Like most people, I primarily know Philip K Dick’s work through the numerous film adaptations of his stories. It’s only relatively recently that I’ve started going through his actual books, and it’s been slightly surprising to see how varied they are. In addition to the high-concept science-fiction he’s most famous for, he wrote some very realistic, character-driven pieces that explore social issues in (his) modern times. It’s been especially interesting to me since he set many of these in the Bay Area, his home and mine.
The Man in the High Castle feels like a bit of a bridge between Dick’s earlier local works and his later far-flung ambitions. It resembles science fiction, but isn’t set in the future: instead, it takes place in an alternate-history version of Earth in which the Axis powers won World War II. Much of the action occurs in San Francisco, part of the Pacific States of America, a puppet state controlled by Tokyo. In parallel to the real world, where Europe was partitioned between the western capitalists and the eastern communists, in this Earth America was split into five countries of vastly diminished power. In addition to the PSA, the South and the Northeast are run by American branches of the Nazi party; the Rocky Mountain States and Midwestern States are effectively independent, but only because they don’t threaten the new world order.
This sounds like the setup for a big, ambitious story, but I was a bit surprised by how low-key and low-stakes most of the book was. A large part of it deals with small-time craftsmen and retailers, who comprise a market for authentic American memorabilia. Members of the Japanese overclass have a great appreciation for relics from American history: old pistols, frontier tools, and so on. Their interactions give us a good ground-level view at the way people in this society relate to one another, and put a human face on the sufferings in this world, which threaten to grow even more severe.
The Japanese as a whole are actually portrayed very positively in this book. They are foreign conquerors, but seem to rule fairly, providing justice and sharing in the economic gains of the East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The individual Japanese we “meet” are some of the most likeable characters in the book. Mr. Tagomi is a loyal administrator with a conscience, smart enough to discern the larger global implications of actions but humble enough to stay focused on his narrow set of responsibilities. Paul and his wife are particularly appealing: young, liberal Japanese professionals, they reject the racist attitudes held towards the American people and seek out the best points of its culture, notably New Orleans jazz.
In contrast, many of the Americans come off quite poorly. Mr. Childan, the owner of a small antiques store, seems sympathetic at first, but as the story continues it grows harder and harder to stomach his self-hatred. He has internalized many of the judgments made against Americans; towards the Japanese, he harbors an obsequious, fawning attitude that eventually curdles into contempt. He’s easily manipulated, eager to please, unprincipled.
While the Japanese are treated rather positively, the Nazis are absolutely not. The book actually goes into a fair amount of detail about the various factions and personalities leading Germany during this alternate 1962, including famous figures like Goebbels and Goring as well as some I was unfamiliar with like Baldur von Schirach. We don’t spend any time in Nazi-controlled territory, but what we hear is absolutely terrifying and horrifying. Their program of Jewish murder now has worldwide reach, with eager participation from local officials in most areas: any Jewish person can legally be extradited to Nazi-controlled lands for “punishment.” At the conclusion of the war, their experiments in eugenics and other programs led to a total genocide in Africa. And, worst of all, their power is ascendant. They built on the success of the V1 and V2 rockets, and have now started exploring and colonizing the Solar System, with blue-eyed blond-haired conscienceless Aryan supermen creating new societies that are “pure” from the start. They have also built hydrogen bombs, and hold total military superiority even over their former military allies.
A short way into The Man in the High Castle, we encounter The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a popular novel that, while officially banned by the Nazi Party, has grown very popular and is spreading around the world. We eventually learn that it depicts an alternate history, one in which the Allies won World War II. It is the mirror image of the book we are reading.
At first, I assumed that it was describing our own world. As we learn more about it, we realize that there are subtle differences. In The Man in the High Castle, FDR was assassinated by Giuseppe Zangara. In The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, FDR survived, but stepped down after two terms. During that time, he helped bring America out of the Great Depression and prepared the nation for war. President Rexford Tugwell succeeded Roosevelt, and joined the war alongside Churchill (who, again, was missing in action in The Man in the High Castle). Italy betrays the Axis and joins the Allies in invading through the south of Europe; this, rather than D-Day, seems to be the decisive turning point in the war.
This does add an extra layer of uncertainty about Mr. Tagomi’s experience in Portsmouth Square. After an extended time meditating on Frank’s bauble, he enters another universe: one in which the Allies won, whites run San Francisco, and the Embarcadero Freeway is a soaring eyesore. So… has he entered our world? Or the world of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy? Or some other alternate world? I don’t think we get enough evidence to know for certain, but the malleability itself is what’s interesting.
What, exactly, happened with Tagomi? Did he merely hallucinate this alternate world? It’s possible, but within the context of the book, it doesn’t seem likely; he’s confused by things like the Embarcadero Freeway that have significance to use as readers but mean nothing to him. If he did enter another world, then how did he do it? The two possibilities that occur to me are through meditation or through art. He’s deep in contemplation immediately prior to this shift, so some mystical process may have brought him there. That meditation, though, was started by and centered upon Frank’s craftwork. I think it’s interesting that Tagomi’s thoughts focus on the pin’s Wu, its formlessness: metal that previously held meaning has been melted down and reformed into a new shape, divorced from any previous significance. It seems like the malleability of the artwork may connect somehow with the malleability of existence, allowing Tagomi to slip into another universe. Significantly, he can only return home after he has regained the pin: its formlessness may be a kind of wormhole that lets him travel back home.
Soooooo, what does this all mean? It ties in a bit with the meeting with Abendsen at the end, but is never explicitly explained within the book: nobody else gets to undergo a similar kind of travel. While I’m not sure of Dick’s original intention, it does seem to apply to one of my favorite hobby-horses: the idea that art (particularly fiction) can create new worlds, and those worlds can in turn influence our own. Stories like 1984 have immense power that shapes our collective imagination and cause us to make different choices, shaping our future in reality to respond to the ideas from fiction.
After Juliana finishes reading The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, she makes a remarkable discovery: the book is about “our” (i.e., her) world. It is not a work of fiction: it describes reality. She and Abendsen seem to understand this, but we’re left to catch up. One possibility is that the book is a metaphor for the present political situation, using coded language to critique the status quo. That’s certainly a thing that fiction can do very well. Another possibility, which the I Ching seems to confirm, is that the world depicted in Grasshopper is the real world. Juliana and Abendsen and Frank and Tagomi and everyone else have been living their lives in a dream world, a false world, a fictional world. The evils in that world, which have caused so much suffering, are not even real: and so they have suffered for nothing.
As you can tell, the novel gets very meta towards the end. I was reminded of some of Dick’s philosophical and religious ideas from later in his life, which I was first heard about in the excellent movie Waking Life. Basically, Dick began to think that we are all living in the first century AD, shortly after Christ’s ascension into heaven. We are all suffering from a collective delusion that 2000 years have passed, making the events of the Bible seem ancient and remote, when they are actually immediate and vital. Occasionally the illusion falters, though, and we can see signs that the real world is not what we think it is.
The Man in the High Castle obviously predates all that, but the book also seems to anticipate it, at least the kernel of the idea. Within the book, a few of the characters eventually realize that the world they are living in is not the true world. And we know that there is at least one other world (that of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy) which is not our world. An implicit question flows from this: how, then, can we know that *our* world is the true world? Might we be characters in some other novel? May our reality be contingent on some other, higher mode of existence?
And then, of course, I realize that I’m back to talking about The Wick from Anathem. I swear, this must be my favorite literary creation ever, I seem to flash back to it for practically every other book I read.
So, yeah! Really cool book. Interesting structure, and it would probably be disappointing for folks who are hoping to explore the world Dick created, but it’s tremendously evocative and gets into some super-interesting territory near the end. It’s definitely been one of the most enjoyable Dick novels I’ve read so far, and makes me more interested in checking our more books from his middle period.