Fiction Review: The Man in the High Castle
It's been several years since I last read The Man in the High Castle. I believe my first reading of it was in 1994, towards the end of my final semester at UConn, largely on the praise of my science fiction professor (I had a lot of electives available in my final semester so I had some fun with science fiction and dinosaurs...) I found it a tough read, especially given my knowledge of Nazi Germany, Taoism, and the I Ching were pretty limited. I read it again several years ago and got a even out of it and in my recent listening, via an unabridged audiobook. This isn't surprising - most of the PKD novels I've read have been like that - an initially challenging read but yielding more and more with repeat visits.
Unlike my recent Star Wars reviews I am not going to assume the reader is familiar with this novel and I'll do my best to avoid spoilers. The Man in the High Castle is one of the classics of alternate history. Written in 1962 and set in the same year, this world's history diverged from our own in 1933 with the assassination of President Roosevelt in 1933. Without him, the USA stayed isolationist and the Axis powers triumphed in World War II, eventually conquering the United States in 1947. The USA was partitioned into three states. The Pacific States of America on the west coast are ruled by Japan. The eastern half of the United States are ruled by Nazi Germany. The central Rocky Mountain States are still independent but are a second-class power. We don't see the Nazi USA but like the rest of the Reich, it has been racially purged. We learn the Slavic countries have been reduced to the stone age, the Mediterranean has been drained to serve as farmland, and African has been subjected to a continent-wide genocide. The Nazi lands are, quite simply, absolutely awful places to live.
Japan is treated as more sympathetic. This does gloss over some brutality shown by the Empire of Japan in World War II and in China but it is possible that a more liberal movement has assumed power since the end of the war or that the occupiers of the west coast have gotten more liberal over time. The Japanese here are great cultural assimilators, making China's I Ching their own as well as developing an obsession with pre-war American culture. One of the characters owns an antique shop dedicated to this, Robert Childan. Childan is an interesting character to read about, but one I did not like - and I don't believe I'm supposed to. He has become very much like the Japanese occupiers in mannerisms but he detests them and admires the racial purity of the Nazis - when a Japanese man asks him if he is familiar with Dixieland Jazz, Childan indicates he does not listen to "Negro music".
Though not all of the characters meet, they do have many connections between them. Through them we get a feel for what this world is like. And it is not a pleasant one - multiple characters view it as an insane and evil world, one that should not be, with one even getting a glimpse of PKD's own 1962 in an apparent hallucination. The eponymous "Man in the High Castle" is the author of an alternate history novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, dealing with another reality where the United States won World War II - but this reality is not our own either.
In some ways it is a depressing book - it is most definitely a nightmare reality, none any sane person would want to live in. There are some glimpses of goodness, where characters attempt to do what is right and stave off the evil that surrounds them.
PKD found the book difficult to write if my recollection is correct. Learning so much about how the Nazis operated was painful for him, leading him to choose not to pursue a sequel. I can understand why. But I also found myself admiring the acts of those characters who held off the evil of the world around them, even in the smallest ways.