Tuesday, April 17, 2012

1963: The Main in the High Castle

Philip K. Dick is a major figure in science fiction with such works as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (made in to the film Blade Runner), Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, and A Scanner Darkly (made into a film by the same name). He even has his own science fiction awardhttp://www.philipkdick.com/links_pkdaward.html.
                Yet until I read the 1963 Hugo Winner The Man in the High Castle, I had never read a Dick novel. I had read a handful of his short stories such as “Minority Report” and “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale”. Both were very good and quite different from their movie versions. “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale” is a little unwieldy as a movie title; you might know it better as Total Recall.
Though his short stories were good I was a little apprehensive about reading Dick’s novels. They are known to be complex, strange, and metaphysical. Not that I don’t like complex and strange (one of my majors in college was Russian literature) but they can be hit or miss for me. While I loved Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, I hated Franz Kafka’s The Triall. So with an open mind I read A Man in the High Castle and found a good novel, not one of my favorite Hugo Winners, but still very good. 
The Man in High Castle is an alternative history novel where the Axis powers win World War II. Nazi Germany controls all of Europe, the western half of Russia, most of Africa and the Middle East. The Japan controls all the land surrounding the Pacific as well as India and Australia. Italy exists as a smaller empire with most of the Mediterranean. The United States has been broken into three pieces with the Pacific Coast as a Japanese puppet state and the East Coast as a German puppet state. The Rockies act as a neutral buffer state between the two. All this is merely backdrop since a majority of the novel takes place in San Francisco with one character’s section in Colorado.         
The novel may have not a large variety of location but it does have a large cast. There is no main character. Instead the story is told from 5 perspectives. “The story” isn’t completely accurate; rather it is 5 stories that occasionally intersect. Robert Childan owns an antique shop that sells pre-war American items to Japanese customers. In this world, pre-war American crafts are a popular fad among the Japanese. Frank Fink, now going by Frank Frink, is war vet, metal worker, and Jew in hiding. His ex-wife, Juliana, is a judo instructor in Colorado. Nobusuke Tagomi is the Japanese trade commissioner who is waiting to meet with the final main character, Mr. Baynes, a Swedish businessman. This sounds more confusing then it is. The problem is that getting into the stories of any of these characters would ruin the total.
There are two common threads that tie the characters together: the fictious novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by Hawthorne Abendsen (the titular Man in the High Castle) and I Ching, a Chinese book used to tell the future. Nearly everyone in the novel is reading The Grasshopper Lies Heavy and Frank, Juliana, and Tagomi used to I Ching to guide their lives. Reading about characters breaking out the I Ching to make every decision was strange but added to the slight otherworld feel the novel gives. The world of the novel feels both familiar and alien at the same time. The San Francisco of the novel feels like the real San Francisco but is populated by peddled cabs and people smoking marijuana cigarettes. The cigarettes feel like wishful thinking on Dick’s part since what I have read of him suggests that he was involved in the drug culture of the 1960s.
For the sake of clarity for now on I will call The Man in the High Castle the novel and The Grasshopper Lies Heavy as the book. The book is a fictional account of a future where the Allies defeated the Axis powers. But the way it happens in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is different than how the Allies won in the real world adds another layer of strangeness to the novel.
I have only two big problems with this novel. One is that there is not a great deal of resolution at the end and (minor spoiler alert) the meeting with The Man in the High Castle is a major letdown. The plot threads never really go anywhere. The characters are interesting but it feels a bit too… modern without an ending. I like a bit more resolved at the end, for good or ill.
My second problem is what I have termed “I call no way” moments. These are moments that just don’t make any sense. I’m ignoring the most obvious one here: there is no way that the Germans and Japanese could have conquered the world. Even together neither had the men or logistics for the sort of undertaking. But this alternative history so I won’t go too hard on Philip K. Dick for that. There are other moments though that had me shaking my head. It is only mentioned a few times but in the novel the Germans drain the Mediterranean Sea and turn it into farmland. They DRAINED the Mediterranean. Even given the accelerated technology featured in the novel this was just too much for me. Even if they could pull off an engineering feat of that magnitude why would they do that? It’s just stupid. Another “I call no way” moments is that the Japanese are treated as the “good guys” of the Axis powers and the Germans as the “bad guys.” Dick seems to labor under the belief that the Japanese were less vicious than the Germans in WWII but that’s just not true. The Japanese committed many atrocities during the war and I have a hard time believing that they have changed and the Germans have not. Perhaps Japanese war crimes were not as well known to Philip K. Dick. I don’t know. It just sort of bothered me.
I would still recommend The Main in the High Castle looking for an interesting alternative history. There are enough sci-fi moments to qualify it for the Hugo and it was just a good read. I will have to check out more Philip K. Dick in the future.

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