Friday, January 19, 2018

Book Review 2017 #4 - Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Published by: Library of America
Publication Date: 1962
Format: Hardcover, 900 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

The Allied Troops failed. The Axis powers won and divided up the spoils. Nazi Germany claimed the eastern United States while Imperial Japan created the Pacific States of America from the western coast and the Rocky Mountain States became a neutral buffer zone. It has been fifteen years since the end of the war. Fifteen years living under new laws, adapting to new cultures. Fifteen years of trying to forget the freedom Americans once had. But everyone has handled the situation in a way unique to themselves. Robert Childan has flourished under Japanese domination. His shop, American Artistic Handcrafts Inc. deals with objects from America's past that the Japanese just love for their historicity. He has learned his trade well and understands the respect and protocol his clients demand. From Nobusuke Tagomi, a high ranking Japanese trade official dealing with a visiting Swedish industrialist, to the Kasouras, a young couple in love with Americana, Childan will go beyond what is necessary to please his customers. But soon his confidence in his life and his store will change forever when an item he has is accused of being a forgery.

Of course it is a forgery, there is no way that there are enough Colt .44s from the "wild west" to supply the demand for them, but Childan doesn't know he's just collateral damage from two disgruntled employees who work for his supplier, the Wyndam-Matson Corporation, trying to go out on their own making jewelry instead of forgeries. One of these two men is Frank Frink, a man desperately hoping no one ever finds out he's Jewish and daydreaming that his wife, Juliana, will return to him. But Juliana is in the Rocky Mountain States where she's gotten involved with a man, Joe, who's obsessed with a book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, written by Hawthorne Abendsen, The Man in the High Castle. Abendsen never forgot his freedom and his book is about an Allied victory in WWII. A past and present that could have been. As powers are at play trying to once again change history and divide alliances with the Germans wanting sole control of the world, one woman will learn the truth and perhaps it will set everyone free.

Back when I was more of a film buff than book geek I was very much aware of the controversy surrounding Blade Runner and which release of the film was the true vision of Ridley Scott, similar to the issues surrounding Terry Gilliam's Brazil which lead to me buying a cheap VHS transfer for the directors cut at a Doctor Who convention. This desire for truth lead me to seek out and read the source material, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. My introduction to his terse almost choppy writing style is forgotten in the fogs of time, or in this case a really long train trip to New York, but I still remember my film TA's awe that I bothered to go to the source. This has always kind of shocked me, an adaptation doesn't exist in a bubble and the original source material, be it book or play, is always worth reading. When The Library of America came out with a "four volumes of the 1960s" omnibus deluxe edition containing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I jumped at the chance to upgrade my tatty paperback movie tie-in. It wasn't until Rufus Sewell signed onto the adaptation of The Man in the High Castle that I noticed that it was one of the four books in this volume I'd bought.

From that moment I knew I needed to read this book and yet, as so often happens, time was against me but once again my blog's theme months came to the rescue. I would read The Man in the High Castle this November no matter what! As it turned out this book is tailor made for me. I have a love of historical fiction but I also have a love of Steampunk. And think about this, what is Steampunk but a more typical alt history in that it leans towards the fantastical? This book combines all this into a wonderful mashup that occasionally has some over-the-top science fiction elements. But being the type of author Philip K. Dick was I think we can forgive him Nazis colonizing Mars, all the ensuing space race jargon, and those super rockets that get you from Germany to San Francisco in a matter of minutes not hours because he uses them so sparingly. In fact his using these fantastical elements so sparingly makes them have a greater impact than if it was all about aliens. Because the truth is this book isn't heavy on the plot, it isn't about great world changing events, it's about a select few people and how they deal with the world around them and learning their truth. And a search for the truth is how I first found Philip K. Dick in a wonderful sense of synchronicity. The Man in the High Castle is a character study and I loved that.

The lead characters are Robert Childan, Nobusuke Tagomi, Frank Frink, and Juliana Frink, and none of them are fully sympathetic, which makes them human and therefore far more interesting. Childan is grasping and obsessed with his status, think of an Arnold Rimmer not in outer space but dealing antiques in an alternate San Francisco. Tagomi is I think the most fascinating, someone who the readers would see as an enemy, but is drawn so complexly, who is so multifaceted, that he instantly becomes the hero of the book. He's constantly being pushed outside his comfort zone, forced to face situations he could never have envisioned, and yet he rises admirably to all challenges. Childan and Tagomi represent the more Japanese side of the Axis powers, and what I connected to was this glimpse into a culture that is so dependant on status and behavior. This book gets you into another mindset, makes you question how you see the world around you. I couldn't help noticing parallels to Michael Crichton's Rising Sun and how that book also gave us this tantalizing acress. For me Frank was almost a non-character, because he was really just there to connect Juliana to the rest of the narrative. And while Philip K. Dick obviously suffers a bit from the objectification of women who are in thrall to men that was not only prevalent but expected at the time, the turn around at the very end put this trope in it's place.

One thing that runs through this character driven book as a unifying force is the voice of the oracle through the I Ching. While the characters constant reliance on this device of cleromancy might in clumsy hands have conceivably bogged down the narration, Philip K. Dick handles it in such a deft and skilled way that it becomes a character of it's own. He either really knows his stuff or is really good at making it look that way. This device is also where the biggest most thought-provoking elements of The Man in the High Castle arise. The idea that the oracle has access to alternate dimensions that can be achieved through higher thought and belief, that truth can be divined? Shivers up my spine. The scene where Tagomi is trying to come to grips with all that he has suffered and done over the course of the book as he sits on that park bench looking deep into a broach designed by Frank and reaches awareness because the Wu of the piece moved him and for an instant he comes into our world, not the alternate world he has always lived in, it's like the book transcended. In that moment The Man in the High Castle was no longer a character study, but a religious experience connecting all of the universes. This book became MORE than a book. It became an experience to never forget.     

An experience that relies heavily on Philip K. Dick being meta before meta was really a thing. The book that drives Juliana and much discussion about what-ifs and could-have-beens in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. A book that shows the Axis powers losing and the world becoming very much like the one we live in. Just think on that. From our POV we're reading a book about an alternate outcome to WWII while the characters in that book are reading a book about an alternate outcome to WWII that is similar to how our world actually is. So much fun is derived not in seeing the horror the world could have been in had the Allies lost, but in seeing how Abendsen wrote this other world. The subtle changes that still led to the same result. So much of this book is chaos theory in action. The world is a house of cards, change one thing, change so many things. Because the Allied Forces lost not because of anything that happened during the war but because of the assassination of FDR prior to the war. Change one thing change everything. And yet, somehow, the oracle sees the truth at the heart of it all. Perhaps the changes within Abendsen's book to our truth are inaccuracies on his part. As to why he would have inaccuracies in a book he'd written? Well, you'll just have to read this one to find out.


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