With a recent TV adaptation, Philip K. Dick’s classic novel The Man in the High Castle has returned to the spotlight.
Set and originally published in the early ’60s, The Man in the High Castle unfolded in a world where the Axis powers won World War II. The United States was divided in three. Imperial Japan ruled the west coast (the Pacific States of America), Nazi Germany controlled most of the east (the United States) and in between was a more or less independent buffer zone (the Rocky Mountain States). In the PSA, cultured Japanese settlers and striving Americans mixed formally and often uneasily, though all were obsessed with the I Ching, the ancient Chinese oracle text. Slavery had been re-instated and Jews were subject to arrest and deportation to Germany, where execution was inevitable. Conflict between the former Axis allies seemed inevitable, as many individuals in San Francisco and a fractious couple in a small Colorado town were drawn inexorably into a web of intrigue. The notion of the Allies winning World War II was merely the subject of a controversial book, whose author was the target of both admiration and anger.
For fans of contemporary speculative fiction, used to complex plots and fast pacing, The Man in the High Castle will come as something of a surprise. The award-winning novel is rather light on plot and proceeds in a decidedly leisurely manner. Dick engaged in some complex world building that was deployed not for an action saga, but for a philosophical character study. It’s not really a page turner. And yet, on its own terms, it’s often quite fascinating.
Dick did a strong job building up his cast of emotionally adrift characters. They were often stubborn, difficult and not especially likeable, but recognizable and very human. He choreographed their often tentative and highly fraught interactions in precise, unhurried ways, digging into what made each tick in this alternate world. The very concept of an alternate world is fairly common now, but at the time was a newer idea in fiction. Weaving a world based so closely on how then-recent history could have gone was an incendiary topic. Dick didn’t shy away from the casual, almost instinctive, racism that would have permeated such a world. It can be uncomfortable for modern readers, but it’s one of the most compelling aspects of the story.
Even when Dick did deploy some more action-intensive beats, he used them more to propel deeper character moments. The I Ching permeates The Man in the High Castle. Questions of fate, choice and reality are woven into every story strand. It’s not excitement-driven storytelling, but it can be quite thought provoking.
In the end, The Man in the High Castle is one of those books that’s worth reading, even if it’s hard to love. Readers are recommended not to go into it expecting a modern action adventure. How you feel about it will depend on your tolerance for deploying speculative fiction as a philosophical exercise. Results will vary.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on March 29, 2016.