The Man in the High Castle (Philip K. Dick)

3 Star

Warning: Clicking through to Continue Reading will reveal spoilers.

Although slow to start, the Man in the High Castle turned out to be a very thought-provoking book. Despite my interest in WWII, I had trouble engaging in the book until around the halfway point. By the time I finished, I was glad that I persevered through the beginning because it was definitely worth the read.

I watched season one of the TV show beforehand, which might be a first for me. I always try to read the book before seeing it in picture, as it usually does better justice to the story. In this case, I had surprising trouble accepting that the story was completely different than the Amazon interpretation. Specifically, I just loved the Frank-Juliana relationship in the show, and was disappointed that it was not part of the book. Other than the omission of their relationship, I think the book had a better, though less suspenseful, story.

The Man in the High Castle is considered a science-fiction novel, which is not usually my cup of tea. However, the story was not overwhelmed with sci-fi elements, and I might not even have classified it as sci-fi if I wasn’t told the genre before reading. Although alternate reality novels are very science fiction, this one almost bordered between sci-fi, fantasy, and fiction. It was very spiritual, incorporating the ideals of mysticism and energy throughout the story. I would encourage any reader who hesitates before science fiction to give this one a chance – It really might surprise you.

More than anything, I keep thinking to myself – How has nobody used this plot before? I mean, a hypothetical global society that might have emerged if the Axis Powers won WWII…It almost seems like a no-brainer. At first I thought that maybe the further the world moves away from WWII and the Cold War, the easier it is for the general public to look back and imagine what could have been, or what was thankfully avoided. But then I realized the book was actually written in 1963, although it did not become popular until Amazon Prime Video picked it up this year. The Man in the High Castle takes the great risk of making light of a very serious situation, but Dick manages to keep the balance between the emphasis of terror under Nazi rule and the development of quality fiction.

I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a really interesting read. This is definitely not your light-hearted, happy go lucky book to pickup for the beach, but it was an intriguing story that suggests a terrifying post-war alternate reality to the one that we know.

Warning: Spoilers past this point.

As a history lover and future social studies teacher, I kept relating Dick’s story to what I already know about the Nazi regime and the end of WWII. While some of his ideas might be too far-fetched to seriously consider, such as the German colonization of space or the draining of the Mediterranean, some of them are frighteningly possible. If the Nazis had developed the atomic bomb before the US, it is not unlikely that they would have bombed Washington DC or other major US cities. Dick takes this idea even further with his suggestion that Africa would eventually end up a desolate wasteland after Nazi experimentation.

Even more interestingly, Dick portrays the Japanese victors as a balance to their ruthless Nazi counterparts. The Japanese-ruled regions are more “civilized” in their way of life, resistant to Nazi anti-semitism and fascism. Dick establishes an unfamiliar racial hierarchy in his fictional California, with the Japanese as the absolute highest economic and social class. The storyline of the average American shopkeeper informs us of this social order, as he is convinced of his own inferiority as a “white American barbarian” and does not develop a sense of pride until later in the novel.

Frank and Ed’s storyline was almost as thought-provoking as the hypothetical world that they live in. I do not have a deep understanding of traditional Asian religions, so I cannot attest to how accurate or realistic the “oracle” plot element is, but I found it a very valuable part of the story. Different groups of people, from the higher Japanese officials, to Juliana in the neutral zone, to working-class Frank Fink, were all consulting this oracle for guidance. The oracle and the idea of mystic energy unified all of the storylines with a common theme of hope and possibilities for the future.

I also appreciated Dick’s use of manmade American jewelry as the vessel for the mystic energy and the eventual portal into the true 1960’s America. The jewelry is the first authentic American item produced in the novel, unlike the historic or fake-historic items that we see throughout the beginning. This raw authenticity inspires the shopkeeper to take pride in his American heritage, and even encourages him to stand up to the Japanese who wish to demean the pieces. The jewelry, made by the careful expertise of the two average Americans, holds an inexplicable power. Frank and Ed are two lower class and oppressed workers, who leave their job to open their own business and work for a better life. This “American Dream” story gives their work the power to transport men into 1960s America as we know it, with all the success that came with the Allies’ WWII Victory. The metaphor is not lost on the reader, and a patriotic and hopeful spirit emerges towards the novel’s final pages.

I definitely liked Dick’s use of the “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” as an alternate history within the novel. It seems as though Amazon Prime took this as the inspiration for the elusive and confusing films in the first season of the show. Although the films and the “Grasshopper Lies Heavy” are treated differently in their respective stories, they both have the same purpose of showing their audience what might have been or what could be. The films seem to take on a more sci-fi element, as the “Grasshopper Lies Heavy” does not explicitly portray the actual people who are reading it.

Juliana and Joe’s storyline was the most suspenseful part of the novel for me, as I kept expecting him to kill her. I am not sure why I was expecting this, but I really thought he might do so before the end of the book. I turned out to get that completely wrong, but I guess I just misread the tension that was there. Juliana’s meeting with the actual man in the high castle was definitely anti-climatic, but it set a nice stage for a sequel that I might not have read without the scene in his home. A quick google search told me that there is no sequel, although Dick had started two other novels with the unfulfilled intent of writing a sequel to the Man in the High Castle. According to Wikipedia, Dick never completed the sequel because he found it too difficult to keep reading and writing about Nazi horrors. In some ways, this brings me back to my earlier notion that it was hard to truly develop this plot in the decades immediately following WWII, as the pain it caused was still so fresh in the global mind. I wish Dick had completed as sequel, as the book does not end on any definitive note – Hopefully Amazon will finish it off well for us in the next couple of seasons.


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