Impressions before Reading
I’m not really into science fiction. I can honestly say that apart from a previous foray into Dick’s work–Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?–I haven’t read more than a handful of science fiction, good, bad, or indifferent. I’ve tackled some of the classic children’s sci-fi but that was years ago; the bug didn’t stick with me. But I do appreciate Dick’s approach to the genre. In my view, he essentially crafts the modern equivalent of a philosophical novel of ideas with a sci-fi veneer. His characters often stand in for ideals or modes of thought, although there is some nice characterization happening, and their interactions guide the reader through both sides of the argument. In both novels that I’ve read, Dick leads the reader to a comfortable yet ambivalent ending. As such, the reader is allowed to interpret according to his or her own judgment and whims. I can see that Dick’s books would be compulsively rereadable–over years, a reader’s views would grow and develop with each perusal of the book, which transforms into an effective and entertaining teacher.
(By the way, notice my second author photo in a row to feature a cat. That’s for you, K.)
It is 1962 and a host of disparate characters make their way through a world where slavery is legal, Jews are persecuted by government order, and Mickey Mouse wrist-watches are extremely valuable and respected pieces of American nostalgia. These are all realities because 15 years previously the United States lost a war.
For a handy map of the new country borders in Dick’s world, check this out: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/45/Man_In_The_High_Castle_map.PNG
The book is trippy. Dick researched his facts, and many of the alternate realities in the story are sprung from actual historical events. Dick inverts the reality, for example, by making Giuseppe Zangara’s assassination attempt on FDR successful. That happened in 1933. You can easily imagine what Roosevelt’s death would mean in that seminal time, and his absence is one of the contributing factors to the United States’ downfall in a longer-drawn out World War II that doesn’t end until 1947. As a flipside of this coin, Adolf Hitler survives. Still, Dick can’t allow Hitler to get away from his atrocities scot free. Hitler suffers a syphilitic incapacitation that allows Martin Bormann to take up the reigns of Nazi Party Chancellor.
There are too many reversals for me to discuss here, especially since I’m trying to influence others to read the book. Why should I spoil it for you?
In any event, the characters are by turn a Japanese man in the upper levels of government, a Jewish jeweler hiding his identity, an dealer in Americana antiques, and a woman who is on the road to meet the author of a book banned in the Nazi territories. This man, the titular “Man in the High Castle,” has written a book that is much closer to our reality, give or take several interesting changes. In his book The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, he has “predicted” what would have happened if the US and Soviet Russia had managed to defeat the Axis powers.
Now that I’ve covered some of the primary characters, I’m going to ditch them to discuss the themes in this novel of ideas in brief detail. (I’m kinda overwhelming myself with all of these long posts in a row.)
There is the issue of attaching value to the counterfeit vs. the genuine. This seems to be one of Dick’s preoccupations, as he did the same kind of thing in Do Androids Dream. Counterfeit goods are first brought up in regard to the items of Americana, which are manufactured and aged to earn a profit. The counterfeit becomes more important than the genuine article because the value attached to it is the deciding factor in what becomes worthwhile. Many characters also act under false identities, their personas becoming lives. Ultimately, Dick takes the reader into the realm of perception. He asks “Who, and what, are the agents behind [an] interpretation of true and false realities?”
Whenever Robert Childan, the dealer in Americana, does business with wealthy Japanese clients he changes his dialect. He adopts a form of broken English that would be common for a non-native English speaker to possess. It seems that he mentally switches when coming into contact with Japanese people. They are shown to speak in a similar manner, so it seems that the white Americans are showing deference to their upper class by adopting a linguistic norm. The shades of dominance are subtle but noticeable throughout the story.
Lastly, the book has a fascinating use of the I Ching. Whenever characters have a decision to make or a question to ask, they consult this ancient manual. It gives them answers that are open to interpretation, but the use of the I Ching is so widespread in the Japanese portion of America that the characters tend to strictly follow its advice. It becomes an instrument of fate and chance. It is a crucial aspect of the cultural hegemony that has enveloped the US. The book is consulted and quoted so often that it becomes a literary device. Dick is intent on highlighting the moment of decision-making throughout the book; he shines a light on those moments that characters can control and those they can’t.
“It will end, Childan thought. Someday. The very idea of place. Not governed and governing, but people.”
‘“It’s all a big racket; they’re playing it on themselves. I mean, a gun goes through a famous battle, like the Meuse-Argonne, and it’s the same as if it hadn’t, unless you know. It’s in here.” He tapped his head. “In the mind, not the gun.”’
“Evil is not a view.”
“There is evil! It’s actual, like cement. I can’t believe it. I can’t stand it. Evil is not a view…it’s an ingredient in us. In the world. Poured over us, filtering into our bodies, minds, hearts, into the pavement itself.”
PS – I love the contrast in those last two quotes, mainly because I can’t decide if one is more accurate than the other. Please explain which of those two you believe is correct in the comments. It would be nice to get a discussion going.