I’ve decided I’m just crazy enough to try to read every book that’s ever won the Hugo Award for Best Novel…and, of course, that I want to share this insane experience with all of you. Your pilot is in the midst of Midterm and Employment Hell, so we have a short stop this week; I’ll be shoving y’all sideways through the dimensional barriers into an alternate reality where the Axis Powers won WWII. Please have your copy of the I Ching handy and keep all hands and legs inside the vehicle as we keep on keepin’ on with our sixty-odd posts of science fiction, speculation and social justice!
The Man in the High Castle
Philip K. Dick
published in 1962
The Allies lost the war. Germany and Japan have divided the world between them. Slavery is legal. Jews live in hiding. Africa has been obliterated, but the Nazis are walking on Mars. And yet, through all this, life goes on. In the Pacific States of America, under Japanese rule, interest begins to develop in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy – a novel which postulates a world in which the Axis was defeated. And then, amidst political upheaval in Germany, rumors begin to surface about Operation Dandelion…
Warning! Mild spoilers ahead!
Upon finishing The Man in the High Castle, I was ready to consign it to the “I don’t get it” file, or perhaps even the “Why did you bother writing this, and why would anyone bother reading it?” file. Upon further reflection (and with much help from Wikipedia, which explicitly stated some of the themes which I had sensed but been unable to articulate), it’s not as bad as all that. In fact, I think it’s one for the “I don’t get it, but I would like to” file – so maybe I’ll get around to re-reading it in a few years.
The central question of the book (based on my limited understanding and on ye Wiki) is: What is real? It’s a book about an alternate timeline, in which some of the characters read a book about an alternate timeline – the second timeline from their perspective, the third timeline from our perspective. (confused yet?). People find meaning, or don’t find meaning, or find unintended meaning, in everything…and then you start getting into counterfeiting and the I Ching and my brain starts to hurt.
It does work, though. Dick’s writing creates a feeling of limbo, of being at a crossroads. Of uncertainty. The spaces between words are infused with expectation, pregnancy, in-between-ness, vibrating tension. Overall there is a feeling of subconscious discomfort, a calm-before-the-storm feeling of this can’t last. And there is a surreal, dreamlike quality to many of the characters’ thoughts and perceptions that only enhances this feeling. It’s like working at an airport, during a storm, on the eve of war – only you haven’t left the airport for decades and you still have to do your laundry and find dinner and get to your post on time.
I strongly suspect that none of what I’ve just said makes sense, but hopefully some part of it resonates with you (Hi, FBI!) and you get an idea of the feel of the book.
Onwards to the social equality review!
Race: This one is interesting. Slavery has become legal, and Blacks are treated very poorly across the globe (and the Nazis did some unspeakable horror to the entire continent of Africa). Jews, of course, must live in hiding. In the Pacific States, Whites live as second-class citizens to the Japanese. There are a lot of racial epithets and disparaging comments made (or rather, thought) by the various characters but I think that’s intended to illustrate the general suckiness of racial relations in an Axis-controlled world.
One theme I found very interesting was the cultural appropriation of Japanese-as-conquerors; they are described as obsessed with the I Ching (which is Chinese), and Americana. Of course conquerors are generally known for their cultural appropriation (I’m looking at you, Roman Empire) which can be good and bad. It is interesting to see it when the conquerors are non-Western. Normally “what if [marginalized group] had all the privilege and were subjugating [corresponding dominant cultural group]” narratives piss me off, but Dick has handled this one fairly sensitively. It helps, I think, that Japan was a major power in WWII, still is a world power (it’s a member of the G8, for example), and that, speaking very generally, the Japanese have been less marginalized than other ethnic/racial groups in recent (i.e. post-WWII) US history. So it’s not so much, “see how awful it would be if those horrible [marginalized group] were in charge!” as it is, “being conquered sucks, but they’re not so bad as overlords. Would we be any better as the conquerors?”
Gender/Sexuality: Few women, which is par for the course. But the character of Juliana is very interesting, and through her Dick does some exploration of gender roles and the power struggle between men and women in traditional relationships. Even better, Juliana reads like a human – she is no more or less mature than the male characters whose eyes we see through. Her perspective is different, but not childlike. Of course there is the character who wants to ‘fix’ Juliana with his magical healing penis. “I can relax you and improve you, in not very much time, either.” (p. 94) DUDE YOUR PENIS IS NOT MAGIC. (side note: I feel like every biological male should have this message engraved in their bathroom mirror. It would be good for them.)
Disabled/Other-abled: I didn’t notice anything in particular, but the Nazis don’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to this issue.
To conclude: I need to re-read this. It was interesting, and I think there is a lot more going on in the book than I caught the first time through. But for now, I’ve got another fifty-odd books to read…
OVERALL RANKING: 7 out of 10 (rankings subject to change as my sample size increases).
All quotes and page numbers are from the Mariner Books edition, published in 2011.