Friday 14 August 2009

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick (1928-82) was not one of the widely famous, best-selling SF authors like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke or Frank Herbert. Despite this, he earned a high reputation as an innovative and thoughtful writer, with a probably unmatched record for the genre in having nine of his stories being used as the basis for Hollywood films, most notably for Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly and Minority Report.

I have to admit that although I read many of his stories in the 1960s (along with all the other SF I could get my hands on), I was not a particular Dick fan, and the only one I still have is The Man in the High Castle, which won the Hugo award for best SF novel in 1963. I read it so long ago that I could not recall what it was about, so I was pleased when it was selected as the monthly read for the Classic Science Fiction discussion group.

The setting is a contemporary 1960s America – but one in which the Axis powers won World War 2. Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany subsequently divided up the world between them, including the USA of which the western zone fell into the Japanese sphere and the eastern to Germany. There isn't much explanation of how this came about, just a few odd comments such as the defeat of the RAF by the Luftwaffe which took the UK out of the war, thereby denying the USA any possibility of involvement in the European theatre. This isn't a military alternative WW2 (like my own novel The Foresight War, for instance), the focus is instead on the lives of a disparate group of loosely connected people (Americans, Japanese and Germans) living in both zones of America. There are some nice details about the implications of such a change in history: long-distance travel is by rocket-powered exo-atmospheric planes and manned trips are launched to Mars, but TV is still in its infancy and only available in Germany.

Dick is particularly good at portraying what it would be like for Americans living in the Japanese sphere, especially the anxiety to understand and conform to the Japanese mentality and thereby avoid giving offence, on the part of those who wish to be successful in business. Even the thoughts of the Americans doing business with the Japanese are represented in a clipped Japanese fashion. The author's treatment of the Japanese overlords is surprisingly sympathetic, even rather admiring, in stark contrast to his portrayal of the Nazis.

Two central motifs of the story are the extensive use of divination using the I Ching (I remember that one from my student days in the 1960s!) and the controversial popularity of an alternative history novel ('The Grasshopper Lies Heavy') which portrays a world in which the Axis powers were defeated. Interestingly, this is not the world we know; Churchill remains in power for twenty years, for instance, and the UK retains a dominant world position. There is no real explanation for these differences. The meaning of this novel within a novel gradually comes to dominate the story until the enigmatic climax.

All in all, this is an unusual, intelligent, thoughtful and well-written tale which is worth reading even if you are not a fan of alternative histories.


Fred said...

What is interesting is to read several of his early books and then several of his last ones. It's hard to believe the same author wrote both. Perhaps his drug use had something to do with this.

Anthony G Williams said...

I know very little about Dick or his work - just his reputation as an innovative writer.

Was 'High Castle' an early or a late work?

Fred said...


He published his first story in 1952. _High Castle_ was published in 1963, and the last story that was published in his lifetime was in 1972. He died in 1984. I would say it's roughly about the middle of his writing life span.