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The Man in the High Castle

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

Alternate history has a long tradition, going back many years before science fiction writers started using its tropes to fashion new stories. However, it has been put to good use by quite a few in the genre for the past couple of decades, and many of those owe a debt to Philip K. Dick for paving the way with this Hugo-winning novel, especially for its focus on World War II as being the most significant historical event of the 20th Century. All such stories start with a basic premise: what if one event was changed by some factor, what would be the result? In this instance, what if Giuseppe Zangara had been successful in his assassination attempt on Franklin Roosevelt in 1933?

Dick postulates that John Nance Garner would have ascended to the presidency, been unsuccessful in combating the depression, and thus the US would not have been in a viable economic position to build a war machine that could aid in the defeat of the Axis powers. Germany, Japan and Italy (which in this reality did not betray the Axis) now rule the world. Japan occupies most of the western US, up to the Rockies at least, with Germany occupying lands from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi. Little is said of the political clout of the Italians, but one can assume they control the Mediterranean area, and possibly the Balkans and the Middle East. There is technically still a United States of America, made up of the mid-western states, but the activities of that government are still controlled, mainly by the Germans.

Even though written in third person, the story gives the perspectives of several different characters, American, Japanese and German. Most of the action takes place in San Francisco, with a parallel story in Colorado. The three main Americans are Robert Childan (a dealer in American antiquities which are popular with the Japanese), Frank Frink (an artisan who works for a company which supplies fake antiquities), along with Frank's estranged wife Juliana, who lives in a small Colorado town. All of them, to one degree or another, have come to terms with their country's subjugation, and like many others, they have incorporated several Asian traditions into their own lives. Foremost of these is their reliance on the oracle of the I Ching, or "Book of Changes."

Just as with any nation or governmental entity, there are many factions vying for power in this world. With one exception, the Germans are cast in an extremely negative light, with Dick more complimentary of the Japanese in most instances. It makes sense that the Germans, with their emphasis on their Aryan heritage and the purity of the race, would feel superior even to those countries they were allied with during the war. As stated earlier, there are very few references to Italy, and the impression is that Germany has little use for them. There are also German factions which would favor the subjugation of the Japanese as well.

The man referenced in the book's title is Hawthorne Abendson, author of the novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which is an alternate history depicting an America in which the Allies were the victors of the war. Banned by the German high command, the book is still a best-seller due to its notoriety. Juliana Frink is successful in meeting the author after reading the book, and their confrontation is a bit anti-climactic. I suppose their final verbal exchange could be interpreted in at least two different ways, and even though this was the third time I've read the book, I'm still not sure what my opinion is.

The lives and actions of the characters are interwoven in a way as to paint a vivid picture of life in the US under this regime, without going into too much detail or needless exposition. If written today by any number of contemporary authors, publishers would want to stretch it out to at least a trilogy, whereas Dick did it masterfully in less than 200 pages. This is probably his most accessible book for the general reader, at least those familiar with our recent history, while at the same time it has elements of the paranoia and schizophrenia of the typical Dick novel. The characters are well-drawn, and Dick makes it easy to understand each of their perspectives. My favorite sequence in the book involves a Japanese trade minister and a piece of jewelry made by Frank Frink and presented to him by Robert Childan.

While not my favorite of his books, it is the best of the Hugo nominees that year, well deserving of the award.

Related Links:
My review of the Amazon series
My PKD profile page


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