The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip Dick

This book is pretty amazing. It is a modern classic, a genre-bending tale that for the first time allowed a speculative fiction to also be a serious philosophical book that delved deeply into human issues of responsibility and morality. At times it is almost intensely insane, and you need to dig in deep to stay with the wild ride.

When I first started reading High Castle I was on a plane. I already have flying anxiety and this book ... did not help. I swiftly put it aside for lighter fare, and picked it up again when my feet were firmly on the ground again. For that reason, among others, I have classified this book under Lauren's existential angst-creating books, and suggest The Book Oracle's Guide for Combatting Existential Angst after reading this.

The basic concept is this: The Nazis won. Twenty years later, the world is a very different place, and I both admire and resent Dick for his twisted, detailed imagination as he creates this alternate reality. Alternate realities are one of the major themes (or plot points?) of the book, as many of the characters are connected around one book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in which the author wrote about an alternate reality where the Allies won instead of the Axis. So there is a lot of mind fuckery going on.

There were also just so many horrifying details about what the world looks like under Nazi control, often just sort of thrown in there and never explored. Like the entire population of Africa is killed. Or the Mediterranean was drained to create more Lebensraum. And the reader is just left in somewhat of a stunned silence.

There are also some very real depictions of racism laid out in the day to day life of the characters, some of which I'm not comfortable getting into here. It goes without saying that it would not have been a good thing if the Nazis had won.

Interestingly, at the time of publishing, Philip Dick wrote pulpy science fiction novels and was never taken seriously, not at that time, anyway. The Man in the High Castle changed that, as it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1963, and also changed the course of science/speculative fiction. This above all is a book about ideas.

Most of the narrative takes places in the Japanese-controlled west coast of the former USA, and most of the characters rely heavily on the I Ching to guide their moral decisions. In reading about this book afterwards, I discovered Dick himself relied heavily on the I Ching to write the book, a plot twist which comes up in the book itself. It's all very meta, and maybe an absurd way to write a book? As a writer, I'm conflicted - is it brilliant? Is is a cop out? Is is batshit? Potentially all of the above.

Overall, The Man in the High Castle has some out-of-this-world amazing world building, with an over-arching dream-like quality. I enjoyed it on some levels, but not all levels, as in some ways it is extremely difficult to read. I've not seen the TV adaptation of the book yet, although I've heard some very good things (about the first two seasons at least). If there are any fans of the show, would love to know what you think!