Every thing we take for granted has been a result of the efforts of our past. America’s status as world super power was a result of D-day and the A-bomb granting US victory over Nazi Germany and Axis Japan. The development of the 1950’s suburban middle class and the civil rights movement of the 1960’s would not have occurred if the depression era wasn’t overcome by our victory in WWII. Now imagine a world where that victory hadn’t occurred. A world where FDR was assassinated before Germany invaded Poland and a world were all of our Pacific naval fleet was destroyed at Pearl Harbor. This would be a world dominated by Nazi Germany with global eradication of the Jewish race and an expansion of Japanese Empire onto our Pacific Western Coast. This is the backdrop for Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.
What was interesting about this novel is that Dick doesn’t focus too much on going into excessive detail about structure of the world run by Japan and Germany. Of course there are differences with Japanese merchants in the West being a higher class than whites, the reinstatement of slavery, Germany’s totalitarian presence in the East and commentary about German ingenuity and the Eastern philosophies of Buddhism and the I Ching. Dick is a confident enough writer to not get caught in these details of social fantasy. The backdrop of an alternate history allows The Man in the High Castle to be a novel about ideas, place, and the circumstances of time. These themes are most clearly displayed in many of the character’s fascination with a novel within the novel that proposes an alternate history where the US and England win the war and are now fighting to suppress communism. This novel is an underground hit and the Nazi powers have banned its circulation. Its readers are motivated to question their reality and recognize that their lives are dominated not by German or Japanese superiority, but by circumstance.
The plot of The Man in the High Castle does begin awkwardly with one of the main character’s acting as a dealer in American antiquity to high class Japanese merchants, but it soon becomes clear that the Japanese interest and obsession with antiquated American ingenuity becomes a thematic point about the concepts of historical value and authenticity. These concepts become pervasive throughout the novel as several of the characters live with false faces, false names, and conduct activities with duplicitous motives. Even the novel’s title The Man in the High Castle is a fallacy: the title is based on the myth that the author of the novel within the novel lives in a fortress called the High Castle but we later learn that this author had moved from his fortress into a simple home with open doors willing to allow strangers to converse freely rather than live locked up hiding away from Nazi retaliation. As much as fallacy is a theme, there is a sacredness placed within true authenticity. The sacred of authenticity is made evident by an odd moment when a Japanese character becomes so focused on a small piece of modern American jewelry that it appears that he is momentarily transported into our reality, as evidenced by his recognition of the Embarcadero freeway for the first time (the use of the word freeway is important because all other highways in the novel were referred to as autobahns). This moment passes as he loses the authentic object and he seems to be transported back to the Japanese dominated San Francisco of his reality.
Although the novel is an alternate history, I found that it was somewhat dated, as evidenced by some blatant 1960’s perceptions about technology that we know have changed in modern times. The America of the 1960’s viewed Japanese products as inferior and I think that Dick’s characterization of the Japanese as lacking ingenuity and being so engrossed with Americana is based on this dated perception. I wonder how Dick would have written this same story if he lived through Japan’s economic expansion of the 1970’s and 80’s. I recognize that my criticisms are based upon my perceptions developed through the history that I know and have lived through, which is an ironic reflection of the novel’s main theme. To that affect, Dick has succeeded in allowing me to question the circumstances of my reality.