Imagine a world where the Axis won the Second World War. Imagine America divided up between the Nazi occupied Eastern states and the Japanese ruled Western states, and a central buffer zone between the two. If that interests you, then The Man in the High Castle is worth checking out.
Philip K. Dick won a Hugo award for The Man in the High Castle, published in 1962, and while a little more grounded than his usual science-fiction works (there is nothing as out there as precognition or androids), it is considered a career highpoint. Themes include fate and free will, power, politics and prejudice, the value of cultures and authenticity.
On the history and following aftermath of the war, Dick reveals exposition through offhand comments, brief thoughts and throwaway statements. There isn’t necessarily an info-dump to tell us exactly what life is like under the Reich rule, but enough to inform the reader that it’s a truly evil place. It is never explicitly stated what the Nazi’s did in Africa, but what is implied is horrifying.
And then, he thought about Africa, and the Nazi experiment there. And his own blood stopped in his veins, hesitated, at last went on.
Dick does make clear, however, that compared to the fascist Nazi rule, the Japanese governing is relatively benign in comparison. Even Frank Frink, a Jew at the constant risk of extradition by the Nazis, would not be prepared to escape to the South US, for it seems they have a whole load of other issues down there.
What about the South? His body recoiled. Ugh. Not that. As a white man he would have plenty of place, in fact more than he had here in the Pacific States of America. But . . . he did not want that kind of place.
There are a number of plots which integrate with each other, bringing various characters together to interact and indirectly help each other. But the general focus is on the ‘little guy’, everyday characters who are struggling to cope in their varying positions in life, within this new totalitarian fascist society.
Robert Childan is an American antique dealer, seemingly conflicted in this new society. At times he seems to praise the Japanese, at others he comes across unashamedly racist. He admires the Reich rule of technological advances and getting things done (genocide!), and shows general disdain for the Japanese.
And anyhow, the flights to Mars had distracted world attention from the difficulty in Africa. So it all came back to what he had told his fellow store owners; what the Nazis have which we lack is—nobility. Admire them for their love of work or their efficiency… but it’s the dream that stirs one. Space flights first to the moon, then to Mars; if that isn’t the oldest yearning of mankind, our finest hope for glory. Now, the Japanese on the other hand. I know them pretty well; I do business with them, after all, day in and day out. They are—let’s face it—Orientals. Yellow people. We whites have to bow to them because they hold the power. But we watch Germany; we see what can be done where whites have conquered, and it’s quite different.
What’s more, he seemingly laps up the anti-semitic propaganda the Nazi’s put forward, presumably about their exaggerated facial features and their reputation as despicable, almost supernatural levels of deceit.
I don’t know why I didn’t recognize the racial characteristics when I saw him. Evidently I’m easily deceived.
He decided, I’m simply not capable of deceit and that renders me helpless. Without law, I’d be at their mercy. He could have convinced me of anything. It’s a form of hypnosis. They can control an entire society.
Yet when he is invited to a business clients house, a young Japanese couple Paul and Betty, he is conflicted. He appears in awe of them. His speech patterns have even started to mimic his Japanese rulers. There is an awkward conversation where inevitably politics does end up in conversation, despite Childan’s attempt to keep it away, at the dinner table. Betty, not wanting to cause a scene, does not berate Childan’s racism, but calmly expresses her beliefs.
Betty said in a low voice, “Personally, I do not believe any hysterical talk of ‘world inundation’ by any people, Slavic or Chinese or Japanese.” She regarded Robert placidly. She was in complete control of herself, not carried away; but she intended to express her feeling. A spot of color, deep red, had appeared in each of her cheeks.
Nobusuke Tagomi is a Japanese businessman working in the Pacific States of America (P.S.A) and to the reader he may be the most relatable and likeable character in the book. It is through his chapters we witness a politics of a secret meeting between the Abwehr (the German military intelligence, represented by Agent Baynes) and the Japanese Imperial Army. Upon listening to potential replacements to the recently deceased Herr Bohrmann as leader of the Reich, his reaction is how we might all feel in such a situation;
Mr Tagomi felt ill as he listened . . . thought, I think I am going mad . . . I have to get out of here; I am having an attack.
There is evil! It’s actual, like cement.
In his own small way, towards the end of the book he makes a stand against the Nazi’s, an act which ends up freeing Frank Frink. Frank, after the war, had planned to join a resistance to violently expel the successful axis forces from America. But as the years passed, he learnt to accept the P.S.A and Japanese rule. However, he cannot live without fear. He is a Jew, and his narratives often remind the reader of the atrocities of the Nazi regime.
It horrified him, this thought: the ancient gigantic cannibal near-man flourishing now, ruling the world once more. We spent a million years escaping him, Frink thought, and now he’s back. And not merely as the adversary … but as the master.
His unexplained incarceration, his inevitable containment and death in the concentration camps back in Germany, only to be unbelievably and inexplicably released.
I’m an American,” Frank Frink said.
“You’re a Jew,” the cop said.
Frank is a passive character throughout the book, and this sums it up. He accepts his release without question. He goes on. Like many of the characters in the book, they can have no idea what is happening around them, and what will happen in the future. They just go on.
I want to comprehend. I have to. But he knew he never would.
Just be glad, he thought. And keep moving.
Julianna Frink is Frank’s ex-wife, and is a seemingly unstable, drifting, attractive individual. She begins dating a young Italian named Joe Cinnadella, who is actually a Nazi assassin sent to assassinate the writer of the book-within-a-book The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a book that describes what would have happened if the British Empire and the USA had beaten the Axis in the Second World War. It is banned across most of the world apart from the P.S.A, yet most characters have at least heard of it and read some of it. Julianna becomes obsessed with it. She is an incredibly hard character to pin down, in fact I found her a little annoying and damaged through most of the book. However, she experiences a moment of enlightenment at the end of the book which identifies her as probably the strongest character in the book.
As is present in much of Dick’s work, there is also the idea of another version of reality. What is real and what is not. In Ubik, we struggle to make sense of who is dead in half-life and who is alive. In Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, the confusion of who is human and who is android, and of course the bizarre visions that come with the religion Mercerism. The revelations at the end of The Man In The High Castle were difficult for me to comprehend. Julia’s confrontation with The Grasshopper Lies Heavy writer Hawthorne Abensden and his wife Caroline at the ‘High Castle’ leads to the revelation that Abensden used the I Ching to transcribe its answers into the book in its entirety. When Juliana asks the Oracle why it wrote The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, The Oracle responds with the Chung Fu hexagram, meaning “Inner Truth”. Initially, I thought it meant that the Allies had won as their cultures and jewellry (Robert Childan’s American Artistic Handcrafts, Inc., Edfrank Jewellery, and the Wyndam-Matson Corporation) were still relevant and had survived the war where the people had been oppressed into this totalitarian regime. But, I think the I Ching’s message goes deeper. Perhaps this is just another world, another version of reality, and somewhere else, there is a better world. Or the characters are realising that their world is not ‘real’, and the world these characters is fake, or fictional. There is another, or other, real world(s) – perhaps ours – where the Allies won. A better place perhaps. There is no set in stone answer to what it means.
The uncertainty and open endedness of the book is perfect. As the reader we are unsure what comes next for most of these characters. As has always been. Agent Baynes, who has completed his mission, contemplates how much of a difference his actions have made, or will make. He may have made the world a better place, but that is not in his hands.
He thought, But there is no reason to be optimistic. Probably the Japanese can do nothing to change the course of German internal politics. The Goebbels Government is in power, and probably will stand. After it is consolidated, it will turn once more to the notion of Dandelion. And another major section of the planet will be destroyed, with its population, for a deranged, fanatic ideal.
Nevertheless, Mr. Baynes thought, the crucial point lies not in the present, not in either my death or the death of the two SD men; it lies—hypothetically—in the future. What has happened here is justified, or not justified, by what happens later. Can we perhaps save the lives of millions, all Japan in fact?
I wonder what I accomplished, he thought as he watched the land mass grow. It is up to General Tedeki, now. Whatever he can do in the Home Islands. But at least we got the information to them. We did what we could.
The Man in the High Castle is an intriguing piece of alternate history (albeit a disturbing one), with plenty of smoke and mirrors. Approach with an open mind and enjoy a fantastic science-fiction novel. The paranoia and uncertainty these characters deal with as they struggle to cope with against forces far higher than they.
A weird time in which we are alive. We can travel anywhere we want, even to other planets. And for what? To sit day after day, declining in morale and hope.