Conceptually interesting, never quite engaging the heart
Philip K Dick’s alternative view of the outcome of the Second World War has been an interesting reading and reviewing experience.
I was absorbed by the reading, but, unlike my best reads where reflecting on the experience, in order to review it, brings increased enjoyment, as complexities, nuances and depth in understanding why the writing worked so well, arise, my reflection rather lessened my assessment of this book.
The Man In The High Castle reflects of course the time it was written in (1962) and has possibly dated. I think it has to be considered also in the light of other writing at that time, particularly writing arising out of the SF genre, which is primarily where Dick’s writing came from
The book is set in America, fifteen years after the Second World War was won, in 1947, by the Axis Powers. Imperial Japan has control over the Pacific States of America (the Western States) Nazi Germany controls the Eastern States, and there is a area of neutrality between the two occupying forces, in the Rockies. A terrible, not quite spelt out, but easy to imagine devastating ‘experiment’ has been carried out by the Nazis in Africa.
In this version, the Japanese conquerors are seen as a far greater force for civilisation, far more cultured, far more enlightened. There are pretty well no moderate Germans. Martin Boorman is Chancellor, and Hitler, still alive, but elderly and ravaged by syphilis is out of power. However the succession to Boorman is hotting up, and factions within Germany are splitting and plotting to take control (none of which depart from fascist ideology)
Set in San Francisco, Japanese controlled San Francisco, one of the ‘civilising’ influences is seen to be the Chinese Book of Changes, the I Ching, an ancient text which had a major influence on the counter-culture of the ‘real’ 1960s. Dick himself used the I Ching in order to write this book. Carl-Gustave Jung examined, at depth, the philosophies and world view of this text. Indeed, Jung wrote the foreword to the translated edition which first appeared in English in 1951. The Book of Changes was less ‘divination’ (though it was certainly used that way in the West), and more meditation, leading to indication of possibilities and reflection about possibilities from taking (or not taking) particular courses of action. It is a poetic, metaphor rich text, needing to be understood in the culture of its creation.
Several of the central characters in Dick’s book seek guidance on the correct choices to be made ‘the way of the superior man’ which the book suggests should be followed.
Robert Childan is an American who has capitalised on the Japanese interest in ‘Americana’ by running a high end ‘antiques and genuine American heritage’ business – some of which, is in fact high end forgery. So, as well as alternative history around the Second World War, there is also a fake, or alternative, creation of American culture. For example, in the book, Roosevelt was assassinated. What is the special potency, magic or energy associated with a ‘this is the precise weapon’ or a fake version of something? There is a subtext around the real and the fake, genuine art and forgery.
One of the most sophisticated and nuanced characters is Nobusuke Tagomi, a high ranking Japanese businessman, and one of Childan’s major customers. Tagomi is one of the most subtle and developed characters in the book, one who is willing to take responsibility for his own actions. I wondered how much Dick’s own interest in psychology, philosophy and psychology had gone into the greater humanity and authenticity of Tagomi, than I found in any other character in the book. Tagomi, to this reader, was the most ‘truly human’ precisely because he was most complex, and most reflective on his human nature – which is to be conflicted within itself.
And yet, nothing to see: nothing for body to do. Run? All in preparation for panic flight. But where to and why? Mr Tagomi asked himself. No clue. Therefore impossible. Dilemma of civilized man; body mobilized, but danger obscure.
Two other central characters are Frank Frink, a craftsman – who is Jewish, and of course absolutely has to keep his ancestry hidden, and his estranged wife Juliana, a judo instructor.
There are also characters in the book who are absolutely not who they seem to be. The two Axis superpowers are also squaring up for a conflict between themselves. Germany is well ahead. It has the hydrogen bomb, and has already begun to colonise space.
A major focus of the book is something which has become almost literary mainstream now – a book within the book. There is a book, banned by the Axis Powers, which presents an ‘alternative history’ – a history in which the Allied Powers won the war. This book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, has become a hidden, furtive, cult classic, which inspires its subversive readers to believe that another kind of history might have been possible – or could cohere and rally people behind a symbol, a way of thinking, which might change the future.
It was easy to tell which were the Germans. They had that healthy, clean energetic, assured look. The Americans on the other hand – they just looked like people. They could have been anybody
With the central focus of the alternative history within the alternative history, Dick is playing very interesting mind games with his readers about the nature of reality, creating a feeling of dislocation, ideas about bifurcating, endlessly splitting reality
At the time of the writing, this must have been quite startlingly interesting and challenging, particularly coming from a writer whose background was populist rather than academic and lit ficcy
I thoroughly enjoyed the shifting, teasing thought provoking aspects of the book, but where I foundered was where I have often foundered in the past in ‘traditional science fiction’ where the writers are more skilled at concept and the ideas behind the science, and the fiction around the possibilities of that science, but are, it seems, less interested and skilled in the narrative which arises from within an empathic inhabitation of character.
This does not mean that character must be loveable, by any means, but it does mean that all characters have to make sense to themselves, have an understandable authenticity, be fully rounded, fleshed out, and not merely vehicles to carry plot and idea forward.
We do not have the ideal world, such as we would like, where morality is easy because cognition is easy. Where one can do right with no effort because he can detect the obvious
So, on reflection, I cannot say I loved this book because I only engaged intellectually, in the interesting ideas, and in the outside observation of page turning plot. But I cannot say that I really found myself involved with, or engaged by any of the characters.
What I did find myself wishing for, was that Dick had written another book, called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, with a further book perhaps within it.
I know that on the back of the TV adaptation someone has of course jumped on the marketing possibilities of this and written his own book with this title. Not, by all accounts, very good, and I’m not at all drawn to its perusal.
Although this is less ‘science fiction’ and more ‘an alternative view of history and an examination of ‘reality’ itself’ it did remind me that my own greater willingness to immerse in SF came from writers who wrote within the genre, but were/are also more obviously writers who create subtler, more believable individual humanity.
There is a very interesting foreword to the ebook by Eric Brown – which I read AFTERWARDS – and am very glad I did so, as it spells out the plot . Small gripe – why oh why are so many forewords prone to spoil, not enlighten, the reading experience? Is it the ego of a foreword writer, which demands foreword, why can’t the foreword be placed as it clearly so often should be – as an afterword? Unless a foreword were perhaps to restrict itself to something more modest.
My after-reading of the foreword was interesting, in that many of the ideas I was forming about the writer himself and his personality (which of course gives rise to the book a writer will write, both its strength and its weaknesses) were borne out. I shall not detail them here, as curiously, I think the biography itself might predict and predispose the reader.
I did strongly like the book – a very clear four star, but it is as much in the context (and the limitations) of its own time. And, for many reasons, the authorial voice is not a voice which absolutely resonates with me.