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The Man in the High Castle

by Philip K. Dick


This was the 9th winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel.
It was awarded in 1963 at the 21st Worldcon, Discon I, in Washington, DC.

This review was originally published at The Nameless Zine in September 2019.



For this month's Hugo Award-winner, I'm up to 1963, when Philip K. Dick won with his alternate history novel, The Man in the High Castle, which has a fresh resurgence of fans due to its recent adaptation to television.

For some reason, I haven't read this one before, and I'm not sure why. I've been a fan of Philip K. Dick's work for decades, I have a large shelf of his work and I've read a good chunk of it. One of my favourites is Time Out of Joint which was published a couple of years before this one and which has a number of similarities in approach.

Dick dug deep to create the alternate history needed for this book, but the detail is very much background for a story rather than the raison d'ĂȘtre for the novel. Sure, the basis is the old chestnut of the Axis winning the war, but it goes much deeper than that. Japan and Germany really don't like each other and there are tensions there key to the plot. The Nazis conquered the African continent and wiped most of it out. They drained the Mediterranean. They created rocket ships for fast travel around the globe, as well as into space, because they've colonised Venus and Mars, not to forget the Moon.

And, of course, the former United States is now fragmented and occupied, as we discover first hand through the primary characters. We start out in San Francisco, now part of the Pacific States of America, run by the Japanese. We follow one character into the Mountain States, a buffer zone between the two occupying powers, the Nazis officially running the Eastern United States and practically running the South, a racist puppet regime.

All this is the grand stage, but we focus in on a few little actors who are unaware of how important their roles are. Bob Childan runs an antique shop in San Francisco, where he sells Americana artifacts to well to do Japanese. Frank Frink sets up a jewellery business to create his own work, after he's fired from a factory that produced counterfeits. His ex-wife, Juliana, has moved to Colorado, where she starts a relationship with an Italian truck driver. These are little people but they have a strong impact on the world through circumstance.

There are two factors that can't be ignored here and they play a major meta role in proceedings.

One is the I Ching, which is a real book of divination, the ancient Chinese Book of Changes. It grants insight and moral guidance to Confucians, Taoists and Buddhists and, in this book, it grants direction to a number of primary characters, who consult it when needing to make decisions. Interestingly, a further such character is the author himself, as Philip K. Dick apparently used the I Ching to make many decisions about how this novel would progress.

The other is The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by Hawthorne Abendsen, which is not a real book at all. This is Philip K. Dick, so we can't simply suggest that it's a fictional book within this fictional book; it's also a fictional alternate history novel within a fictional alternate history novel. In this book about a world in which the Axis won World War II, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is a book about a world in which they lost. It isn't our reality, but it's a lot closer to it than the rest of the novel and that's important. The primary characters all acquire copies and Juliana even ends up travelling to the High Castle of the title, Abendsen's home, to talk to him about it.

And yes, Dick used the I Ching to write a book that features Abendsen using the I Ching to write a book. This is alternate history as imagined by M. C. Escher. Of course, the fundamental point is about underlying truth. Because Abendsen used the I Ching, he wrote something close to reality, even though he was living behind a facade that rendered it fiction.

Of course, all this makes for a wildly different Hugo Award-winner to those of previous years. Philip K. Dick is as far from Robert A. Heinlein as he is from Fritz Leiber or James Blish. Also, The Man in the High Castle really couldn't be any more different than Stranger in a Strange Land, which won the same award a year prior, if Dick had tried. Heinlein was tapping into a vein of hope in which anything was possible, which led him to become an odd darling of the counterculture. Dick was tapping into a vein of paranoia that saw almost nothing be as it seems with truth hiding behind every facade.

And, while that's true for objects, like an antique Colt which turns out to be counterfeit and becomes an important plot trigger (pun not intended), it holds even more true for people. Most of the characters in play are not what they seem. This one's secretly a Jew. That one's secretly an assassin. That one over there is a defector and that one's a spy. That one's merely under a false identity to keep him safe. Friends are enemies. Enemies are friends. And reality and truth are perhaps very different creatures.

It took me a while to get into this one. It seems to be set up as an action thriller, but it rarely actually is. It's a flight of imaginative fancy and it's stayed in my brain. While I didn't enjoy it, while reading, as much as a number of other Philip K. Dick works, it continues to pop into my thoughts even a month after finishing it. I wonder if it did the same for Hugo voters in 1963. It's certainly the sort of book that would stand out on a ballot as something special, even if it didn't seem that way originally.


Stranger in a Strange Land | Here Gather the Stars

And so I'm happy I've caught up with The Man in the High Castle. September will see me revisit one of my personal favourites, Clifford D. Simak's Here Gather the Stars aka Way Station, one of the first science fiction novels I ever read.

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Last update: 17th November, 2019