An Alternate History Primer: The Man in the High Castle

Some alternate universes would be fun to visit, like a universe where I was born as a shape-shifting unicorn. Or that other universe where cheese quesadillas are legally required to be free. But an alternate universe you probably don’t want to vacation in is depicted in Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle: a world where WWII went super-differently than we remember. (Spoiler alert: someone other than the Allies won.) Poised to officially launch as an Amazon TV series this Friday, now is the perfect time to revisit the totally classic science fiction novel that started it all. Here’s everything you need to know/remember about the novel version of The Man in the High Castle.

The Book Is Very Subtle

I know. This sounds crazy: a book about the Axis winning WWII is somehow subtle. I’m being silly! But, ’tis true, because on page-by-page level, nothing about Dick’s style with this book is bombastic at all. While certain short stories of his (“Paycheck” comes to mind) might hit you over the head with all their crazy sci-fi concepts, The Man in the High Castle is successful as an alternate reality book because it’s presented with matter-of-fact-ease. Case in point; the first chapter deals with a guy (Robert Childan) who is selling nostalgia items for a living. True, in the over-the-top department, there is a scene where the Nazis have landed on Mars, BUT, it’s taking place on a television set as news, making the event more about context than a stark naked crazy plot point.

It Isn’t Just About Nazis

A lot of the action of The Man in the High Castle takes place in the west of North America, which in this universe, is controlled by Japan. Nazis certainly are a component of what makes the novel tick, but they’re not the even presented as the main antagonist. Actually, what is so successful about the novel is that the ruling Japanese aren’t presented as antagonists much either. Individuals are good or bad here, not entire nations, and those in power are presented as a simple fact of life. Here, the Nazis rule most of America from the Midwest to the east coast, which is referred to as “The Reich.” That’s the part of the US you really don’t want to go to, like at all. By contrast the Japanese-ruled west coast is actually not terrible.

The I-Ching is a Big Deal

Throughout the book, it is very common for characters to consult the I-Ching (also called the Oracle, it’s an ancient Chinese divination text) in order to make decisions. This is straight-up bizarre since the book is already asserting all sorts of other daily activities to people’s lives which we’re unaccustomed to. I say bizarre, but it is also really, really cool because it interestingly grounds the novel in a kind of thematic pattern: everyone uses the I-Ching. True to his bad-self, Philip K. Dick apparently also used the I-Ching to make decisions as to how he would write this novel. If we’re going to be honest; this process might be the best way to plot out a novel, ever.

The Novel Contains a Meta-Novel

Who’s the man? The man in the high castle is the man. And his name is: Hawthorne Abendsen and he’s written a novel called The Grasshopper lies Heavy. Yeah. This novel inside of a novel is all about an “alternate” history where the Allies did win the war. Now, because this novel was written by someone who lives in this alternate universe where that didn’t happen, his version of how that went down is not exactly like the event we experienced in our universe. It’s an alternate universe-alternate universe novel. Now: imagine a TV show based on The Grasshopper lies Heavy in which a character has written the entirety of The Man in the High Castle. Boom: talk about triple alternate universe action! Nothing is real!

The Very Nature of Artifacts and Antiques is Turned Inside Out

In the Pacific Northwest of the United States, the ruling Japanese are obsessed with vintage pre-war American artifacts. This kind of kitsch stuff often manifests itself as objects like a Mickey Mouse wristwatch being considered priceless. What is deemed valuable or presented as an “antique” is masterfully critiqued because you start to realize the notion of antique and vintage rely heavily on large global power-shifts. (One can’t help but think about the Nazi obsession with ancient world artifacts in the Indiana Jones movies!) But, the cool twist here is the notion of characters like Frank Frink and Ed McCarthy actually manufacturing false nostalgia pieces. This idea obviously somehow accidentally predicted the advent of Urban Outfitters in our universe.

There are A LOT of POVs

In addition to Frank and Ed, there are probably like six more point-of-view characters throughout The Man in the High Castle. While this might not be on par with the staggering number of POVs in a Robert Jordan or George R.R. Martin novel, it’s still quite a few. It is however a little jarring in the opening chapters, simply because you’re trying to get your footing with all the alternate-universe stuff. It does, however, make perfect sense for a TV show.

It Might Be Dick’s Best Book. Period.

Philip K. Dick was such a shockingly prolific writer that it would be tough to actually claim he has one book that is better than all the rest. Many would say Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? would top that list. Still others might cite Valis or Ubik. But nobody thinks The Man in the High Castle sucks and that’s because it holds up not just as a science fiction novel, but as a regular, good solid novel, too. This is the kind of book you simply don’t come across every single day: super imaginative, shockingly frightening, and a kind of “message fiction” that isn’t being too obvious about anything.

 

I’m not sure if the TV series will be able to capture the small dynamics and almost dry tone of The Man in the High Castle, but it will certainly be interesting to see it play out over a whole series. One strength of Philip K. Dick’s stories and novels is his ability to spin over-the-top premises as though you’re just going to the grocery store to pick up milk. He may be the most well-known science fiction writer of all time, but he got that way by keeping it real. And despite how nuts The Man in the High Castle gets, it’s his realest novel ever.

The Man in The High Castle TV show debuts on Amazon this week.
Top image from an early edition cover of the novel.

Ryan Britt is the author of Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths out from Plume (Penguin Random House) next week. He is a longtime contributor to Tor.com and loves Dick.

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