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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Set in a the western U.S. in a world where the Axis won World War II. The book follows a handful of different characters (all loosely connected to at least one or two of the others) struggle to survive in this crazy world. One key element is a recently published book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, written by the titular man in the high castle-- it tells of a world where the Allies won the war. This is a strange, foreign world (even though it is set in familiar cities)-- and a believable one.

One thing that makes the book so believable is the clear Asian culture-- not just in the Japanese characters, but in the Americans who have been living in the Japanese-controlled Pacific States. It is present in their clipped language and way of thinking, and also in the ever-present oracle, the I Ching that they all consult to try to make sense of what is happening.

This is a dark world. The Nazis have destroyed all of Africa; they have space travel and certain other technologies, but it's pretty clear that their advances are very limited and directed to specific ends. It's later revealed that they are now plotting to destroy Japan. The bleakness of this world is particularly brought home by the reaction of one character. During the course of the book, the current German Füaut;hrer dies and everyone is concerned to see who will be the next leader. The Japanese officials meet to be briefed on the possible & likely candidates. Tagomi is physically sick because he sees that there is true evil in the world, and it turns his worldview upside-down. Later on, Tagomi is forced to kill to defend himself and two others-- and this completely looses him from his moorings. At one point, when he is trying very hard to recover himself, he gets a kind of vision-- of our world, a world where there are now Japanese pedecabs in San Francisco but instead there are buses and taxis and a big freeway being built.

There are handful of characters, and they are all distinctly and carefully portrayed, and all compelling in their own ways. Robert Childan, the salesman of American antiques and historical treasures (like a Mickey Mouse watch) that the Japanese are buying up like crazy, who wants to be Japanese and longs for the delicate, beautiful Japanese women he can never have. The Jewish man, Frank Frink, who is fired and decides, with the encouragement and help of a co-worker, to start to create new American art. Frank's estranged wife Julia in Denver, who is being used by a Nazi operative as a way to get to the author of that subversive book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.

This is a very moving, thought-provoking book-- although it's hard to know how to make sense of it, particularly the ending. Julia finally meets the author, Hawthorne (who does not live in an enclosed, highly guarded castle at all), and asks him how he wrote the book. Eventually, he admits that he did it with the help of the Oracle, and when she consults the Oracle to ask why, the answer she gets is that it is all true-- that the Axis did not win the war.

Writing a book about, among other things, a subversive alternate-history book, makes you wonder about the purpose of the original alternate-history book-- is it to point out other possibilities, make us see things in our culture and our history that we can't see without this contrast? I'm not sure. I don't have any answers yet, but I think it bears thinking about.

Title:The Man in the High Castle
Author:Philip K. Dick
Date published:1962
Genre:Science Fiction, Alternate History
Number of pages:259
Notes:Hugo Award for best novel in 1962


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