The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High Castle

by Philip K Dick


I first read The Man in the High Castle many years ago, and remember being underwhelmed by it in comparison with Harris's Fatherland. In light of the recent furor over it, I decided to read it, and I'm glad I did, as my comparison to Fatherland was way off base. At its core, The Man in the High Castle isn't a book about an alternate reality where the Nazis won; it's about our world, our reality, our time.

When the story starts, a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which portrays a world in which America won the war, is circulating throughout America. The Nazis have banned it, but this only increases its allure. Although readers are captivated by the utopia that the author presents, others see it differently:
"What is it Abendsen wanted to say? Nothing about his make-believe world. [...] He told us about our own world. [...] He wants us to see it for what it is."
And how could this be any less true of The Man in the High Castle?

Which isn't to say that a world ruled by the Nazis is directly comparable to our own. As one of the characters thinks, it is a "psychotic world" where "the madmen are in power"--fortunately, it includes many atrocities that our reality cannot begin match. The world PKD portrays is unrelentingly, heartbreakingly, savagely bleak: the Holocaust was expanded throughout the world, slavery has been reinstituted, Africa has been blown into a nuclear waste, the American northeast has been transformed into a series of work camps, and religious and political freedom cannot even be imagined. Fear pervades the book, and a sense of helplessness. The terrible imaginings required for the story affected PKD so badly that he wasn't ever able to finish the sequel he planned.

But despite the difference in degree, the similarities are equally stark. Even within the story, Grasshopper's sanguine portrayal is met with scepticism:
"There isn't anything they've done we wouldn't have done if we'd been in their places. They saved the world from Communism."
"[America and Britain are] both plutocracies, rule by the rich. If they had won, all they'd have thought about was making more money, the upper class. Abendsen, he's wrong; there would be no social reform."
PKD wrote the book at a time when unrest over civil rights cast systemic injustices into sharp relief, when the CIA actions demonstrated our arrogance and inhumanity, when burgeoning paranoia about communism effectively led to arrests and detentions for thoughtcrimes and Minority Report-style precrimes, where children were taught to "duck and cover" in ineffective protections against atomic annhilation, where the government used its own citizens as guinea pigs, where fear of the future justified destroying safety in the present. PKD himself was, at one point, questioned as a potential "dissident," and although he was never brought in front of the Committee on Un-American Activities, allusions to it pervade his work. Our own postwar world was no utopia. It was a world of gritty grey choices, with right and wrong stifled and complicated by fear, and at each moment, it threatened to plummet past the point of return. One character of PKD's reality thinks,
"On some other world, possibly it is different. Better. There are clear good and evil alternatives. Not these obscure admixtures, these blends, with no proper tool by which to untangle the components.
We do not have the ideal world, such as we would like, where morality is easy because cognition is easy. Where one can do right with no effort because he can detect the obvious."
But I think PKD's point was that the reality he lived in, a reality where ends such as "fighting communism" could always be cast as justifying any means, was no ideal.
"The terrible dilemma of our lives. Whatever happens, it is evil beyond compare. Why struggle, then? Why choose? If all alternatives are the same…
Evidently, we go on, as we always have. From day to day. [...] We can only control the end by making a choice at each step [...] We can only hope. And try."
Yet while they may try, it soon becomes clear that all of the characters are helpless, trapped in situations that they do not understand and never will. They have no real agency, and often their only real decisions come down to cooperation or death. Is it any wonder they tend "unerringly choose the easier of two evils"? PKD even traces the Nazis' actions to a struggle against fate:
"They want to be the agents, not the victims, of history. They identify with God's power and believe they are godlike. That is their basic madness."
As one might expect of a book from the era, there are a lot of unfortunate stereotypes, the most grating of which is that the Japanese talk (and think!) in a sort of pidgin English that dispenses with pronouns and articles and depend heavily on the I Ching to make almost every decision of their lives. At the same time, Tagomi, a Japanese minister in the Japanese Pacific States, is perhaps the most sympathetic character of the book, and the only one consumed with doing what is right rather than what is best for him. I found the rest frustratingly small-minded and selfish, but I think this is the intent: nothing the characters do really matters, and they themselves realize this. Juliana, whose vanity and myopia are positively staggering, even thinks to herself:
"We have no value. We can live out our tiny lives. If we want to. If it matters to us."
Trapped in an insane world, the only thing left for them to do is cooperate, to focus on the trivial minutiae, to try to carve out a space of normality in the madness. Everyone in the book is helpless. This is not a world that can be cured by a lone vigilante or a grand ideal or a sweeping movement. If any of the characters' actions are meaningful, this importance is only visible in retrospect:
"The crucial point lies not in the present [...]; it lies--hypothetically--in the future. What has happened here is justified, or not justified, by what happens later."
Ultimately, The Man in the High Castle isn't really about life under Nazi rule. It's about perspective, about choices and their absence, about the creeping loss of control, about the ways means taken to justify ends can become the ends in themselves. The world PKD creates is but a distorted reflection of our own. As Tagomi thinks,
"Seen through glass darkly not a metaphor, but astute reference to optical distortion. We really do see astigmatically, in fundamental sense: our space and our time creations of our own psyche, and when these momentarily falter--like acute disturbance of the middle ear.
Occasionally we list eccentrically, all sense of balance gone."
Honestly, I have no idea how they can transform it into a TV show.