The Long View: The Man in the High Castle

The Long View: The Man in the High Castle
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Phil Dick was a friend of Tim Powers. Thus this book review is really favorite authors squared. John Reilly reviewed a seminal novel by a man who influenced one of my favorite fiction writers. I think I first read this review before Powers became one of my favorite writers, but I remembered it when that time came.

Tim Powers writes secret histories, which are a little different than alternative histories. Yet I think you can see Dick's influence in Three Days to Never. Powers often muses on the way things might have been. This is a theme that has often occupied John Reilly as well. They both take seriously the idea that our choices have consequences, even though the world around us seems to move in discernable patterns. We are neither wholly free nor wholly constrained, but seem to fall somewhere inbetween.

The Man in the High Castle
By Philip K. Dick
Quality Paperback Book Club 2001
Originally Published 1962
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Was Philip Dick (1928-1982) a prophet who was tortured to death by searing insights into the posthuman condition, or was he just an amphetamine-addled hack who died of paranoia as his prose was about to decay into 100% psychotic drivel? Dick was actually a fairly successful science-fiction writer, but most of us know him from films loosely based on his work. He received enormous, though posthumous, critical attention, probably too much for his reputation's long-term good. This novel is where his extraordinary reputation starts.

There are alternative-history stories much older than "The Man in the High Castle," even one or two novels, but this book established alternative history as a genre. The premise, which has since been done to death, is that the Axis won the Second World War. It is not at all clear how this happened. We know that Franklin Roosevelt was assassinated in his first term as president of the United States, which had some effect on American preparedness. The US entered the war after a completely successful Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. During the war, which lasted until 1947, New York and San Francisco were badly damaged. In the aftermath, the United States east of the Rockies became a German satellite, while the Pacific states constituted a federation that was part of the Japanese Co-Prosperity sphere. Only the strip of Rocky Mountain states was left independent, no doubt as a buffer zone.

The book has two chief plot lines. One involves an attempt by German dissidents to contact the Japanese military. This serves to demonstrate the nightmare state of the world, in which the worse villains prove to be the less dangerous. The other leads to a trip to see the author of a best-selling alternative-history novel, "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy," which describes a world in which the Axis lost the Second World War. (That author is, of course, "the man in the high castle," though by the time we meet him he is living in a sensible stucco ranch house.) That plot line shows the way out of the nightmare.

Ingenious devices link these threads. There is a shop of Americana items: all are supposedly of historical interest, but many are of doubtful authenticity. There are vivid characters and many original ideas. There are also flashes of anomalous mentation, such as this:

"She said, speaking slowly and painstakingly, 'Hair creates bear who removes spots in nakedness.'"

Restrictions on the possession of some drugs are sound public policy.

The alternative history is, frankly, a little perfunctory. At no point does the historical context go beyond the knowledge of the average history buff. The story takes place at the time of a change of administration in Germany, when Chancellor Bormann dies and is replaced, after a time of uncertainty, by Chancellor Göbbels. The characters spend a fair amount of time speculating about which of the leading Nazis will finally take control. The candidates are the same crew we know from the actual Nazi regime of the war era. (The exceptions are that Himmler was assassinated long ago, but Heydrich is still alive.).

Some details are merely arbitrary. It is hard to see how the German rocket program could have progressed to the colonization of Mars by 1962. And why was television still just a prospect, except for a few hours a day in the Berlin area? I suppose it is possible that Bob Hope might have been a comedian in an Axis world, broadcasting by radio from oddly unmolested Canada. However, is it really likely that he would make jokes about Göring wanting to revive Christianity, so as to vary his lions' diet?

These improbabilities are not defects, however. I would go so a far as to say that anyone looking for historical verisimilitude in this book is missing the point. This is not an alternative-history novel, but an anti-history novel. The book suggests that any history is fundamentally unreal. This is not to say that all history is illusion, or that there is nothing to choose between one historical scenario and another, but that there is a truth that is true even if events contradict it.

In terms of background detail, the great merit of the book is cultural rather than historical. Most of the action takes place in and around San Francisco, in the Japanese-dominated Pacific States of America. Dick was knowledgeable about Japanese culture. In the 1980s, this increased the attraction of his work, since informed opinion back then claimed that the Japanese were going to take over the world economically. "The Man in the High Castle" is set in the sort of world that Japanophobes used to warn against, where white Americans are second-class citizens in a Japanese economic colony. The novel in no way supports that sentiment, however. The Japanese in this history are the defenders of humanity and civilization against the Nazis.

Having said such hard words against Dick's counter-historical imagination, now let me praise him for his "ideology fiction." Consider this assessment of Nazism triumphant:

"Their view; it is cosmic. Not of a man here, a child there but an abstraction: race, land. Volk. Land. Ehre. Not of honorable men but of Ehre itself, honor; the abstract is real, the actual is invisible to them. Die Güte, but not good men, this good man. It is their sense of space and time. They see through the here, the now, into the vast, black deep beyond, the unchanging. And that is fatal to life. Because eventually there will be no life…It is all temporary…They want to aid nature…They identify with God's power, and believe they are godlike. That is their basic madness. They are overcome by some archetype; their egos have expanded psychotically so that they cannot tell where they begin and the godhead leaves off. It is not hubris, not pride; it is inflation of the ego to its ultimate-confusion between him who worships and that which is worshiped. Man has not eaten God; God has eaten man."

Fans of Jung will recognize the notion that the National Socialist movement was in some ways an instance of mass possession by an archetype. These lines also allude to Heidegger's idea that the Nazi phenomenon was an opportunity to return to authentic Being. Even the anti-individualism smacks of Rosenberg's preoccupation with the folk soul. Considered literally, all these ideas should be taken with a grain of salt. Taken all together, though, they are a prose poem of dark metaphysics.

The author's other metaphysical interests are soon apparent. Everyone in the book, except the Nazis, consults the "I Ching," "The Book of Changes," at every turn, and every time the oracle has something apt to say. The most sympathetic character, a quixotic Japanese trade official named Mr. Tagomi, explains that both the "I Ching" and the "Bible" are alive, along with certain other books. I am intrigued by this notion; certainly the canon of the "Bible" seems to have had certain powers of, well, self-assembly. In any case, in this book, the "I Ching" reveals the order behind the chaos.

How does one normally consult the oracle? With a question in mind, the user throws coins or yarrow sticks to select one of the 64 hexagrams of the "I Ching." Each hexagram represents a typical situation; the one you pick represents the current condition. Simple rules of transformation then indicate another hexagram, which represents what the situation will become. (There are exceptions; the current situation may be blocked.)

It is possible to use the "I Ching" as just another fortune-telling device. However, I gather that sophisticated users do not need to throw coins or sticks. The hexagrams are categories of possibility. Adepts can see well enough for themselves which one represents the present, as well as the hexagram of the future that is implied in the present. Sometimes the characters in "The Man in the High Castle" do just that: they don't need to consult the book. At other times, they ask the oracle to help them make the decisions that determine the plot. This is exactly how "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" was written, as the writer explains to a concerned fan. By Dick's own account, he did something very like this in writing "The Man in the High Castle," too. Sometimes it shows.

We are also told that "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" is a biblical allusion. Having consulted all the grasshoppers in the Bible, I suggest this may be the passage Dick was thinking of. Most versions have "grasshopper" for "locust" below, but I find this old Confraternity translation otherwise clearer:

"[The evil days of old age come] and one fears heights, and perils in the street; when the almond tree blooms, and the locust grows sluggish and the caper berry is destroyed, because man goes to his lasting home; and mourners go about the streets…" Ecclesiastes 12:5

Using a meta-narrative device of the sort that would become a menace to sanity during the reign of postmodernism, the alternative history novel, "The Man in the High Castle," gives a synopsis of the historical scenario in the fictional alternative-history novel, "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy." Aside from the fact the Axis loses, the world of "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" does not greatly resemble our own. Franklin Roosevelt, though happily unassassinated, serves just two terms. The British win the Battle of Stalingrad and extend the British Empire to the Volga. There is apparently even an Anglo-American war. This is just the kind of scenario one would create by deciding among possible storylines by flipping a coin at every decisive event.

The message of this book is not very different from that of Ursula LeGuin's, "The Lathe of Heaven." Using the device of dreams that shape reality, that story suggests that history comes back into balance when events threaten to destroy the world; not just the future changes, but the past changes as well. Similarly, the author of "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" says he wrote it to show that the Germans and the Japanese did not win the war, even though history says they did. This leaves us to speculate whether the history we know, or that we think we know, might similarly be untrue, even if it is factual.

There are earlier examples of this kind of skepticism. For example, Jean-Paul Sartre was so annoyed at the prospect that nuclear annihilation might derail Marxist eschatology that he once famously remarked, "The hydrogen bomb does not exist." Amphetamines are also available in France.

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