Friday, March 4, 2016

Book Review: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Unless you've been living under a rock you've no doubt heard about Amazon's adaption of Philip K. Dick's seminal alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle.  It is a widely considered a classic in the alternate history community, and with good reason.  I quite enjoyed the first season of The Man in the High Castle, and I intended to review it at some point.  Before I can do that, however, I thought it would be best to review the book that the series is based upon.  That is precisely what we're going to do in today's post. 

The Man in the High Castle takes place in the year 1962 in a world in which the Axis Powers won World War II.  The United States has been devised between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  This is due to FDR getting assassinated in the 1930s and America going isolationist.  Everything east of the Rockies is under German control, everything west of the Rockies is under Japanese control and the Rockies themselves are a neutral zone between the two territories.  The book is told from the points of view of a wide variety of characters who are all average citizens going about their lives in an alternate America. 

What can you say that hasn't been said about a classic?  Well I'm going to give it my best shot anyway.  I'll start by saying that I'm going to avoid comparing the book to its adaptation; I'll save that for my review of the series. Anyway, let's get on with the review.

The writing style in this book had an almost meditative quality to it.  I suppose it's rather fitting, give that Dick intended it to be a meditation on the nature of reality.  Fun fact, Phillip K. Dick actually consulted the I Ching while writing this book, much like the character who wrote The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.  What is The Grasshopper Lies Heavy?  It's a book within a book that depicts a world in which the Axis Powers lost World War II.  However, it depicts the Cold War as being fought between the United States and British Empire, with the British coming out on top due to their ethnic purity.  Dick almost seems to be commenting on the process of creating alternate histories, and the personal biases that are often included there in, with his use of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.  

This commentary is especially interesting when you consider that the alternate history genre was in its infancy at the time.  There had been previous examples, such as Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee, but The Man in the High Castle was the first alternate history novel not to use time travel or supernatural means as its point of divergence.  Well, if you want to get technical that sort of alternate history has been around since Livy in the Roman Empire, but typically alternate history as a genre is agreed to have begun in the mid-20th century.  It also notable that he portrays his characters with all of the biases and social mores that you'd expect from such a world rather than having them be defiant and adhere to modern standards of morality.   

I liked the fact that the book was told from the perspectives of average people.  They're quite a diverse group, you get everyone from an antiques dealer in San Francisco, to a member of the Japanese occupation government, to a woman on a quest for the truth and plenty more such characters.  Some of my favorite scenes to read about in alternate history, and speculative fiction in general, are those that involve average people going about their lives.  You really get a sense of the worlds these stories are set in that way.  It what I loved so much about Paulo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl.  Both books involve characters from across the social spectrum of their worlds going about their lives, and whose individual stories eventually combine to form an overarching plot. 

And speaking of plot, let's talk about that.  There really isn't a plot per se.  Like I said, it starts off as a series of individual vignettes that eventually come together to form something of an overarching plot.  It moves at an easy pace and really gives you time to get to know these characters and the world that they live in.  Though there are some plots threads early on, such as the growing potential for a war between Germany and Japan, as well as Julianna Frink's journey to find Hawthorne Anderson, the titular Man in the High Castle.  As stated above, the novel really questions the nature of reality.  Throughout the book many characters get hints that their world might not be all that really, and one character even travels to our world briefly dude to intense mediation. There's even hints that our own world might not be the true reality.  

So yeah, you come for the fascist dystopia but you stay for the Taoism.  So how does the alternate history itself rate in terms of plausibility?  By modern standards it's pretty shaky and implausible, but you have to understand where Dick was coming from.  In 1962 a lot of the information about World War II that we take for granted was still heavily classified, so there was only so much that Dick could work with.  I think of it kind of like those old science fiction novels that depict Mars and Venus as habitable worlds, because at the time they were written that was the prevailing scientific thought.  Also, The Man in the High Castle is one of those novel, but again it was 1962.  That's also the reason the book is set in 1962, because that was the present day when Dick wrote the book.  

It is somewhat odd that Dick included elements from Chinese culture, such as the I Ching and Taoism, given his loves of Japanese culture.  Admittedly, sometimes conquering cultures adapt elements from the nation's they conquer, such as how Britain gained a few Hindi words and a love affair with curry after they conquered India.  Plus we do see that, slowly but surely, Japan's American possessions are starting to develop a Japanese-American hybrid culture.  The scene that feature Japanese character fawning over artifacts from America's past are especially humorous if you happen to be an anime fan.  Japanese-Occupied-America is depicted as better than Nazi-occupied-America, but that really isn't saying much because...well, Nazis.  It's kind of like asking if you would rather be executed by firing squad or lethal injection.  Consider also that American culture began to loosen up and liberalize during the 1960s, so perhaps this alternate Japanese youth culture has followed suit. Mind you, Dick has always had a strong anti-fascism theme to his novels, so I don't think he was trying to whitewash Japan's war crimes. 

I don't want to give too much away about the ending, but I will say that it certainly gives you something to think about.  The characters don't get any solid answers, but that kind of works given the nature of the book.  Dick deliberately left things open-ended because he was planning to write a sequel set in the Nazi occupied half of America, but he found the research into Nazi Germany to be too draining and soul crushing for that.  Among other things, the sequel would have featured the Nazis discovering a portal into our world and it would have delved deeper into the Japanese-American hybrid culture emerging on the West Coast.  A couple of Dick's other novels started out as sequels to The Man in the High Castle, but they later became their own thing. 

I don't usually talk about covers, but I think it's relevant here.  I had a hard time picking the cover image for this post simply because most cover for The Man in the High Castle typically don't accurately portray North America as described in the book.  They'll either leave out the Neutral Zone or else overinflate the Japanese territory.  The other problem is that they'll typically only feature Nazi imagery even though the over welcoming majority of the book takes place Japan's American territory.  Germany's American territory, and the Reich as a whole, is only mentioned in passing, though what is mentioned is certainly chilling.  So I went with a simple flags and black background cover, but why don't I show you those other covers?

Don't get me wrong, they're all swell covers, but I feel the accurately portray the book.  For comparison's sake here's a map form the Amazon adaption. 

As you can see it fits the description the book provides much better.  Speaking of adaptations, let's talk about the audiobook.  There's actually been three versions over the years.  I listened to the second version, narrated by Tom Weiner.  The previous version was narrated by George Guidall, and the new version is narrated by Jeff Cummings.  Of all three versions I liked Tom's narration the best.  I'm usually opposed to tie-in covers, but in the case of the Jeff Cummings edition it actually kind of works.  It does a much better job of showing what the book is about than the previous audiobook covers.  Plus, even though based on the adaptation, they actually put effort into the cover instead of slapping on a poster for the Amazon adaptation and calling it a day.  And here is that cover.  

The Man in the High Castle was the first Philip K. Dick novel I ever read, and I can see why he's so highly thought of as a writer.  It's also one of my favorite alternate history novels.  I don't like playing the favorites game, but it's definitely at the top of the list.  It's considered classic for a reason.  Typically speaking, if you ask an average to name an alternate history novel, assuming they know what you're talking about, The Man in the High Castle will be the only one they will know.  This novel was also the first alternate history novel to win the Hugo Award.  It's a classic for a reason, and I can certainly see why.

Well hopefully this review has wetted your appetite, and now that I've reviewed the book I can review the Amazon adaptation.  Though I've got some other things planned, so that might not be for a bit.  If you guys want I can review some more classic speculative fiction in the future.  In fact, I think I will.  I think that's enough from me for now.  I will see you guys next time.   

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