I first read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle back in college, and at the time I loved it. The recent hype around Amazon’s adaptation of the novel made me think of it again, and I decided to re-read it to see how it holds up.
Overall, it’s still very good. The setting is 1962 with an obvious alternate history premise where the Axis Powers won the Second World War, with Germany occupying the Eastern United States, Japan the Western, with a more-or-less autonomous zone between them. How this apparently came about is plausible enough, though I must say that some of the things the Nazis have been up to are rather far-fetched. They apparently have a space programme going to Mars, have drained the Mediterranean, and have wiped out most of Africa (though something apparently went wrong with this project, but details are never explained). They’ve only just invented television, though, so reality has the advantage in idiot box technology.
Anyway, most of the story takes place in Japan-occupied San Francisco. Dick could’ve turned this into a propaganda novel and made it an outright dystopia, but the main problem for white Americans is the loss of confidence accompanying being an occupied nation; blacks and Jews do, however, have bigger problems, though much less so in Japanese territory than German. One sees this most in Robert Childan, who runs a shop selling American antiques and collectibles to Japanese clients. He’s constantly fretting about how to deal with his customers, how to show proper respect, and so on, and at one point feels guilty for selling his country’s art as curiosities to foreigners. In one interesting scene, he goes to visit a prospective client, and even speaks in a noticeably Japanified manner. When he offers this customer and his wife a gift, for example, he says, “Bagatelle for you. To display fragment of the relaxation and enjoyment I feel in being here.” This sounds like a student’s understandable-but-awkward attempts at conversing in a new language, not the speech of a native-born American.
One major theme of the book is uncertainty about what’s real and what’s not, which Dick also covered in other works like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” but it’s more fully developed here. Childan discovers that many of his products are counterfeits, two different characters have secret identities, not counting a Jewish character who’s had surgery and a name change to pass as white, and most importantly the ending, which I won’t spoil, calls the reality of everything else in the novel into question in an extremely metafictional way.
It was that ending that really sold me on the novel back in college, though it’s so out of left field that it’s more clever than satisfying as a conclusion to the story. In fact, one possible criticism of the novel is that this conclusion is only known to one character, Juliana, and the story could probably have starred only her. If Dick had written the story only about Juliana, completely writing out the other characters except for some references to her ex-husband, the story would still be complete and thematically coherent. I’m glad the other characters are there because I enjoy their stories a lot and they do expand on the themes, but strictly speaking they could be considered almost as an “expanded universe” for the novel. I don’t consider this a problem, really, it just means that the plot isn’t as tightly constructed as it could be. The only other problem is that I don’t buy Juliana’s behaviour near the climax of the novel with Joe Cinnadella, but this is only one scene in an otherwise-excellent book.
So, High Castle is just solid, A-level fiction, and it’s still one of my favourite novels. Even if you’re not generally interested in alternate history stories, this one is well worth the time to read.