Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
What profit it a man if he gain the whole world but in this enterprise lose his soul?
— Philip K. Dick, Man in the High Castle
Reading about World War II is always fascinating. Tragedy and human suffering was perpetuated on an enormous scale by some of the most despicable men in history. In Man in the High Castle Philip K. Dick imagines an alternate timeline of human history where the Axis powers are the victors of World War II. A history where the world is divided up between Germany, Italy, and Japan. The novel is set in a conquered United States of America, in which the west coast is owned by Japan and renamed the Pacific States of America (or PSA) and the east coast is ruled by the Third Reich, with a buffer zone along the continental divide. The central conflict of this novel is the machinations the great powers have between each other and within themselves, as well as the reemergence of American culture, and the idea that the whole world may not be real at all.
Despite the premise of the novel it took me a few tries over the years to finally read this book all the way through. My friend lent it to me to read in 2010, and now I’ve finally read it in 2017. I found it hard to get into because of the first chapter, told from the POV of American antique dealer Robert Childan as he attempts to locate an artifact for a high-value client. I couldn’t see where the story was headed, and I wasn’t particularly engaged with Childan’s character. However once I made t through the first few chapters and I was introduced to the rest of the main characters I was locked in. Each of the different factions are represented, and we follow this multi-POV structure for the whole story, which helps us get an idea of the mindset and cultural norms of all of the different powers.
There is Nobusuke Tagomi, a representative of the Japanese trade mission in San Fransisco, Frank Frink, a Jewish war veteran in hiding working at a factory that supplies Robert Childan, Juliana Frink, Frank’s estranged wife who teaches Judo in Canon City, Colorado, Joe Cinadella, an Italian war veteran and truck driver who is Juliana’s lover, Baynes, an Abwher agent posing as a Swedish industrialist, and the reclusive author Hawthorne Abendson, who wrote a widely-read book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. This book is central to the plot as well and is extremely meta; it depicts a world in which the Allied powers win World War II like in our own history, an idea which many of the characters in the book find absurd. Nevertheless the book is banned in the eastern states under Nazi control because of the ideas presented in it. As with all banned books, it the ban does little to curb readership.
Another book is central to the plot and the character’s lives, one introduced to them by the Japanese, which beforehand was brought to them by the Chinese. The I Ching is a divination text that the characters use when they are worried about a situation or wondering what they should do next. Some find comfort in the book’s wisdom, and others cannot make important choices without it. The only characters that don’t use it or place much stock in it are Germans, possibly due to their no-nonsense nature. The Nazis control all of Europe and Africa along with Italy, and some of South America, and although Hitler is still alive he is too sick from syphilis and other medical issues to lead the Reich, so Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary, is Chancellor.
The character’s lives all intertwine across several core plots in the novel. Juliana Frink and Joe Cinadella decide to take a trip to upstate Colorado in order to meet Abendson. Tagomi purchases antiques off of Childan, one as a gift for Baynes, who is only visiting San Francisco as cover for his real meeting with General Tedeki to discuss Operation Dandelion, a Nazi plot to nuke the Japanese home islands in a pre-emptive war. Frank Frink and his business partner Ed open an American handcrafted jewelry business, and consign some of their wares to Childan, who finds a young Japanese couple who appreciate the spiritual force found in these simple pieces. One such piece of jewelry makes its way into the hands of Tagomi, and he attempts to find spiritual meaning and his place in the world, entering another alternate timeline in the process. The characters all struggle with their spirituality and moral grounding in some form or another, all of which links back to the old versus the new, and how they can make sense in a world that seems so wrong. The I Ching seemingly has answers for all of these, but as we find further on in the novel for each decision the I Ching makes, there is an alternate decision made in another world.
What I liked most about this book were not the philosophical meanderings, of which there were many, but rather all of the “what ifs” and continuing alternate timelines. Like finding out the Nazis dammed up and drained the Mediterranean for Lebensraum farmland, or that they have established colonies on Mars, Venus, and the Moon, or even their more sinister schemes like the genocide of and experimentation on the people of Africa. All of the things that turned out differently in the world because of mere chance. FDR being assassinated by Giuseppe Zangara instead of Chicago mayor Anton Cermak, and Reinhard Heydrich avoiding assassination and going on to become a powerful competitor to become the new Chancellor of Germany, vying for the position against Goebbels, Heydrich, Göring, and Seyss-Inquart after Bormann dies partway through the book. A lot of research by Dick has gone into making these situations plausible, and that makes them all the more chilling. In The Grasshopper Lies Heavy the “normal” timeline even diverges from our own — after World War II there is a cold war between the United Kingdom and the United States, which ends with the eventual collapse of the US, leaving the UK as the sole world superpower.
I found the ending, which I will not spoil, a little confusing though ultimately satisfying once I read about it a little more. It helps to keep in mind when reading the novel that Dick’s work often has a central theme of alternate or distorted reality, where everything is not as it seems. I would love to read a continuation of the story as not all plot threads were tied off, even though some characters find catharsis. Philip K. Dick did intend to write a sequel but he never got around to it, because he could not bring himself to continue reading about Nazis.