The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Penguin Classics: paperback published 2001: 249 pages
Philip K. Dick’s acclaimed cult novel gives us a horrifying glimpse of an alternative world – one where the Allies have lost the Second World War. In this nightmare dystopia the Nazis have taken over New York, the Japanese control California and the African continent is virtually wiped out. In a neutral buffer zone that divides the rival superpowers in America lives the author of an underground bestseller. His book offers a new vision of reality, giving hope to the disenchanted. Can other, better worlds really exist?
I haven’t read much sci-fi. I’m an avid fantasy reader, but just never really ventured into sci-fi; it was too, well, “futuristic” for me. I didn’t particularly want to read about spaceships (yes, I was that dismissive). And then I heard that SyFy were making a TV series of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. AND – get this – Ridley Scott and X-Files alumni Frank Spotnitz are involved. Now you have my interest; there’s got to be something good in this book if people like Scott and Spotnitz want to adapt it for TV.
Philip K. Dick is widely appreciated as one of the greatest sci-fi writers around. Now, I can’t say I’m an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I can easily see why. His fluid, clever writing bends itself easily into plausible characters and plot, teasing out the storyline and making the reader invest in the adventure.
The Man in the High Castle is set in a world where the Nazis and Japanese won World War Two. America is effectively divvied up between Germany and Japan, with the West Coast a Japanese dominion, the East Coast under Nazi regime and the mid-West a grey area (from what I can tell it is virtually void of Japanese/Nazi rule, though it’s not technically “free” either). Our characters are thrown together through their discovery of a certain book, which tells a fictional tale of how the Allies won the War, and how the world would be different (so this is a fictional book telling of an alternative outcome of World War II, talking about a fictional book telling of an alternative outcome of World War II… confused?)
I’d hate to reveal any more, because the beauty of the novel is not in the plot, or necessarily in the characters, but in the telling of the story, and in the reader’s interpretation. Each and every one of us will experience this book differently, and that is the best bit. It’s not a flashy, full of action sci-fi drama, or even a dystopian novel of 1984 proportions. It’s almost as if it’s a “this is what could have happened” train of thought from Philip K. Dick. The book welcomes you to challenge and disagree, but at the same time drives a compelling argument.
The characters are sketchy at best. You get a sense of them, you understand their conflicts, and you invest in them; but it’s like viewing them through frosted glass – they’re a bit blurred. Perhaps because in just a couple of hundred pages, you have a clutch of characters to follow, and none of them in one place. You peek in on sections of their lives, have a commentary of their inner workings, and then leave again. There is no great detail. They become more concrete as the book reaches its conclusion, and under a hundred pages from the end you start to feel more connected as their situations develop.
I also found some of the dialogue a bit rough – truncated sentences and staccato conversations that trickled over into a character’s thought process, and felt like things were left unsaid, or that they were never sure quite what the point of what they were saying was. Perhaps that was the intention, but I am such a pedant about dialogue, that often it felt like I stumbled through it.
One of my favourite parts of it though were the insights in to this fictional book (The Grasshopper Lies Heavy) they were all so caught up with; because it doesn’t even tell us the real history, but an alternative yet again of World War II, where the British Empire takes all the power. Supposed extracts tell us yet another story unexplored, whilst this world within The Man in the High Castle continues on.
The complete genius of this book comes from the fact that you end up wondering, alongside the characters, which reality is reality. The I-Ching, a Chinese divination system, which features heavily in this book, even influences this and suggests an alternative reality. Vague and all-important at the same time, you find yourself trying to read ahead to discover what the answer is, though you’ll never find one.
I had to give this book four stars instead of five, because it’s not so much my enjoyment that fell short, but it might be yours. If, like me, you’ve never ventured into sci-fi, I would recommend this as a starting point; it’s a genre-defining alternative history book that lives up to expectations. But if, again like me, you struggle with patchy dialogue and unanswered questions, you may have to approach with caution.
Next book: With everything going on, which means I’m finding less time to read than normal, I am revisiting The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón – one of my favourite books. This will undoubtedly be a rave review, but I’ll try not to be too biased!