I haaaaaaaated The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch when I read it years ago so, even though I’ve known about this novel since I was a teenager, it’s taken me a while to get around to The Man in the High Castle. I’m glad I took the chance though as the novel is really good – maybe because it’s more grounded (relatively speaking) than Philip K. Dick’s more overt sci-fi stuff. There is mention of Mars being colonised (the rumour is that’s where all the Jews went!) but it’s pretty laughable given there are front page magazine covers announcing “Up to 4 hours of TV a day!” being planned and operators manually connecting phone calls!
The book’s success lies solely on the setup rather than any plot. Dick creates an intriguing dystopian world that’s thoughtfully written. One of the characters, Robert Childan, is an antiques dealer specialising in pre-war Americana, catering to the occupying Japanese who’ve developed a taste for “authentic” American antiques. Through Childan we see whites are at the bottom of society with the Asians at the top, as well as English as a language slowly being eroded as it merges with the dominant Japanese. Asian culture has also replaced Western as many Americans begin using the mystical text, the I Ching, every day (Dick also used the I Ching to plot the novel!).
The characters’ stories aren’t nearly as compelling as the society surrounding them. Childan’s plot revolves around his antiques business as he discovers he’s been selling counterfeit product. Tagomi is a Japanese businessman connected to a visiting Swedish industrialist called Baynes whose stories slowly reveal themselves by the end. Frank Frink is a fake-antiques maker who decides to make contemporary American craftwork. Juliana Frink is Frank’s ex-wife who’s a judo instructor in the mid-west states – she gets involved with a drifter and they go on a road trip. Antiques dealers, businessmen, and a judo instructor – not the most interesting characters to write a novel about!
But the pieces of alternate history that are seeded throughout make it all fascinating. Hearing about the Nazi powerplays following Bormann’s death (Hitler died years ago) is great, especially if you’re interested in the Third Reich. Dick hints at another Holocaust having taken place in Nazi-controlled Africa, the mere mention of which is more powerful and chilling than any overt scenes or exposition on the matter. And I loved the novel within the novel – the alternate history’s alternate history book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. At first it seems like a mirror image of our world but it diverges at crucial points. It’s another possible outcome to WW2! We only read a few extracts from The Grasshopper Lies Heavy – I wonder if that book also had an alternate history book within it?
I really liked Dick’s development of the theme of reality and falsity. Frink is secretly Jewish (changing his name from Fink to evade persecution) and is in the business of producing realistic fake antiques in much the same way Dick is in the same business of selling us readers his alternate history book as real. Baynes’ storyline plays to this theme too (but I won’t give away any spoilers here!) as does Juliana’s. Actually, I take back what I said earlier about the characters’ not having any interesting storylines – Juliana’s was good, particularly towards the finale when she goes to meet the man in the high castle, and I loved the subtlety of the ending too. Also, after having the least interesting storyline for much of the book, Tagomi gets the most interesting scene towards the end during his “epiphany” moment in the park, playing to this duality again.
Not all of the novel is as successfully written as the others. Operation Dandelion, a major element in the plot, is very underwritten and you really have to pay attention to the story to understand what it is. There is some action in the story but it’s not put across very well. And, while I appreciate the effort and intelligence that went into crafting a convincing Japanese-American vernacular, the jerky dialogue and thought processes of Childan especially were often annoying to read.
Regardless, there’s a lot to recommend The Man in the High Castle. Dick crafts an inspired alternate history with some fantastic original features to hold the reader’s attention. The fact that he does this with very little plot or particularly brilliant characters is all the more impressive. Maybe Dick’s more heavily sci-fi stuff isn’t for me but this novel definitely was. Great reading – check it out!
The Man in the High Castle