Novel * Philip K. Dick * O.G. “What if the Nazis Won” Story * 1962
Here’s my confession: This is the first Philip K. Dick work I’ve ever read. Considering the width and breadth of my science fiction love, this is a significant oversight. Even worse is my reasoning. Up until very recently, by which I mean a couple of months ago, I just bought the books I read. Whatever, don’t judge me, I like having books around. The thing is, though, I’m a value conscious shopper. I’m not out here buying brand new hardback books, because I’m part of the problem as to why nobody wants to pay for art. Anyway, the point of this is that for some reason, Philip K. Dick novels only seem to come in these novella-sized paperbacks that cost like $15 each. Say what you will about paying for art (and you should!), it’s different when the artist is a legendary author in the genre and also dead. Copyright laws are wack. Whatever, now that I’ve remembered what a library is, I can check stuff like this out. Turns out I was right to wait and read it for free.
There are a lot of cool and experimental things happening with Dick’s writing, but by the end of the novel I was bored. This is a prime example of a squandered premise. I imagine The Man in the High Castle isn’t the first bit of speculative fiction about what would have happened if the Axis powers had won World War II, but it’s arguably the most famous. And the actual world that is imagined here is fascinating! Japan has taken over the governance of the Pacific states while the eastern seaboard has, for all intents and purposes, been assimilated into the Reich. Meanwhile the South is independent insofar as it aligns with Germany and oh also slavery is back. The only remnant of the United States to really survive are the Rocky Mountain states, and they’re a backwater. That’s a good set up. There’s also quite a bit of political intrigue, since of course superpowers never get along and Japan and Germany are no exception.
Beyond the principal setup, there are also quite a few ominous touches concerning the state of the world under Axis rule. Africa, for example, no longer exists. The Nazis “Final Solutioned” it. Obviously it’s dark times for Judaism. Anyone who is even remotely Jewish is immediately extradited to Germany where they’re sent to still-functioning gas chambers. Having slash-and-burned their way through Earth, the Nazis are also busy trying to colonize the solar system (which is a concept that the recent Wolfenstein games have fun with). Meanwhile, the Japanese colonizers are better mostly by virtue of the fact that they don’t immediately murder anyone they disagree with. The Man in the High Castle is at its best in its depictions of Americans living under Japanese rule. It’s a “what if the colonizers were colonized” premise that is extremely well done. The prose in these sections does its best to mimic what Americans trying to sound Japanese might sound like. There’s also plenty of evidence of American citizens accepting and then adopting Japanese culture, and vice-versa.
Unfortunately, the stuff that ultimately makes a novel worth reading, which is to say character and plot, are less compelling. The characters are fine, I guess, but not enough are done with them. The novel begins with Mr. Childan, a white, American shopkeeper who trades in relics of old Americana. His clientele are generally the ruling elite Japanese. He’s both extremely racist and also extremely eager to curry favor with the Japanese. Being in his head is exhausting. Actually, that goes for pretty much everyone. The Man in the High Castle is one of those books where everyone kind of sucks. There’s a delicate web of these people who are all interconnected in subtle ways whether they know each other or not. Mr. Tagomi is a high-ranking Japanese official who has doubts about this society they’ve built in what used to be California, but he takes his superiority for granted. Juliana yearns for freedom but is shallow and basic. Joe’s a Nazi. Frank Frink is wish-washy. Their lives touch each other in major and minor ways, but none of them have actual functioning relationships.
The plot, such as it is, involves all these people being extremely anxious. Childan is anxious because he’s trying to please his Japanese rulers so that he can continue his comparatively comfortable existence. Mr. Tagomi is anxious because he’s having secret dealings with an element of the Nazi Reich that he’s not sure if he can trust, oh and also the Nazis are planning a secret nuclear campaign against them which could trigger the end of the uneasy stalemate between the two world powers. Juliana is anxious because she’s banging this Joe dude she knows nothing about and he’s kind of scary, although considering how that turns out Joe should have been the anxious one. Frank is anxious because it’s terrifying being a Jew in this horrible world. Anxiety being the watchword of the novel makes sense, of course, since totalitarian powers now rule the world. It’s just that even when the stakes are seemingly high – Germany nuking Japan would be a big deal – there never seems to be much urgency.
Part of the reason for this is that the characters are not entirely invested in this hell-world. That makes sense. Everything’s gone as bad as it possibly could, so why would citizens of this place care if it all went away? That’s part of the reason The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is such a big part of the novel. Grasshopper is a novel-within-a-novel which is like the opposite of The Man in the High Castle, in that it posits what would have happened in the Allies had won the war instead. It’s a mirror-world version of what actually happened, which is kind of funny, but otherwise? There just don’t seem to be any real stakes where Grasshopper or the titular Man in the High Castle are concerned. The Nazis ban the book and are trying to kill its author, but there’s nothing particularly significant about either the book or the man who wrote it when Juliana eventually finds him in the end. Mr. Tagomi has a weird hallucination where he discovers the “real” San Francisco, and decides he hates it. Frank goes back to work.
I wish The Man in the High Castle wasn’t as dull as it is, because again all the details about how awful this world is are fascinating. I just can’t help but think there are more interesting stories to tell in this world other than a shopkeeper trying out some new merchandise, you know? That’s probably why the parts of this that kept my attention best was the high-level political intrigue bits. It was fun reading about how dysfunctional the Nazis are and how bad at governing their own new world order they are. What seems to be most lacking, though, is any kind of resistance. Everyone in the occupied territories seemed resigned to their fate, which, hey maybe that’s how it goes. But reading about people who have basically given up is not compelling to me. Even a doomed resistance would be better than these broken, sad people fumbling around what used to be their own country. As a result, The Man in the High Castle just feels lifeless. Which is a shame, because the potential is here.