Book 32 on my list, The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, is an alternate history story that asks what life would have been like had the Axis powers won World War II. Published in 1962, it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel the following year. It’s also been made into a series by the same name on Amazon Prime.
I was really excited to read this novel as the premise is interesting and unique, and I was already a big fan of Philip K. Dick, having read many of his short stories, such as Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, and Paycheck.
Alright, let’s get into it.
Plot & Narration
The novel is narrated in the third person but from the perspective of different characters during different chapters. It’s a bit tricky to give a high level summary of the plot since the stories of the characters don’t really seem to come together. And while the premise is certainly interesting, I’m not sure how much I actually like this novel, though I can understand why it won the Hugo Award.
There are basically four story lines. One focuses on an antiques dealer named Robert Childan, who discovers, to his horror, that much of his stock is actually counterfeit. The second story follows Frank Fink, a Jew-in-hiding, who is fired from the company that makes those fake antiques and starts his own jewellery making-business with his friend. The third story line revolves around the Japanese Trade Minister, Nobusuke Tagomi, who is a sort of intermediary/alibi for helping a Nazi defector warn the Japanese about a plan by the Germans to attack and take over Japan. And the fourth story line follows Juliana Fink, Frank’s ex-wife, in the Neutral Zone as she starts a relationship with a man who later turns out to be a Nazi on their journey to find the author of a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy written by “The Man in the High Castle”. This book is an alternate history novel that details a world in which the Allies won World War II and is thus banned by the Nazis.
Okay, so the first three of these story lines do kind of interconnect, but not as much as you would think. And the fourth story line, Juliana’s, doesn’t really seem to be connected to the others at all, save the for the fact that she is Frank’s ex-wife. For this reason, I had a hard time discerning what this story is really about. Is it about Juliana trying to find the author of Grasshopper to warn him that the Nazis know who he is and are coming for him. Or is it about Tagomi helping to warn his country about the impending Nazi attack?
Or is it just supposed to show us this alternate world in general? In the novel, America is split up into the Japanese Pacific States, the Nazi States, the Neutral Zone, and the South. And there are many interesting details regarding this alternate history that Dick includes in the story to really make this world come to life. But, as the reader, I had a hard time discerning what I’m actually supposed to care about. Which characters, which story?
Theme: Alternate History
Of course, the main theme of this novel is the alternate history it proposes: a United States controlled by the Japanese and the Nazis and what that world looks like. Dick clearly put a lot of thought into this world-building and it renders the story very 3D. It’s also quite a racist world, and not just against Jewish people. In the Japanese states, the Chinese are relegated to pedecab/taxi drivers, and black people are also second-class citizens/servants. White people must also always defer to the Japanese and seem to be relegated to factory work or service and retail jobs.
A large portion of the exposition of the story is in turn a critique of Nazism. With various characters pondering the state of their, well, state. It seems like The Man in the High Castle was as much a forum for Dick getting down his thoughts on Nazism and WWII as it was about telling a story.
“They [the Nazis] want to be the agents, not the victims, of history. They identify with God’s power and believe they are godlike. That is their basic madness. They are overcome by some archetype; their egos have expanded psychotically so that they cannot tell where they begin and the godhead leaves off. It is not hubris, not pride; it is inflation of the ego to its ultimate-confusion between him who worships and that which is worshiped. Man has not eaten God; God has eaten man.”
“German totalitarian society resembles some faulty form of life, worse than natural thing. Worse in all its admixtures, its potpourri of pointlessness.”
Theme: Authenticity & Reality
At first, I didn’t think of authenticity as a major theme of the story, but reading a quick analysis of High Castle got me thinking more about it. Indeed, authenticity does run through this novel in a significant way. There’s the first layer of authenticity in terms of the characters, many of whom are hiding their real identities. Frank is hiding the fact that he’s Jewish; the character of Baynes hides the fact that he is German in order to help Tagomi and the Japanese; and the character of Joe, Juliana’s lover, hides the fact that he is a Nazi.
There’s also a second layer of authenticity in terms of the antiques and American objects that the Japanese love. The company Frank gets fired from creates fake antiques because there is a big market for antiques in the Pacific States. The Japanese love old Americana because they have “historicity” in them. So when Frank starts making his own jewellery, something new and unique and real, he’s leaving the world of the inauthentic and entering the world of the authentic.
Finally, we can view authenticity and reality in terms of the alternate history novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. By the end, we are left with the question, does that novel actually represent what’s real? Were the Allies supposed to win? That’s the question Juliana is left with.
Fate is another theme that I initially overlooked. In the story, many characters regularly consult the I Ching when they are at a crossroads and have questions about what to do next. In this guide, the authors state that while the Nazis want to write history and be agents of history (as I illustrated in the above quotation), the Japanese and some of the characters take a more passive approach by consulting the oracle. So we see a dichotomy here between actively writing history and passively being guided through history or taking one’s place in history. This leaves us with an interesting question: can we actively determine our lives, or is everything fated?
The good thing about The Man in the High Castle is its interesting, alternate history premise. While the characters and story lines were quite disjointed, this interesting world by itself is what kept me going and got me to finish the novel. It’s such a unique idea, and probably seemed really unique as well so shortly after WWII. The various themes that pop up are also interesting and what make science fiction stand out from other genres.
I’m not sure if Dick intended this story to be about character development or if it was simply meant to show different aspects of what life would be like if the Axis powers had won. Either way, I would have appreciated a little more character development and a little more cohesion between the storylines. I couldn’t help but think what’s the point of these disparate story lines if they’re not going to come together in the end. What is the point of this story?
At the same time, this novel was written in the 1960s, and I’m not sure character development was such a big thing back then, especially in science fiction. The best character development in a novel on my list so far has been in Flowers for Algernon. However, other great sci-fi novels, such as 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451, do have some character development. So I’m not sure what to think.
While I love science fiction because it is a genre of ideas, a successful story still needs the reader to care about the characters, care about what’s going on. And while I finished reading it, it wasn’t an entirely satisfying read. The ending was also so abrupt that if left me thinking, “Huh?”
This is ultimately where many sci-fi’s go wrong, focusing so much on the world-building and the idea and premise, that too little attention is paid to the characters and their development, when that’s precisely what hooks and anchors the reader.
Of course, I don’t want to only criticize, since there are many interesting aspects of The Man in the High Castle. I would say the great thing about this book is each character’s thoughts and reactions to the world around them. As I mentioned, a lot of exposition is given to analysis of the current state of the world, so we get different perspectives on this new world order.
For example, Robert Childan, the antique store owner, really seems to love the Japanese and believe that they are superior to white Americans.
“Robert Childan felt his face flush…What a dreadful beginning he had made. In a foolish and loud manner he had argued politics; he had been rude in his disagreeing, and only the adroit tact of his host had sufficed to save the evening. How much I have to learn, Childan thought. They’re so graceful and polite. And I-the white barbarian. It is true.”
Frank and Juliana, on the other hand, don’t like living under Japanese rule in San Francisco, though they are more amenable to the Japanese, one of the reasons Juliana takes to the Grasshopper novel so much and why she goes through such pains to warn the author that the Nazis are coming for him. The Japanese also don’t seem to like the Nazis, and not just because they want to attack Japan, but rather for all the reasons we just don’t like Nazis.
Overall, I would still say that The Man in the High Castle is a must-read in the science fiction canon. It was the first alternate history story on my list (though I know there are many alternate history stories out there), and it really brings that alternate world to life, down to the details. Like Canticle for Leibowitz, this is a novel about a compelling enough idea that it will keep you reading even if you’re not as connected to the characters, with different themes to chew on.
Dick, Philip K. The Man in the High Castle. Kindle edition. Mariner Books; Media Tie In edition, 2012.
Author: Philip K. Dick