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Review: 'The Man in the High Castle' by Philip K. Dick

America the vanquished

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating

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'The Man in the High Castle' by Philip K. Dick

'The Man in the High Castle' by Philip K. Dick

Vintage Books
  • The Man in the High Castle
  • By Philip K. Dick
  • Vintage Books
  • $12.00/$16.95 Canada
  • Trade Paperback, July 1992
  • First Published 1962
  • ISBN 0-679-74067-8

The Story

It's 1962, 15 years after America capitulated during World War II, and the strain of living under the rule of another culture is a daily fact of life in Japanese-administered California. Even a successful businessman like Robert Childan, a dealer in trendy American artifacts, worries about a misplaced word that will offend his slight-conscious customers. Like many others, Army veteran Frank Frink consults the I Ching, the ancient Oriental oracle, thankful he's not back in the German-controlled East where his fellow Jews are still enslaved. And trade attache Nobusuke Tagomi chafes over an upcoming secret meeting that could help Japan regain its technological edge.

Meanwhile, a bizarre book making the rounds explores what could have happened if the Allies had won the war. A furious German interdict only incites sales in the West, where the Japanese are merely bemused. Some, like Frank's estranged wife Juliana, become obsessed with the book; she sets off across the Rockies with the apparently like-minded Joe, intent on seeing the author, Hawthorne Abendsen, in his high castle.

The sudden death of Fuhrer Bormann seems to spill disruption across America. Tagomi's meeting turns out to be an initiative by disaffected Germans to gain Japan's help against the Reich's increasing cruelty. But various changes in their plans have led to detection by the German consul. Tagomi, his tradition-bound sensibilities derailed by Nazi inhumanity, finds himself under seige in his own office. Frink is discovered and faces extradition back to German territory. Childan gets his commercial break, but the price tag is a subtle yet total humiliation. And Joe turns out to be a German agent, sent to assassinate Abendsen. Juliana must deal with him and hurry ahead to warn the author, drawn more and more by a force she doesn't understand.

When Blocs Collide

"What if the winners had lost?" is a classic SF scenario. The pre-existing drama is built into such stories because the suspense from a wild ride through the looking-glass is almost automatic. A writer approaching World War II with this objective, however, meets a serious obstacle: cold, calculated Nazi barbarity. The what-if scenario is in mortal danger if the alternate future is repellent and inhuman.

Philip K. Dick's ingenious solution was to skip Germany and start with Japan, exploring how chagrined Americans might cope with such complicated overlords. In this material there is a rich lode, rife with possibilities for psychological and societal study. Two of this short work's memorable characters, Tagomi and Childan, experience soul-shaking crises that bear directly on the interplay of powerfully different cultures. Far from learning the brotherhood of man, they emerge awed and disturbed by the chasms carved between humans during centuries of self-sustaining traditions -- Europeans, Americans, and Asians alike.

By starting with the Japanese, the story is helped rather than hindered by the eventual appearance of the Nazis. At first Nazi savagery makes the Japanese conquerors seem sympathetic. Later, however, it becomes clear that behind the studied urbanity of these characters lies a more insidious threat to the scattered remains of American pride.

A Japanese America

Finally, the emphasis on the I Ching turns the book into something of a blank slate. The oracle's workings -- the distribution of stalks into patterns interpreted exhaustively in The Book of Changes -- can be seen as chance, unconscious manipulation, the passive workings of metaphysical forces, or the active intervention of the divine. Consequently, readers are free to absorb the story into a variety of contexts, based on mood or disposition -- a remarkably Zen result for a science fiction novel.

Some readers will enjoy, and others will be annoyed by, the extensive quotes from the book-within-the-book, called "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy." Though in some ways extraneous, its projection of the fallout of an Allied victory, imagined in a world where such was thought impossible, differs from our history in intriguing ways.

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