by Philip K. Dick
In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya: “Let me explain–no, there is too much. Let me sum up.” In sum, here’s what’s going on in The Man in the High Castle.
The Allies lose World War II, resulting in the West Coast and Rocky Mountain States splitting from the United States. These regions respectively succumb to Japan’s influence and become a neutral buffer against the rump US, now a puppet of the Greater German Reich. Frank Frink, a Jew living in Japanese-dominated San Francisco, quits his job and decides to go into business making jewelry with his former supervisor. A prospective vendor of these wares, Robert Childan, owns a shop peddling Americana to resident Japanese businessmen and dignitaries. One of Childan’s clients, a Mr. Tagomi, represents the Japanese Trade Mission in the city but is giving the strange task of introducing a Swedish businessman to a high-ranking member of the Japanese military, though he knows not to what end. The Reich’s consulate in San Francisco, naturally, becomes curious about these events, though Germany has problems of its own with the sudden death of its Chancellor and the inevitable succession battle to come.
Meanwhile, a new novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, is sweeping the globe. Frank’s ex-wife, living in the neutral Rockies, meets a mysterious Italian who introduces her to the book, which the couple quickly becomes obsessed with, to the point of taking a road trip to meet the author. Grasshopper presents an alternate history in which the Axis loses the war, after which the world is dominated by two superpowers: the United Kingdom and the United States. Americans, Japanese, and even Germans can’t get enough of this book; whether it thrills, enrages, gives hope, or merely piques curiosity, the characters develop an attachment to this book and its version of the truth.
When you get past the admittedly convoluted plot, Dick’s book unveils a world that is both wholly plausible and completely impossible. While the reader knows what really happened during and after the war, and where the points of divergence between reality and fiction lie, the book combines our wartime fears of failure and our familiarity with the post-war years to create something new, a world that straddles the line between realistic and uncanny. My favorite example of this is the reversal of America’s obsession with Japanese culture. Rather than young Americans consuming Japanese TV shows, movies, and video games, High Castle features upper middle class Japanese scouring America for, well, Americana. If it can be tied to the Old West, or really to anything that predated the war, there are Japanese who will do whatever they can to get their hands on it. Along with other examples of in-world cultural abnormalities, this obsession is interesting in and of itself, but it poses further questions as well. Where does this quirk come from? When a man buys a Mickey Mouse watch, is it because a part of him knows that this piece of Americana would be ubiquitous and kitschy in “our” world? Or is the gesture as meaningless in that world as the watch would be in ours?
These questions get to the heart of what The Man in the High Castle is really about. All of the characters, in their own way, feel the nagging sense that they’re not living the life that was meant for them. The Japanese and Pacific Americans constantly consult with an oracle to determine their courses of action, as if they’ve accepted the idea that they’re powerless in this world. Even those who don’t believe in the I Ching, such as the Germans, come to realize that they’re doing little more than playing parts in an ugly drama. When Grasshopper comes along, it provides a valve for people to release this feeling, the sense that humanity was meant to follow a different path, one which would allow them the freedom to live their own lives. In a way, they wonder whether the fiction of Grasshopper can be more real than their own world.
The only question I really have is, “What’s the point?” Dick creates this world, a world that’s clearly unstable and on the brink of a significant upheaval, but he doesn’t really answer his own questions. Because it’s not our world, the stakes seem pretty low, so the novel is really driven by its characters. These people are all moving steadily towards something, but Dick never shows us what this is. Perhaps this is intended to create in us the nagging doubt that pervades his book; the slight discomfort with the world, the feeling that things are just a little off. I don’t think a lot of authors would go all out for that feeling, but I guess that’s what makes The Man in the High Castle special.
This was my first Dick, but I was pleasantly surprised by how unconventional it was, especially for the stereotypically conventional sci-fi genre. I normally don’t like ambiguous meaning, but the uneasy feeling of The Man in the High Castle makes up for that. I’ll allow it, just this once.