Monday, November 5, 2007

Review - The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle
by Phillip K. Dick
1963 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

It seems like the default setting for alternate history is "What if the Axis won World War II?" Just about everyone who has done alternative history has lazily dipped into this pool. Making it popular are the unambiguous bad guys, a somewhat plausible premise (though many writers go way too far with an Axis dominated US), and the wealth of easily obtainable cultural references. At this point I'd be happy if no one does this story again; there's a billion minute, critical events that came together to make the world what it is today and it's creatively lazy to go to such an overworked field.

Still, in 1963 when Phillip K. Dick wrote The Man in the High Castle the idea was still fresh and Dick took a very different direction than most of those who would follow. In The Man in the High Castle the Germans are almost completely off-stage. Events in Germany affect the story and characters comment on them quite a bit but the action is focused on the west coast of the former United States which has been occupied by a Japan that is rapidly growing more distrustful of their war allies.

During this time of building political tension a book entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is released. It tells of a world where Franklin Roosevelt was not assassinated in 1933 and the US did not remain isolationist until it was too late to save Europe. While the Japanese are content to simply ignore the novel the Germans want the book suppressed.

The Japanese occupational force is very similar to the US occupation of Japan. It's rigidly authoritarian but has a streak of honor in that they want a rebuilt nation as an ally rather than just another puppet. They have taken an interest in Americana and as a result the people under occupation have been making a living by selling off their history.

I can't give much more of the storyline than that since The Man in the High Castle is packed with detail on the setting at the expense of the plot. Characters rarely act as simple exposition spouting author mouthpieces and instead let the back story weave in more naturally. The flip side of that is that the novel meanders around following characters for brief moments before wandering off again without any real narrative arc to the whole thing. It's as though six interrelated short stories (some of them not really complete) were chopped up and mixed together to make the book.

You have Japanese administrator who buys from the antique dealer who's selling works by the counterfeiter who had hired the hidden Jew who is divorced from the traveling woman. Each of these characters have their own separate narrative thread that occasionally intersects with the others. Dick is at his most skillful here but the resolution to most of these plot lines is very unsatisfying as they tended to come to an abrupt stop.

Another aspect of The Man in the High Castle that bothered me was the domination of the I Ching, a type of Chinese fortune telling. Without spoiling things too much, the I Ching has supernatural abilities in the novel which given the general lack of fantastic elements in the rest of the book feels very out of place. Characters consult it regularly and receive perfectly appropriate information. It would be like having a cold war novel where the spies check their horoscopes to determine what they need to do next (and not have it be a plot twist involving planted messages which actually might be pretty clever). I have been told that Dick extended this to use the I Ching to guide plot developments. The fact that a random toss of coins (or sticks depending on his method) determined how the book progressed may be why the plot feels so disjointed and random.

It wouldn't be a Phillip K. Dick story without the question of the nature of reality being raised. There is counterfeit history being sold as genuine to the Japanese to go with the counterfeit history that the reader is holding and the counterfeit history in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Grasshopper's history superficially resembles ours but is in the end dramatically different. On top of all of this, there is a glimpse into our own real history which terrifies one of the characters.

The Man in the High Castle is a fine example of the alternative history genre and Dick's prose managed to carry me along despite the wandering story. For a final judgment let me turn to the book's author, the I Ching:

13. T'ung Jên - Fellowship with Men
Fellowship with Men in the open.
It furthers one to cross the great water.
The perseverance of the superior man furthers.
I think that the I Ching is saying that it's worth putting up with the weak narration for the book's other qualities. Either that or to not read it. One of those two.