on May 15, 2000
The Man in the High Castle is Dick's masterpiece. Along with VALIS and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, it completes the trilogy of the author's essential works. A must read for Dickheads or for anyone who considers himself a serious fan of science fiction. Dick was clearly influenced by two earlier works of alternative history, Sarban's The Sound of His Horn and C. M. Kornbluth's "Two Dooms". In turn, The Man in the High Castle has influenced any number of later works, not just Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream and the novels of Harry Turtledove, but Ursula LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven as well.
This is a very complex, suspenseful novel, consisting of four main plot lines and a host of characters whose lives sometimes interact. Don't expect any slam-bang pyrotechnic action here, despite the novel's provocative premise. It's more a slice of life tale, showing that even after a catastrophic defeat, life in America would go on. Dick is very good at detailing the nuances of life in Axis-ruled America. For example, at one point as an aside, it is pointed out that after the Nazi pograms, the only surviving prewar comedian is Bob Hope, and even he has to broadcast out of Canada. Also, an unintended irony for a novel written in 1962 is Dick's conjecture that if the United States had lost WWII, we would all be listening to Japanese audio equipment and driving German cars now. The author achieves the near impossible feat of actually being even-handed towards the Nazis without glamorizing them. He describes them at one point as Neanderthals in white lab coats, technological geniuses who have drained the Mediterranean and are conquering the Solar System, yet are morally bankrupt. Dick is much easier on the Japanese, depicting them not just as benign conquerors, but almost like a group of tourists, just off the latest JAL flight headed for the souvenir stand at Disneyland. Only in one brief instance when Juliana Frink reminiscences about conditions in San Francisco immediately after the occupation is their wartime rapacity even hinted at.
Several other reviewers here appear to be put off that the novel didn't live up to the action and dramatic tension hinted at in the synopsis above or the 1964 Popular Library cover with its map of the United States superimposed by Nazi and Imperial Japanese flags. When I first read it back in 1964 at age fourteen, I felt much the same way. On rereading it in 1988, however, I saw it for its true worth, an existential novel of the first order (ranking with the best of Camus or Sartre). It represents the fullest flowering of Dick's most consistent theme: What is reality? The provocative setting of an alternative universe where the Axis has won World War II and now occupies a defeated and humiliated America is merely a sensational back drop for Dick's real theme: how can we be sure of what is real? Thus the seemingly minor scene involving two Zippo lighters is actually the key to understanding the whole novel. One is merely a minor collectible, the other is priceless, Mr. Wyndam-Matson tells his mistress. What's the difference? The one was the actual lighter FDR was carrying when he was assassinated in 1934. But how does he know it is real? Well, he has a paper that certifies it is. But how does he know the paper is real? And so on. Likewise, the emphasis on the Japanese obsession with collecting authentic relics of America's prewar past is a symbolic of the authenticity which all the novel's characters are seeking in their own diverse ways. The anticlimactic and ambiguous ending also only serves to re-enforce what Dick was trying to say. In retrospect, he couldn't have ended it any other way. To neatly wrap things up would only subvert the novel's whole premise.
on January 26, 1998
Alternate history...Philip K. Dick style.
What does that mean? Well, basically, if you think that the characters in this book seem a little out of place, keep reading, and you may find YOURSELF out of place.
On the surface, it is the usual time-shifting novel...FDR was assasinated in 1936, and as a result, the United States lost WW II. Twenty years in the future, when the novel takes place, Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire have occupied the United States and imposed their brand of culture on their respective halves of the American populace.
But this book really isn't about alternate time lines...its about alternate realities. Things are not as they seem...characters' true identities are hidden, and their moralities are tested. It's about the nature of the true state of the universe, Eastern religion, and the I-Ching. When Philip K. Dick is at his best, his characters question their own existence, and it soon follows that the readers do the same.
So when you come to the end of the book, hopefully, a number of things will happen:
Number 1: You'll instantly re-read the ending.
Number 2: You'll throw the book against the wall and exclaim "that's it?"
Number 3: You'll probably re-read the ending again.
Number 4: You'll swear that you'll never read another Philip K. Dick novel.
Number 5: Later, you'll think a bit about the book, and realize that the novel wasn't really about what you thought it was.
Number 6: You'll read it again. And again...
This isn't your typical sci-fi novel. The story doesn't wrap-up into a neat little package. Like Eastern religions, time is not linear, it is circular, and that is the reality of the book.
Alternate histories are so commonplace in sci-fi today, that it is important to look at this book as the one that really started it all. A completely original masterpiece...even the followers can't keep up.
on March 8, 2002
Philip K. Dick's masterpiece is one of the classics of the alternative history genre. This was my first Philip K.Dick novel and it's so good that I want to light up a Land-o-Smiles and read everything he's ever written. The characters seem like real people. The story is told through interleaved overlapping stories that revolve around the Nazi and Japanese domination of America after America and the British lost WWII in 1947. It's 1962 and the United States has been divided between the Nazis in the East and the Japanese in the West. America has become a third world country controlled and exploited by the victors. The Japanese are better masters than the Germans. The Germans have turned their part of the world into a living nightmare and are plotting to start a war with the Japanese. The Japanese are quiet and philosophical. The scenes of life in Japanese dominated San Francisco are oddly familiar. Dick has transposed the usual circumstance a visiting American finds in third world countries friendly to the United States: Wealthy foreigners living in exclusive enclaves, fawning local businessmen eager to get the foreign visitor's business, local police dominated and loosely controlled by the foreigners. The I Ching is central to the story, guiding the action of many of the protagonists.
In all an imaginative take on what life could have been like, uniquely flavored by the influence of Eastern Philosophy.
on September 4, 2000
OK, first let's get one thing out of the way - this is a great book, and it's absolutely irrelevant if you label it "science fiction," "alternative history," or whatever. Except for the purposes of book marketing, who cares anyway? The bottom line is that Philip K. Dick was too complex and intelligent a man for his work to be pinned down into any one genre. And who would want it to be?!? On one level, or course, "The Man in the High Castle" is - at least on the surface and on the jacket cover - about an alternative time line in which America loses World War II (with the Nazis taking over East of the Mississippi, the Japanese West of the Rockies, and the middle being a kind of backwater/no-man's land). But what is this book really about? My conclusion after reading the book, as well as many of the reviews here and out there on the web, as well as some stuff about Philip K. Dick, as well as talking to a really smart friend of mine who has read the book many times, is that this book is about several main themes, and can be read on several different levels (as most great works of fiction can be).
Thus, in my opinion "The Man in the High Castle" is about, among other things (in no particular order): 1) the lives of Americans under Japanese occupation; 2) the lives of the Japanese occupiers, and especially their interaction with various Americans - white, black, Jewish; 3) the Japanese-German relationship, and the difference in Japanese and German culture; 4) what is the nature of "reality"?; 5) what is "authentic" and what is "fake"?; 6) what constitutes a moral life?; 7) culture and national identity; 8) how does one remain true to one's self/ideals, especially when it isn't easy to do so; 9) what is sane and what is crazy, especially in a highly confusing world without clear black-and-white moral choices (in other words, OUR world!)?; 10) the concept that there is some fascist within all of us, and how easy it is for fascism to settle in comfortably to "middle America"; 11) the place of the artist, artistic freedom, and artistic courage; 12) the connection between art and the "real world"; and 13) a relatively deterministic (i.e., Hegelian, the I Ching) view of the way history works (in which humans are essentially pawns) vs. one in which things are NOT preordained and in which actions (or lack thereof) by individuals can play huge roles. Whew! That's more to think about in one book than you'll get in several books of popular fiction put together!
The bottom line: Philip K. Dick is a genius, and this is possibly his greatest book (although another one of his books is better known because it was made into the movie "Blade Runner"). Read it now...you won't soon forget it! (PS The complaints about the ending not tying things up neatly totally miss the point of the book - see #4, #5, #8, #11, and #12 above!).
on August 3, 1997
Although I was satisfied enough with the earlier portions of the book -- which introduced the characters, set the several interweaving lines of plot in motion, etc. -- I was ultimately disappointed as none of it ended up going much of anywhere by the conclusion.
The situations which have been developing throughout the novel get brought to a close in the last few pages in what I felt was a too abrupt and unsatisfactory manner.
The scene in which one of the characters finally encounters the author of the novel in which the Axis lost the war was especially disappointing. I found it muddled and confused and it seemed as if Dick were playing around with various ideas but didn't really know what to do with them.
Most of the book takes place in the Japanese controlled area of the United States and one of the constantly recurring elements is that numerous characters (both Japanese and not) are constantly consulting the I Ching for guidance. However none of the material relating to utilization of this oracle and the philosophy attendant to it struck me as terribly deep or convincing.
I would say the same of the book's presentation of Japanese culture in general: it has been done with far more depth and success elsewhere.
Also, several of the plot elements introduced in the book but never resolved -- such as the existence of a secret German plot against the Japanese and the fact that the potential German/Japanese conflict might force the Japanese to ally themselves with certain morally repugnant elements of the Nazi regime or the suggestion that the Nazi programs of genocide may ultimately backfire and cause them severe economic problems -- struck me as potentially much more interesting than those with which the book primarily concerned itself.
I guess, overall, my feeling about the book is that it was generally flat. It didn't involve me with the characters or with the world it created. I felt like I was an uninterested observer watching the events from a distance. It failed to convey to me any of the sense of convincing veracity which I think any novel needs, at least to an extent, to succeed.
Lest the above give you wrong idea and cause you to think me simply out of tune with Philip Dick ("Oh, the reviewer obviously doesn't appreciate Dick's predilections. He obviously wanted this to be an espionage novel or a geopolitical thriller!"), let me just say that that is not at all the case.
The only other Dick novel I've read is Valis. Now Valis, for those of you who haven't read it, is far more non-linear and discursive than The Man in the High Castle, and far more radical in its blurring of the lines of what constitutes reality. And Valis, I thought, was great.
And just for your information lest the "July 1, '92" date on Amazon confuse you, The Man in the High Castle was published originally in 1962. (Valis was published in 1981.)
Andy Bruce aka firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday August 3rd, 1997
on September 2, 2001
I can understand why so many readers of this book say the ending "fails to deliver", or is somehow "confusing". But for me, there is one way of reading the ending that makes it powerful and really very simple. Juliana discovers that "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" contains Inner Truth, i.e. Abendsen's fictional account is actually true in the sense that Germany and Japan might have won WW2, but their victory will ultimately fail because it is unbalanced. It is against the Way. The world will return to a state of balance, as it must, and this requires their downfall. This theme is revealed repeatedly. We see it in the actions and experiences of many of the major characters. Each has a small victory over their oppressors: Childan finally breaks out of the Japanese etiquette; "Mr Baynes" and the Abwehr are plotting to defeat Operation Dandelion; Frank and Ed create a new and original 'wu'-filled jewelry which is the yang to the yin-darkness which lies all around; and Juliana murders the would-be assassin and finally realises the truth in "The Grasshopper". Throughout this society, a change is occurring - beneath the surface, the victorious are being undermined. As Dick writes: "The universe will never be extinguished because just when the darkness seems to have smothered all, to be truly transcendent, the new seeds of light are reborn in the very depths. That is the Way. When the seed falls, it falls into earth, into the soil. And beneath, out of sight, it comes to life." (p.106) I think there is one ambiguity in the ending, and far from being a weakness, I think it is one the novel's greatest qualities. I don't think Dick is just saying, "Even if Germany and Japan had won the war, America would have been victorious eventually because Americans are just so great." I think he's saying something more. If, in the parallel present he describes, the victory of the Axis powers is temporary because their new world is unbalanced, as revealed by a book which posits the opposite outcome, then what does Dick's own book say for our world where the Allies won? That THEIR victory is subject to the same argument, and the same threat: if it is not balanced, if it does not respect the Way, it too will fail. I think that is his real case.
on October 9, 2007
I have read only a few books in my life that are so disturbing that I have trouble completing them. Usually I don't have any trouble with serious novels and great literature, because I know going in that they have an agenda, a point to make- and usually not a pleasant one. But some books come at you sideways sneaking up with humor or escapism and sinking their talons into you. Catch-22 was one such book for me, and "The Man in the High Castle" was another.
By now it's a standard science fiction device to wonder what may have happened if things had gone differently in history. In fact, there is so much alternate history that it sometimes has a special sub-section devoted to it in the bookstore. But what most of those books concentrate on is the events: Roosevelt was assassinated, so the U.S. didn't enter WWII. The South won the Civil War, so slavery was never abolished. And so on. "Castle" has some of that, certainly. But it reads differently, because it concentrates on the effect of the new world on ordinary people. And needless to say the effect is not good.
In the world that Dick describes, the Japanese and the Nazis have won the second world war and divided the globe between them. The Japanese half is administered efficiently and held within the rule of law. The Nazi half is a charnel house of criss-crossing genocides; Jews, blacks, even Italians all exterminated with varying levels of prejudice, with no end in sight or comprehensible reason.
These events are in many ways remote from the characters in the book, all of whom live on the Japanese administered West Coast, or the "free" mountain states between them and the German East. But each character has internalized, to varying degrees, the horror that the world has become. Their basic thoughts are warped, and it seems as if some of them know it but cannot quite articulate what is wrong.
There is in this world a book of alternate history, a science fiction novel, that describes what the world might have been like if Germany and Japan has lost the war. I was expecting that book to mirror history as we know it, but of course it didn't - even the alternate history was gloomy, pessimistic, and wrong. The tragedy, as one of the German characters puts it, is that even to him this story of the defeat of the Reich seems more cheerful than the reality of their victory.
This is an incredible book, but a hard read. But ultimately I'm glad I picked it up, if only because it's good to be reminded from time to time of how good we have it here in the real world.
The Man in the High Castle is a skillful blend of abstract and concrete, of political theory and the impact of fascism and colonialism on a formerly free people. The novel is many things at once: a story of personal growth; a meditation on the nature and purposes of art; a deconstruction of political doctrine; an exploration of moral philosophy. I don't think I fully appreciated it when I first read it, about ten years after it was published. It still isn't my favorite Philip K. Dick novel (Ubik holds that distinction) but, after rereading it, I have a better grasp of what Dick was trying to accomplish. It is probably the best alternate history I've encountered.
As is true of the best Philip K. Dick novels, The Man in the High Castle is intricately plotted. The first half of the story establishes characters and sets up the intrigue. It isn't immediately clear where the story is headed. The second half weaves together the various storylines, all taking place in a world where Germany and Japan prevailed in World War II. Not every story is nicely resolved, but that's a reflection of life.
The cast of characters includes an Italian fascist, a Nazi, a Japanese bureaucrat, a divorced Jewish couple, and American forgers and dealers in Americana, both antiquities and kitsch. Dick made the inspired decision to write a book within a book: although it is banned in some places, everyone is reading a novel that imagines the US and Britain had defeated Germany and Japan. The device allows characters to compare life in Dick's alternate history to life as it more-or-less exists in post-war America.
To some extent, The Man in the High Castle is more interesting for the questions the characters ask than for the events that shape their lives. Would anyone but Philip K. Dick imagine a German, victorious after World War II, thinking: "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." If there is any context in which doing what is "right" is "obvious," it is Nazi Germany. Yet even in that context a soldier who wants to challenge the leadership of the Reich finds himself wondering whether he is following the right path. It is fashionable to condemn "moral relativism" in modern America, but Dick masterfully portrays the difficulty of viewing life through the lens of absolutism. That is one of many respects in which Dick encourages the reader not just to read and enjoy the story, but to think. This is a novel that benefited from a second reading; I think it would easily bear a third.
on November 25, 2000
When Borges writes mind-bending stories with ideas playing off of each other never concluding but offering up tension for the readers, he is a deep writer. When Philip K. Dick does the same with novels, he's a genre writer. With novels like this one, Dick proves the fallacy of the science fiction ghetto.
America has lost World War II. The Japanese are in the West while the Nazis control the East Coast. Jews are secretly going about plotting the destruction of this system, while slavery is once again in fashion. Marijuana is legal and sold on the street corner and the Japanese still buy American pop culture trinkets with a missionary zeal. Meanwhile a man has written a book in which America won the War in an "alternate history" where FDR wasn't assassinated in 1936, Italy turned against Germany and Hitler committed suicide. So disturbing is this book ot the Germans that they are sending assassins to him.
Meanwhile the I Ching is giving readings that are startlingly accurate and yet the people don't know it. No one is what they seem and the puzzle of existence and identity is played with with glee.
The only warning I give when reading this book is that like most Philip K. Dick books, most of the resolution happens 50 pages before the last page and what wasn't resolved by then won't be resolved and you are left wondering where the ending is supposed to be. It's a hazard of reading most Philip K. Dick books, but in this case it's worth it
on June 19, 2001
The outcome of World War II results in Germany and Japan wining the war and dividing America down the middle. Persecution of the Jews by the Nazis is still prevalent, while the Japanese are more interested in authentic American novelty items as collectors pieces. The world is not stable and everyone seems to have things to hide and fear.
A book, "Grasshopper Lies Heavy", has been written that tells the story that Germany and Japan lost the war and Hitler suicided. This underground and banned book has cult following and gives hope to those that have read it, while the Nazis want it and its author removed permanantly.
People determine their fate and make decisions with a toss of the "I Ching", while the world has not advanced too greatly and both the Nazis and Japanese distrust each other; staunchly enforcing their law in their territory.
Dick and his excellent imagination allow you to feel how the world is run in a post war alternate history masterpiece, showing us the kind of life he imagined if the War had not been won by the allies.
A brilliant idea for a novel that is filled with life searching questions, immoral acts and paranoia. The only down side is the ending, that leaves you slightly confused, asking yourself what next? A highly recommended read for anyone.