The Man in the High Castle – Philip K Dick: A Review

Date finished: January 17th 2016

The far-reaching influence of the mid-20th century science fiction authors is hard to deny. Isaac Asimov’s work laid some of the groundwork for real life robotics and artificial intelligence; Arthur C Clarke predicted GPS and telecommunication satellites as well as a globalisation of television and phone communication; Robert Heinlein, along with Clarke, was important in making space travel seem an achievable feat, but mostly he delved into social science fiction – exploring liberty and culture through a scientific lense.

This trio comprised the ‘Big Three’ of Science Fiction. A lot of their work inspired science rather than vice versa. Philip K Dick is right to be left out of this group because his science fiction had a tendency to inspire other art. Indeed, of all the science fiction authors of this era, Dick arguably had the greatest influence on the genre itself. This is evident in the amount of his work adapted for screen: Bladerunner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Scanners, A Scanner Darkly, The Adjustment Bureau are just some examples. Similarly, many important movies in the genre (The Matrix, Fight Club, The Truman Show, Inception, Memento, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, etc) draw on themes first explored in Dick’s work.

The rather beautiful Folio edition of The Man in the High Castle that I received for Christmas

However, The Man in the High Castle is one of Dick’s more unusual work in that it is less a science fiction novel and more a speculative fiction novel. Now immortalised on screen as an Amazon series, the novel’s concept is an alternative history in which the Axis powers were the victors of World War II. The East Coast of the US and all of Europe and Asia is under Nazi control, the mediterranean has been drained for farmland, the Holocaust has been a success and the tide of genocide has spilled into Africa. However, our plot takes mostly in San Francisco which is under the control of the Japanese. From here we are privy to the lives of several characters from several different backgrounds – from Japanese businessmen to white factory workers to the Germans at the local Reichsconsul. In this way, Dick builds up a multi-faceted view of this new world through the political views of his characters and their place in society. Place is an important concept in this world, with Aryan’s at the top of the hierarchy, followed by the Japanese, then the whites and from hereon hispanic, black and other cultures, with Jews firmly at the bottom, and Dick explores this racial spectrum with nuance.

Several different sub-plots make up the drama of The Man in the High Castle but these plots interweave in places and are all linked by the death of the Reichschancellor – Martin Bormann, through use of the Chinese divination text the I Ching, and the spread of a popular banned novel – and this is where Dick gets a bit meta – about an alternate reality in which the Allies won WWII.

This isn’t a gripping, unputdownable thriller and it’ll be curious to see how the Amazon series adapts the novel. What this is is Dick philosophising and exploring both our own world and this fictional history through his characters who become conduits for multiple perspectives. Some of these character arcs are less interesting than others and a couple seem to end with little resolution, but all are, at some point, utilised effectively, and, ultimately, nothing feels wasted.

In traditional Dick style, ambiguity and uncertainty abound, and ultimately the reader is left with more questions than answers. If anything this wealth of questions is more testament to Dick’s ability as an author than any amount of answers ever could be. The Man in the High Castle wants to shake you to the very core and it will more than likely succeed.

8/10

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