and Western Europe were conquered by the Nazis, who thereby developed the technology that enabled them to defeat the Americans, together with their Japanese allies. While the Germans occupy the eastern half of the USA, the Japanese have taken over the western portion. The Nazis are not satisfied with this victory, since they have also drained the Mediterranean Sea in order to have additional agricultural land, launched the genocide of the continent of Africa and started sending rocket ships to Mars. Further endeavours are also taking place and those who remain in defeated countries quite reasonably fear for the future.
In Japan-occupied USA, the situation is somewhat different. The Japanese take all the leading positions in society, of course but they need the Americans to keep things running, carrying the sedan chairs, cooking the noodles, working the shops and massage parlours and so forth. The new overlords have become fascinated with articles of Americana and seek to view with each other to find the most authentic pieces possible. They portray an obvious Occidentalist (i.e. anti-orientalist) approach to the Americans that is one of the most interesting aspects of this book. Within this society, the Americans must find ways of making a living without causing trouble and hope that the Germans do not come – their murderous ethnic psychoses threaten just about everybody. People’s responses are, of course, diverse and there is some hint of dissent. Most notably, this comes in the form of the book The Grasshopper, which has been written by the eponymous Man in the High Castle. Can life continue or will the Nazis extinguish what is left of any spark of freedom (luckily, it could not possibly happen here, could it)?
This novel has recently been recreated as a television series, although I have not seen it. When I heard about the recreation, it inspired me to think that this would turn out to be a rather different kind of book than it has turned out to be. There is a bit of action along the way and gunplay takes place before the conclusion but this is not the main focus of the book. Instead, it is a fascinating consideration of how people react to adversity. The characterisation is vivid and most of the dialogue does its job in terms of helping to promote the willing suspension of disbelief.
Books which are claimed to be alternative histories can be problematic in that they adopt a rightist perspective that sees one person or one event making a decisive difference which then causes effects that spiral outwards and change everything that they encounter. That there is a wish fulfilment element to this can also be unfortunate. Dick avoids these issues through deeper investigation of history than can usually be expected from popular fiction but, then, he has demonstrated this in a number of other works, some of which have also found their way on to the screen. Here again he has proven himself to have been one of the most interesting voices of his generation – of course, even he did not have the imagination to suggest that one day the American people would elect a president who would have welcomed the Nazis.