‘The Man in the High Castle’ is a work of alternate history, yet manages to avoid the common tropes of far-fetched fantasy to produce a text that is as believable as it is immersive, with characters and settings proving to be disconcertingly realistic. The world Dick creates is one steeped in oppression; Roosevelt was assassinated in 1934, thus prolonging the Great Depression into the beginning of the second World War and weakening the position of the USA. Hitler conquered Europe and Russia, murdering vast swathes of ethnic groups as he went, before assisting the Italian invasion of Africa. The allies surrendered as the Axis prospered, and by the ‘60s, America was split by the two world superpowers, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.
Japan creates the “Pacific States” using the former territories of the Western States, and leaves the East for German rule; the Rocky Mountain States are neutral separation zone. It’s a world of death and totalitarianism that drudges up the worst that history has to offer; Chinese people are reduced to second class citizens, and blacks are once again enslaved. However, instead of bowing down to expectations of a hero bent on returning democracy, and acting as a savior of the people, Dick’s use of the ordinary citizen thrusts the reader into the severity of the horrors, and enables you to swiftly align your life with those trapped within the page.
There’s Robert Childan, the owner of an antiques store that feeds Japan’s insatiable fetish for all things American. He simultaneously reveres and despises the Imperial rulers he must serve, and is at an end with this inner turmoil that plagues him throughout. Frank Fink, formerly Frink, is a metal worker for a factory producing, amongst other things, high quality fake antiques that Childan unknowingly stocks in his store; the change of name is due to his attempts to hide a Jewish heritage, and a quest for survival against those perpetually hunting for his head. His ex-wife, Juliana meets a truck driver in the Rocky Mountain neutral zone, yet their relationship is riddled with murderous secrecy and taught with regret. These are people, normal people, living in an abnormal universe. That’s why it’s so easy to believe.
It seems they have as many questions as we, the readers, do; life continues in a regular fashion, yet the idea that their existence could be turned to another whispered rumour in an instant seems to loom gloomily over their heads, and the mystery of German/Japanese war crimes is discussed so briefly it hurts; Africa, for example, is said to have been completely obliterated in a Nazi experiment, yet no other details are provided at all. It’s an eerie, chilling sensation when you realise you want to know why, as if that would somehow make the whole thing more acceptable.
This is a book that somehow balances a cobweb of plots into a cohesive work of sci-fi genius; Dick creates a spy thriller (where Banes, a German spy, travels undercover to reveal Nazi plans to the Japanese), that is riddled with a plot regarding an arts and crafts business (where Frank Fink and his friend create a jewellery company), whilst ensuring nearly every character turns out to be far from what they seem (such as Juliana’s ‘trucker’ boyfriend, who is actually a Nazi assassin), and nearly every item turns out to be fake (such as Childan’s stock of replica antiques). To top it all off, the lines between history and fiction are blurred once more as Dick writes in a book within a book, entitled “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy”, which is written by a controversial and widely banned author, and proposes that the Allies really did win the War! This soup of mind boggling ambiguity seeps into every corner of every page, and ensures that there is no solid conclusion to anything, but that, for some reason, is what makes the book so wonderful. It’s confusing to the point of satisfaction, which, I admit, is an incredible feat.
Frederick A. Kreuziger, in his work “The Religion of Science Fiction”, said of the two realities that Dick presents: “Neither of the two worlds, however, the revised version of the outcome of WWII nor the fictional account of our present world, is anywhere near similar to the world we are familiar with. But they could be! This is what the book is about. The book argues that this world, described twice, although differently each time, is exactly the world we know and are familiar with. Indeed, it is the only world we know: the world of chance, luck, fate.”
I, for one, don’t think that this book winning a Hugo Award has anything to do with luck, but stands as testament to the intricacies of Dick’s genius, and the complexity of his tale; ‘The Man in the High Castle’ is a book I believe everyone, especially those that want to write themselves, should read. I’ve got a copy of “A Scanner Darkly” on my desk, which is another well known work of Dick’s, and I can’t wait to test the waters; I hope John Brunner’s assertion that he is “the most consistently brilliant SF writer in the world” is as true as I need it to be.
Fred Ostrovskis – 21/9/17.