I bought The Man In The High Castle before taking the train to Liverpool on my recent trip, but I didn’t end up reading it on the journey there (when I hadn’t planned to) or the journey back to London (because I was reading Barney Farmer’s Drunken Baker). I instead kept it to hand as I finally, eventually, inevitably, did my big and long foreshadowed #brexodus.
I read The Man In The High Castle in congested traffic as I left London; I read The Man In The High Castle as I waited at Folkestone for the next Eurotunnel train that would let me on after I missed my pre-booked one by like literally moments; I read The Man In The High Castle as the train shuddered through the Channel Tunnel; I read The Man In The High Castle as I gobbled the rare, terrible, bits of vegetarian food I could find at French service stations; I read The Man In The High Castle at the budget roadside hotel I slept in, cuddling my dog as we shivered in the air-conditioned room that stank of fags and I read The Man In The High Castle as I sat, finally free, overlooking the Mediterranean, safe in the knowledge that evermore right-wing England will not be my home, at least for a while.
I picked up The Man In The High Castle because I’ve been enjoying the recent series of Star Trek on Netflix recently, which has several episodes set in an alternate reality. The Man In The High Castle is also set in an alternate reality (albeit not a futuristic one), but one where the Axis powers won the Second World War and the Nazis have committed huge acts of genocide across the planet, leaving few places untouched by violence. The novel is set in this alternative North America, a landmass that has been partitioned into a Nazi-controlled East, a Japan-controlled West and a neutral, buffer, state in the middle. Most of the action takes place in San Francisco, where a Jewish man who makes counterfeit antiques for the elite Japanese collector market gets arrested by the German secret service; an antiques dealer tries to smarmy up to everyone with power; a high-ranking member of the Japanese Trade Mission plans a major business deal with a man who turns out to be a German spy; while over in the neutral buffer state the antiques counterfeiter’s ex-wife hooks up with a charming truck driver and then plan, together, to visit a man who has written a novel that purports to describe a world where – shock horror – the Germans and the Japanese lost the war…
I picked up The Man In The High Castle because the premise sounded fun, sounded groovy, sounded like a kooky sci-fi spin through a speculative alternate world. The novel starts off with mentions of the Germans having made massive use of the Hydrogen Bomb, having developed interplanetary travel and having dammed and drained the Mediterranean. All of these ideas, though, don’t really affect the plot much, other than the use of incredibly fast international rocket ship travel for the very [very] elite. I started the book expecting a rip-roaring adventure as the central novel-within-the-novel resonated with more and more people and the secret readers in the Nazi-controlled parts of the world and the non-secret readers in the less-repressed Japanese-controlled parts of the world began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, the world described by the novel could exist. The I Ching has become a central part of North American culture, an oracle, THE oracle, that tells truth, knows all, is able to inform and reveal and open open open everything. Was the novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a source of truth? Is the horror that the characters in The Man In The High Castle are living not the future they deserve and should they instead be within the future of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy? Should there be less genocide, less nuclear bombs, less interplanetary travel, less depressing reality and less fear that the Nazis might fucking nuke Japan so they can be the only superpower left on the planet?
Who knows? This makes it sound like The Man In The High Castle is a fast-paced, plotty, heady, thriller. It is not, not at all. There is about as much action in terms of word count in the book as there is in this blog post. The brief moments of violence – when plot flares, as it were – are tight and engaging and powerful, but for the most part this isn’t the trashy sci-fi romp about alternate worlds that I was anticipating, it is instead a truly literary piece of speculative fiction. Though, of course, clouded by the rampant literary chauvinism of its time (there are strong, sexually empowered women, but they’re very much a male novelist’s idea of strong, sexually empowered women), and very proud of its 1960s hippie roots (tripping and doobies and a focus on exploration of the moon), The Man In The High Castle is not a faultless novel, but it sure as hell is a far, far more serious piece of literature than I had anticipated it being.
I bought this to be excited, I bought this to engage in mindless non-thinkery as I took a hungover train across the UK, but then I actually read it while I attempted mindless non-thinkery as I relaxed in the breaks of a 3000km drive. It turned out, though, that The Man In The High Castle isn’t quite appropriate for either. And – to be honest – I’m glad. As much as I enjoy reading the occasional bit of absolute crap, I don’t love doing that, and I don’t think that is the best use of my time or of the written word. It turns out that Philip K. Dick’s novel is linguistically playful, is rich with characterisation and depictions of humanity, is engaging in its speculative projection and actually makes pretty much nothing sensationalistic out of what could potentially be a crass, dull and indulgent tale.
If you’re after swashbuckling, Nazi-killing bullshit, you ain’t gonna find it here. If you want playful depictions of a dark alternate present mired in genuinely literary language and image, then The Man In The High Castle comes highly recommended from me. I went in wanting something brainless and easy, I came away with something clever and impressive. A nice surprise, to be honest. A nice fucking surprise.