It is the 1960’s and North America is still recovering from the Second World War. The Easter and Western Coast States are ruled over by the regimes of the victorious Axis Powers, the Reich to the East and the Japanese Empire to the West with a central band of supposedly independent States down the middle.
When sci-fi is at its best it does not tell us stories that are really about the future, or technology, or even outside alien influence. Sci-fi is at its best when it reflects us, as we are now, and shows what could be, what might have been, and what must never be. Philip K. Dick achieves this in The Man in the High Castle with great success. I nearly said he does it effortlessly, but the author’s acknowledgements are full of textbooks and scholarly papers about the Axis regimes as they were, so clearly there was a lot of effort put into getting an extrapolated alternative history to be plausible and believable. I dimly recall reading somewhere, also, that Dick had considered writing a sequel to this novel but could never face having to go back into that world and having to face the darkness that it required.
With that in mind, it is perhaps telling that the main narrative threads in the novel occur in the Western “Pacific States of America”, ruled by the Japanese Empire, portrayed as more civilised and benevolent, than their Reich counterparts, and in the Central “Rocky States” which are ostensibly independent of either power, though it is mentioned that their government is a puppet to the Reich’s power.
In the Post-War years, once the globe was carved up by the Axis powers, the Empire seems to have forsaken expansionism, content to rule over what it possesses and return to Buddhist ways. The entire society seems to be governed as much by the I-Ching Oracle as by any force of bureaucratic government. PSA society is completely in thrall to the Oracle’s revelations as well as to the ideals of keeping Place and saving face. One of the American characters we follow, a purveyor of Americana, antiques of the bygone American Golden Age and early American History, chafes against these societal structures, but even as he does so even in his own mind, the phraseology, the syntax of his own internal thoughts are entirely in keeping with the codes of the society he is convinced he hates. Even as he chafes against it, he is obsessed with it.
Meanwhile, the Reich have continued to expand and enforce the Final Solution on non-Arian races. Africa, we are told is a wasteland with all its people wiped from the Earth, whether through nuclear bombardment or through camps it is not clear. In addition, the Mediterranean Sea has been drained to create farmland, rocket technology makes inter-continental travel fast and efficient, and Mars and Venus are being colonised in the name of the Reich.
In amongst all this Juliana Frink, estranged wife of Frank, a Jew in hiding in the PSA, finds herself on a quest to find the Man in the High Castle, the author of a novel featuring an alternative history where it was the Allies, not the Axis Powers who won the war. The reality reflected in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy (the title of the novel within the novel) is a great example of the genius of Philip K. Dick’s imagination. While the victors of the War are the ones we know in our history, the way that victory is achieved, and the fallout from it, is not the same. In The Grasshopper Lies Heavy the Allies carve up the world between themselves in much the same way the Axis powers have done in the the world of this novel, and eventually their thirst for power and overreaching bring them into conflict with each other, destroying each other, themselves and everyone else along with them – an event which looks like it could easily be on the cards for the reality of The Man in the High Castle.
By creating a third reality in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, one that is neither our reality nor Juliana’s, Dick makes his point much more forcefully than he could have done by simply reflecting our reality back at us from The Grasshopper‘s fictional pages. His point, it seems to me, is that no matter its primary source, unchecked power is doomed to consume not only everything in its path but eventually itself as well as well as that history is not a fixed line. What happened is not necessarily the only thing that could have happened, and what is to come has no fixed path. The Man in the High Castle is, to me a quiet call to arms, a modest manifesto, a diminutive cry in the dark calling each and every one of us to resist being swept up in the sanctity of History, what he calls in the novel Historicity, and to avoid being swept away by the course of events. It seems to me that Dick is telling us here to learn from what has gone before, apply it to the present, and shape a future that does not give unchecked power the space to grow un-fettered and destroy everything the human race has achieved and could achieve. But perhaps I am just being an English Literature Graduate all over it.
A quick word on the TV adaptation of The Man in the High Castle. I have seen a few episodes of the first Season and from what I can tell, and contrary to my usual philosophy, I do not believe that it is necessary to have read the book before seeing the adaptation. It seems to me that although the basic premise and some of the characters are used in the TV show, the details of the story and the overall tone are quite different. To be honest, they would have to be, the novel is very cerebral, by which I mean it takes place mostly within the internal monologues of the central characters with little to no interference from any external narrator. It is a style which is very enjoyable to read but almost impossible to do any justice to on screen, so of course, some fairly major changes had to be made, particularly with a view to making multiple seasons out of a 300-page book. The TV show looks good though and I will definitely be giving it a second look in the near future, and for anyone interested in the work that spawned it, I do not think you will regret spending some time with this excellent novel.