The Man in the High Castle

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. The Man in the High CastleGrasshopper 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.

Goldfinger

by Ian Fleming

 

As per usual, we start by pointing out Fleming’s completely inappropriate use of racial and sexual stereotypes. To whit:

Bond came to the conclusion that Tilly Masterton was one of those girls whose hormones had got mixed up. He knew the type well and thought they and their male counterparts were a direct consequence of giving votes to women and ‘sex equality’. As a result of fifty years of emancipation, feminine qualities were dying out or being transferred to the males. Pansies of both sexes were everywhere, not yet completely homosexual, but confused, not knowing what they were. The result was a herd of unhappy sexual misfits–barren and full of frustrations, the women wanting to dominate and the men to be nannied. He was sorry for them, but he had no time for them.

What the fuck Ian? It’s hard to even copy that stuff out; imagining you typing it, presumably with a strong drink and a lit cigar, boggles my mind. And I don’t even know what to make of this:

She pursed her lips obstinately. ‘Why should I do what you say?’

Bond sighed. ‘There’s no point in being a suffragette about this. It’s either that or get yourself  killed after breakfast. It’s up to you.’

The mouth turned down with distaste. She shrugged her shoulders. She said ungraciously, ‘Oh, all right then.’ Suddenly her eyes flared. ‘Only don’t ever touch me or I shall kill you.’

GoldfingerThere came the click of Bond’s bedroom door. Bond looked mildly down at Tilly Masterton. ‘The challenge is attractive. But don’t worry. I won’t take it up.’ He turned and strolled out of the room.

I don’t think I’m being overly sensitive when I pause after a passage like that. I mean, seriously, what the fuck? I really can’t defend it in the slightest, so I won’t. You just have to ignore it. Even when Fleming has the formerly lesbian Pussy Galore betray her loyalties in order to help our hero–which, nonsensical to begin with, becomes even more ridiculous when you remember that the two characters had only once spoken, and only to confirm Pussy’s preferences–I have to just let it go. After all, I know this stuff is coming, and I know I can get good mileage out of it on my blog.

So why bother reading Goldfinger or the other Bond books? For one thing, Fleming’s actually a great writer. Bond’s zest for perfectly prepared food (everything in Bond’s life must be perfect) wouldn’t work if readers didn’t find themselves agreeing with him. Even I, a gentleman not remotely interested in seafood, start smacking my lips at the prospect of joining Bond in Miami for a crab dinner, potentially followed by smoking and card-playing. Even golf, when giving the Fleming treatment, sounds appealing enough to make this blogger want to hit the links. Fleming’s writing has a confidence that comes out in Bond’s character, evoking that “men want to be him” feeling we’re always talking about.

On the other hand, he also frequently refers to Koreans as “apes,” so there’s that.

Golden words he will pour in your ear,
But his lies can’t disguise what you fear!
For a golden girl knows when he’s kissed her,
It’s the kiss of death! from Mr.
Goldfinger!

The Path of Daggers

by Robert Jordan

 

I’m thinking back to the days when I could completely truthfully write this line:

Now, it did take me two weeks to read, which is a long time, especially when you remember that the series is fourteen books long.

Cue uproarious laughter, followed by a single tear, shed for my youth.

Things are different now, and Wheel of Time books take me pretty much a semester to read, and then another two months to even start reviewing on my blog. I know I’m nearing the final stretch in this series, but everything is such a slog these days.

Another tear.

As for the book itself, I recall enjoying it, though it’s always hard to say what exactly happened in each episode. The pattern seems to be that the books usually begin and end on a big event, with the stuff in the middle being a lot of plot and not a lot of action. Path Of DaggersSuch seemed to be the case for The Path of Daggers. The weather plot line is somewhat resolved by the girls’ new Bowl, which they use to bring an end to the unnatural summer and unleash the long-awaited winter. From there, several plots unfold simultaneously; Rand and the Seanchan march towards each other, finally coming to blows; Elaida, finding herself powerless in the White Tower, starts scheming her way out; Perrin moves against the Prophet at Rand’s request; and Egwene continues, inexplicably, to be a character.

Ugh, Egwene. Here’s the thing: I don’t mind complex plots and machinations. I don’t. When done well, this can be unbelievably exciting and satisfying; go watch any non-Interstellar Christopher Nolan movie. Done right, these types of plots can keep the audience engaged, tense, and invested in the story.

Which is why it’s so infuriating when good writers create really crappy manipulations and make them a centerpiece of the plot. It’s like every House of Cards episode. We have a supposed Machiavellian genius whose schemes, for the most part, all come down to,”I will solve this problem by doing the least logical thing possible, most likely while talking to the camera and doing a crappy southern accent. Oh look, my plan worked! This show definitely isn’t overrated.”

Fuck you House of Cards.

Fuck you House of Cards

Jordan does this with Egwene as the Amyrlin Seat. She’s put in that position by Aes Sedai who plan on being able to manipulate her, given her age and inexperience. She turns the tables on them by, what, knowing a pretty important rule that everyone should have known? Being competent enough to know the limits of her authority? Seriously, it’s like beginning a game of Monopoly, starting to amass property, and having your opponent turn pale as they realize your ploy. “You can buy houses? That’s in the rules? You are indeed a worthy opponent. I can’t believe I ever thought I could beat you.” Seriously, it’s that dumb. Nobody can defend this.

Other than that, though, which makes me mad just thinking about it, book eight was pretty good. I hope to start Winter’s Heart soon, so expect a review in 2027.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

Directed by Kevin Reynolds

 

Many years from now, when my children’s children ask me what movie I last saw Alan Rickman act in before he died, I’m gonna have to say this one.

Rickman was always great at playing the villain, but even a bad guy’s gotta have fun once in a while. His portrayal of the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves borders on the absurd, a quality shared by many of the characters in this film. The cheerful tone and groan-inducing jokes make it easy to role your eyes at this movie, but overall I’d say it’s held up pretty well over the last quarter of a century.

Robin Hood starts out with Robin of Locksley (Kevin Costner) and Azeem (Morgan Freeman) fighting baddies in Jerusalem and returning to England from the crusades. Azeem is a Moor who owes Robin a debt because Robin saved his life, which means now he gets to put up with xenophobia from a bunch of drunk white people. Azeem accompanies Robin back to his home, which has been burned to the ground. His father was hanged for practicing witchcraft or summat. Out of the shambles stumbles Duncan, who’s had his eyes gouged out for his loyalty. Robin spends the rest of the movie supplying Duncan with meaningless tasks so that he can feel useful.

The proprietor of this blog compared the acting in the beginning of this movie to a screen test: the characters come off as experimental, containing too much of the actors themselves. It gets better as it goes along, although Kevin Costner tried about as hard at his British accent as I tried on my statistics final in college. It seems he remembered only sporadically what was being asked of him.

(By the way, Morgan Freeman’s freckles are on fleek in this movie. I heard rumblings that he shared a makeup artist with Pippi Longstocking.)

morgan freeman

Next we meet Marian. I was impressed by the director’s progressive choice to cast a typically unattractive woman in such a prominent role… until this woman is revealed to be Sarah, Marian’s handmaiden, who is impersonating her mistress so that the real, hot Marian can sneak up behind Robin and attack him. You may remember that women are not as physically strong as men, so a little subterfuge was necessary to level the playing field. Moving on.

Essentially, it is revealed that the Sheriff has been abusing his power since King Richard left for the crusades; the Sheriff has the hots for Marian; and the Sheriff doesn’t know what ‘no’ means. The whole movie he’s commanding women—saying things like, “My room, 10:45, bring a friend!”—and it’s very unclear how much consent is involved.

While the Sheriff is busy molesting ladies-in-waiting, Robin meets up with the Lost Boys. Initially they tease him for being rich, but eventually Robin proves he can chill, so they accept him and let his Muslim friend come, too. By uniting against a common enemy, taxes, Robin and his new friends set out to make Nottingham great again. They build an Ewok village to help train and defend themselves against the Sheriff’s forces. Robin and Marian share a romantic evening. There’s a birth scene. Unfortunately, all that comes crashing down when Duncan inadvertently leads the enemy to their secret fort, resulting in flames.

Many of the gang are kidnapped, including Marian. Things get very tense because a bunch of people are on the gallows waiting to be hanged. I was really hoping that everyone would break out into “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” here, but that never happened. Maybe reading this before you watch the movie can help save you from some disappointment.

A battle ensues, and it is revealed that all of that archery training has come in handy. Robin and Azeem make it into the castle where Marian is being held. Rickman’s status of rapist versus demanding polyamor is ultimately clarified in the final fight scene, wherein he tries to force himself on Marian while a priest standing ten feet away reads out wedding vows. I think we all can agree that the 12th century in England was a weird time.

Ultimately, Azeem fulfills his obligation to Robin by helping him defeat the Sheriff, and Marian escapes without forfeiting her value as a woman. Robin and Marian are married. “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” by Bryan Adams, which has been playing subtly on pan flute throughout the latter half of the movie, becomes impossible to ignore.

And then… Guess who shows up! JUST. FUCKING. GUESS.

007_winking

Although this movie is silly and at times feels dated, I thoroughly enjoyed it. There’s a wealth of quotable dialogue, and the actors are clearly having a good time. Rickman’s Sheriff is vain, ridiculous, and a lot of fun to watch. If for no other reason, watch it to enjoy an off-beat performance from a phenomenal actor who was taken from us far too soon.

This review is dedicated to the late, great Alan Rickman. Minimal thanks to the DC Public Library for providing a locked copy of the DVD.

A Crown of Swords

by Robert Jordan

 

“I think I can, I think I can…”
– My mantra as I slowly plow through Wheel of Time

I’ve had to take Wheel of Time slowly, or else I’d have burned out after just three or four books. But I think I’ve finally gotten to know the limits of my memory for the details in these dense tomes. So unless I want to start again, I pretty much can’t do any more six month breaks.

Lord of Chaos ended on a pretty strong note: Rand is captured and then freed in a huge battle that involved pretty much every military force we’ve seen so far. He uses this victory to cement his position in power, even forcing Aes Sedai to swear loyalty to him in a signal to the world that no longer is he to be fucked with.

So because Lord of Chaos ends with a huge, exciting event, Crown of Swords has to start off pretty slow. There’s the aftermath of the battle and some politics stuff, but really, when Rand isn’t kicking ass, he’s pretty damn boring. Crown of SwordsHe mostly just hangs around until the plot needs him to be other places, at which point he gets his ass in gear. Meanwhile, the B squad is hanging out in Ebou Dar, doing other plot things.

The good: I mean, nothing’s really changed, there’s a new locale, which is always good. Jordan loves his local cultures, and it shows.

The bad: The sheer number of characters grows tedious. Every book it’s like, Rand is travelling with 15 new characters, all of which are relatively unimportant, until one of them does something super-important, and the reader is like, huh? If you’re going to have a solid group of main characters, let them drive the plot, and don’t take minor characters along on a three thousand page story arc if they really aren’t necessary to the proceedings. This is the kind of stuff that turns a trilogy into a fifteen-ilogy.

Also, what’s up with Mat getting raped at knife point? Then it’s played for laughs? C’mon RJ.

It was decent.