I can never remember my opinion of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle: great novel or a disappointing alternate history that foundered in unsatisfying metaphysics. (An alternate history featuring an alternate history that is our world doesn’t to me, unlike many, seem that significant.)
After watching the first three episodes of Amazon’s series inspired by the book, I decided to look up my review.
My 1989 self is not very helpful in clarifying things. (And this is not a start of Philip K. Dick postings — though I have read many of Dick’s novels.)
And 1989 self misleadingly implies I’ve read all of Shirer’s work — which I haven’t.
Raw Feed (1989): The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick,
A wonderful, intriguing, and at times enigmatic novel. Dick, as usual, exhibits his remarkable powers of characterization. Here he largely uses the technique of entering into a character’s thoughts. Often we go along rather like a character until we come across a jarring, despicable thought. The portrayal of antique dealer Robert Childan. We like him just fine until we find out he approves of genocide against the Jews. Even Reinhard Heydrich has his good side in working against attacking the Japanese. Julianna Fink is one of Dick’s rather neurotic women who must almost obsessively flit from man to man (her husband has some unkind things to say about women’s “babyish” nature and extreme craving for attention — perhaps Dick’s unhappy experience with women is reflected here).
As usual, there are one or too entirely good major characters, and here, as often in Dick’s work, one is a craftsmen, Frank Fink. The other is Mr. Tagomi.
One of the major strengths of this novel was showing the many facets of the relationship between conquerors and the conquered: Dick portrays the admiration, revulsion, and mystification suffered under the yoke of the Japanese and Germany. Dick provides succinct and true portrayals — usually uncomplimentary — of Japanese and German (again an unflattering reference to Germany) national character.
As usual there is suspense aided by Dick’s usual plethora of fakes, counterfeits, illusions, and simulacra. Here Dick uses these elements for wit and philosophy. (I liked W. M. Mason complaining about his mistress’ babbling about The Grasshopper Lies Heavy and other bits of the usual Dickian black humor.) Dick questions, in his fake historical artifacts, the principle of historicity which ironically plays off the fake history of Hawthorne Abendsen’s alternate history, and the book also shows the power and hold an alternate history can hold over the mind.
I also liked the portrayal of the Nazi commando who can’t seem to comprehend why Julianna Fink fights him or his own imminent death. As Dick says about Germans, they have trouble with actuality. (Juliianna’s behavior then is never explained: madness or drug intoxication?) The book has a light, airy, fascinating air about it like the silver triangle Mr. Tagomi contemplates. (Mr. Tagomi’s peculiar, sometimes stilted dialogue may be a sometimes amusing attempt at non-native English and/or the result of what seems to be, at times, bad proofreading.). The philosophy of the Tao and the I Ching hover over all the book and inform its reading. The characters contemplate fate, destiny, faith, and how to deal with evil (and , in the poignant case of Mr. Baynes and Tagomi, choose between evils).
Like most of Dick’s novels I’ve read, things seem to end in midstream, mid-air. The “big” question here is if another world war can be averted. But the real story is how the characters, like all people, will cope with their world and each finds the Way. I can’t, on one reading, completely appreciate their discoveries. Dick’s novel is subtle. As an alternate world, the novel works quite well.
Dick actually creates two interesting alternate histories. It was quite interesting to see the fate Dick postulated for various Nazis — some I hadn’t heard of until I read Dick’s reference work: William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The final touch, our world’s existence enigmatically hinted at in Tagomi’s vision and, possibly, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, was rather disturbing and comforting. As in The Penultimate Truth, the nuclear doom spirit of the sixties looms over the novel but fails to crush the characters’ spirit. They endure and grow.