Book review: “The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K. Dick Previous item Book review: “Metropolis... Next item Book review: “Heaven on...

Book review: “The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick performs a clever feat of literary dipsy-doodle at the end of his 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle, and he throws into question the reality of the world in which his reader lives.

I won’t get into how he does this so as not to ruin any surprise for future readers of the book.  Suffice it to say, however, that it fits the story he has told.

That story is what’s called speculative fiction, and it has to do with how the world would have been if the Nazi-led Germans and the Japanese had won World War II.  There’s been a lot of this sort of alternate history, what-if history, published over the past half century, but the first stirrings of this genre were already present in the 1950s and 1960s.

Dick told an interviewer that he’d come up with the idea for The Man in the High Castle after reading Ward Moore’s 1953 novel Bring the Jubilee.  In that book, Moore envisioned how history would have unfolded if Robert E. Lee had won the Battle of Gettysburg and gone on to take Philadelphia, leading to a Confederate triumph in the Civil War.

Moore wasn’t the only one with an alternative history of the Civil War. In the November 22, 1960, issue of Look magazine, MacKinlay Kantor published If the South Had Won the Civil War.  It was such a hit that it was republished in 1961 as a book.  For Kantor, history was different because of the death of U.S. Grant in a fall from his horse.

“A terribly strong President”

For Dick, the turning point is the assassination of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Italian immigrant Joe Zangara.

On February 15, 1933, in our real world, Zangara did actually try to kill FDR in Miami, Florida, but missed him, hitting instead Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak and four other bystanders. Cermak died. Roosevelt was unharmed.

In the world of The Man in the High Castle, Zangara is a better shot. FDR dies. (And, presumably, Cermak survives, changing the history of Chicago in ways that Dick doesn’t address.  Dick, by the way, was born in Chicago in 1928.)

In the novel, world history is much different because of Zangara’s better accuracy. As Juliana Frink, one of the Dick’s central characters, explains:

“If Joe Zangara had missed him, he would have pulled American out of the Depression and armed it…Roosevelt would have been a terribly strong President.  As strong as Lincoln.  He showed it in the year he was President, all those measures he introduced.”

Dick is doing a little finessing here.  In our real world, Zangara took his potshots when Roosevelt was still President-Elect and still had seventeen more days until inauguration.  In his novel, Dick has this shooting happening after Roosevelt had already served a year in office.

Much that is bad

Much that is bad results from Roosevelt’s death.  He is succeeded by Vice President John Nance Garner who fails at the job, especially in the face of German and Japanese aggression.

Capitulation Day by the U.S. and its allies takes place in 1947. And, after that, the Japanese have control the West Coast, now known as the Pacific States of America, as well as Asia.

The Germans dominate the rump United States of America (the East Coast and Midwest) and are allied with the South, a separate nation for the first time since the Civil War. (Between the East and West are the independent Rocky Mountain States from the Canada to Mexico.)  The Germans also control Europe and Africa and have split the former Soviet Union with the Japanese.

Dick makes clear that the Germans have conducted some sort of genocide of black Africans — what’s called the Final Solution of the African Problem — although he doesn’t spell out the details.  Throughout much of the world, the Nazis are able to round up any Jews who are discovered and ship them back to Germany for extermination. 

The Germans have traveled to the Moon and to Mars. They’ve drained the Mediterranean Sea to create farmland. And they have the hydrogen bomb.

As I said, much that is bad has happened.

Not exactly true

In crafting his speculative fiction, Dick adroitly heightens the tension of the story by introducing an unusual wrinkle — a popular novel of speculative what-if fiction, banned in Germany but rabidly read in those places where it’s available, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by Hawthorne Abendsen.

That’s the book that Juliana Frink has been reading and has gotten very excited about.  That’s why she’s able to talk so assuredly about how Roosevelt would have been if he hadn’t been assassinated.

Abendsen is the guy who, as the title says, lives in the High Castle. That’s the name of his fortress-like home in Cheyenne, Wyoming, according to his author’s bio on the novel’s jacket.

So, at the same time that Dick is detailing how life in America is different in 1962 (the year his novel was published in our real world) because of the Axis victory in World War II, he is also having characters talk about and read from the Abendsen book about how life would have been if the U.S. had won.

In other words, in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, Abendsen is telling the story that we in our real world are familiar with.

Except that’s not exactly true.

Much different history

In a clever authorial strategy, Dick has Abendsen describe a much different history than what we know happened.

For instance, Roosevelt doesn’t run for a third term in 1940. Chiang Kai-shek rules China, instead of being driven out by the Communists to the island of Taiwan.  The U.S. and Britain have divided up the Soviet Union. Television is developed by the U.S. as an educational tool for Third World countries.  Racism ends.

Not quite what happened.

This is savvy on Dick’s part.  In a speculative novel, Abendsen would have to guess what would result.  No novelist would be able to match the actual facts. Just as Dick can’t be expected to guess with complete accuracy what would happen in a German-Japanese world.

I Ching

There are several major characters in The Man in the High Castle, involved in separate plot lines that ultimately converge at the end.  Abendsen himself doesn’t appear until the final pages.

One Jewish character nearly gets sent off to an extermination camp in Germany.  A white antiques dealer has a convoluted — and, for the reader, funny — conversation about new American art with a Japanese client, both men misunderstanding each other’s signals across cultural lines.  A German agent has his throat slashed by a woman masquerading as his wife.

Other characters are government officials trying to cope with the death of Martin Boorman who has run the German government since Adolf Hitler’s incapacitation with syphilis. Quickly, Joseph Goebbels takes over as the new Chancellor of Nazi Germany, and the scene is set for a collision of factions within the Reich amid the threat of a nuclear attack.

And, at every turn, the characters who are Japanese or have lived under the Japanese are determining what to do based on interpreting messages in the I Ching, a Chinese book of divination. In fact, Abendsen acknowledges at the novel’s end that he used the I Ching in writing The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.

And the kicker is:  So did Dick in writing The Man in the High Castle.  That’s what he told an interviewer in 1974.

Embarcadero Freeway

To sum up, Dick writes a book about an alternative history, an alternative world.  In that book, he includes a book about an alternative history, an alternative world.

For readers in our real world, The Man in the High Castle is a piquant blend of inventiveness. But, as I said at the beginning of this review, Dick has something to say about our real world.

The hint comes after Nobusuke Tagomi, a high-ranking trade official, has meditated on a gnomic piece of American art jewelry while sitting on a park bench.  He wanders down Kearny Street and is irritated that he can’t find any of the usually ubiquitous pedecabs.  Instead, just trucks and cars.

God, what is that?  He stopped, gaped at hideous mishappen thing on skyline.  Like nightmare of roller coaster suspended, blotting out view.  Enormous construction of metal and cement in air.

Mr. Tagomi turned to a passer-by, a thin man in rumpled suit.  “What is that?” he demanded, pointing. 

The man grinned.  “Awful ain’t it?  That’s the Embarcadero Freeway.  A lot of people think it stinks up the view.”

“I never saw it before,” Mr. Tagomi said.

“You’re lucky,” the man said, and went on.

Mad dream, Mr. Tagomi thought.  Must wake up.

To my mind, the Embarcadero Freeway is the key to unlocking the fullness of The Man in the High Castle.

But maybe you have an alternative view.

Patrick T. Reardon

1.10.22

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