In The Man In The High Castle, Philip K. Dick demonstrates his genius by creating a world where Germany and Japan won World War Two and America is occupied by the Axis forces. While this story creates an alternate reality, the fact that it takes place in 1962 (when Dick wrote the book) serves to blur the distinction between science fiction and the present reality. The story revolves a few central characters who are in different situations. Mr. Tagomi, the novel’s main character works for a trade company and faces moral dilemmas throughout the book that involve his sense of what’s right and wrong. A separated married couple are also the focus of TMITHC. Juliana Frink lives in Colorado, the buffer zone between the Germans on the east coast and the Japanese on the west. She becomes increasingly fascinated with an underground novel entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy which paints a picture of an America that won WWII. It is a fascinating dichomoty that makes readers think twice about what is real and what is not. Her husband Frank Frink is a craftsman who makes cheap imitations of old American artifacts in a Japanese occupied California that demand high market value. Frank also faces moral choices in the book that challenge his artistic values.
The series of events takes place in a world where Japanese are the most respected members of American society. The cultural landscape that Dick creates in TMITHC is intense. It is a culture where the ancient Chinese oracle, the I Ching is consulted for moral decisions. Religion, social customs, art, aesthetics and racism are portrayed in a shockingly real manner. Dick himself used the I Ching to help him write the book, giving the story a spontaneous, open-ended quality. TMITHC won the Science Fiction Hugo Award for best novel in 1962. A great Dick novel that employs many classic Dick themes and writing techniques but might be different than what you’d expect.
Warning: Reading the review below may give away the story if you haven’t read it.
The Man in the High Castle certainly poses many probing questions. It seems that the heart of this story revolves around the ethical decisions of the main characters. Like many readers I was left wondering about the meaning of the ending of TMITHC. While many events unfold in this novel, by the end there are still lots of unresolved pieces of the story. Although I found TMITHC difficult to get into, by the end I was taken by Dick’s portrait of a Japanese occupied California. More than the story I thought that one of the most intriguing elements of this book was the atmosphere of the country in this alternate reality. The tone of Dick’s writing and the gloomy mood he creates serve to place the characters in settings which are uncanny and ghostly realistic.
Dick’s work has been criticized on it’s lack of character development. In my humble opinion TMITHC creates some of the most heartfelt characters and situations I’ve reads in any of his books to date. He refutes this criticism by looking deep into the minds of Mr. Tagomi and Juliana & Frank Frink. It seems that the events which unfold for each of the characters are unrelated however they are all connected by their obsession with The Grasshopper Lies Heavy and the intense moral choices they all must face. As is explained in the excellent essay The Meaning of the Man in the High Castle, each of the characters undergoes a profound change. Tagomi as he realizes that evil is real and comes to terms with his actions, Bob Childan’s decision not to sell out his new artistic wares and Juliana’s encounter with Hawthorne Abendsen all represent the moral decisions made by those characters.
This is a very mature novel by Dick that is very different from his futuristic anything-can happen science fiction stories. It uses many realistic cultural themes. Dick’s portrait of a Japanese culture obsessed with American artifacts rings truer than ever in the present time. More than many of his books, TMITHC sums up Dick’s fixation with World War II. In typical Dick fashion this novel incorporates many real-world elements that make his work so much more than science fiction. The whole concept of an alternate universe is expanded upon in the chapters Dick wrote for a proposed sequel to TMITHC. Told from a Nazi perspective, these chapters examine the existence of the Nebenwelt, the alternate reality wherein the Allies won the war. Just in these chapters, it becomes clear that the science fiction element is much stronger in his unfinished sequel. It’s been said that Dick was unable to finish this novel due to his inability to deal and write about the Nazi mentality. For a look at these chapters and a revealing essay by Dick entitled “Nazism and The Man In The High Castle” take a look at The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick – Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings (published posthumously).
I felt that the open-ended quality of TMITHC left me hanging. Although the Japanese are warned of the impending German invasion, we never know the outcome. Dick’s use of the I Ching is very unique and contributes to the cultural mood of the novel . The way the characters use the I Ching for key decisions reflects a much different morality than American virtue. It allows for many varied interpretations that are not blatantly obvious. Trying to imagine an America governed by such strong oriental philosophy is quite challenging. Modern ideas of American patriotism are dramatically altered as the main American characters in TMITHC have accepted this way of thinking. They are reluctant to challenge the status quo and continue to live as second class citizens.
The Americans desire for cultural autonomy is reflected in their obsession with The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. In a U.S. where independence is just a dream, an underground novel represents their only expression of distinctly American values. This is why Juliana is so disenchanted when she meets Hawthorne Abendsen and fins him and his situation different from his expectations.
The reality of an America occupied by Axis forces is reflected not as much in the history that would create those circumstances but rather through the eyes and actions of Dick’s characters in TMITHC. With all it’s dialogue and character interaction, it seems that this story would translate into an excellent screenplay and film that could accurately portray the aesthetics and mood of this Hugo Award winning novel. It wouldn’t be true to Dick’s vision if it didn’t leave the audience guessing.
Agree or disagree? Add a comment below.
THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE
NOTEON HISTORY 592 CLASS ON TUESDAY APRIL 1,
OR,THE GRASSHOPPER LIES HEAVY
“Thisis purely fiction you may believe every word of it.”
CHUNG FU - INNER TRUTH
The main reading for next week is Philip Dick’snovel THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, which is a wonderful novel in its own right,but which also raises some critical questions about the nature of history andof historical writing, and of memory. How do people know – or remember -the history they think they remember? These themes are all the more importantbecause of the contemporary cultural significance of what we can generally callpost-modern approaches. Not in any particular order, these are some of thequestions that we will be discussing, and which you should bear in mind as wediscuss the Dick book, and the readings on memory from Nora and Bodnar.Incidentally, we will also be watching a segment of a film that raises issuesvery similar to MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE.
I stress that what follows isjust meant as a list of suggestive comments, and absolutely not as a commentaryon the book or the other materials.
1. ON THE BOOK “MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE”ITSELF:
What questions does the bookraise for our understanding of World War II? Or of totalitarianism? How good ahistorian is Dick, apart from his abilities as a novelist?
What comments does the bookmake about the world that “really” happened, the one we know fromour history books? Think about issues like war crimes trials, the spaceprogram, great power politics…. What else?
How does the book work as asatire – note how the Japanese are portrayed as stereotypical UglyAmericans?
Is the world of hisnovel real or not? Is the world of THE GRASSHOPPER LIES HEAVY real? Or both, orneither? How do we know? How do the characters of MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE findout which is the reality? What are the implications for our world? How dounderstand truth? Is history only n the mind of the beholder?
Why do you think Dick wrotethe book? How does it fit into his other writings? Be aware that films based onhis works include TOTAL RECALL, BLADE RUNNER, and MINORITY REPORT (Also –sigh – SCREAMERS)
Why do we never see the Naziworld at first hand?
Tell me about the Zippolighter. Which memories are real?
What kind of quality do“historic” places or objects possess? What are collectors reallycollecting, and re-enactors re-enacting?
Tell me about the crucialrole of fakes and forgeries in the book, of bogus reproductions, and thequestions that is meant to make us ask about the nature of history? We’lltalk about contemporary theories of reproduction and simulation, throughscholars like Baudrillard – but Dick already raises many of the sameissues here
What role does the I-Chingplay? What is this all about?
2. IMPLICATIONS FOR HISTORY
What are the implications ofthe book for our understanding of history? What is real history and how do weknow? Is history more than consensus illusion? If people stop believing in anevent, does it become untrue? Is history subjective?
It is possible to make quiteradical or even extreme claims for the shifting nature of history, that it is akind of consensus illusion – maybe Franklin Roosevelt really WASassassinated in 1933, and we are deluding ourselves when we believe otherwise.At what point, though, does historical revisionism end and what we might callfantastic subjectivism begin? How can we tell?
Who’s paranoid? And whyare you asking me a threatening question like that?
MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE represents an increasingly commongenre of alternative realities known as counterfactuals. Our good friend NiallFerguson even edited a major scholarly collection entitled Virtual History:Alternatives and Counterfactuals (2000).
Why are such “what might havehappened” works so popular? How can they be used to illuminate“real” history?
Do all historians use thecounterfactual approach, whether or not they acknowledge it?
Just as a matter of interest,I offer a summary of one of the best-known such counterfactuals, to see thekind of questions they addressed: this was by the way anything but the first ofits kind:
Personal Author: Squire,John Collings, Sir, 1884-1958
Title: If it had happened otherwise / by WinstonChurchill ... [et al.]. ; edited by J. C. Squire ; introd. by Sir JohnWheeler-Bennett.
Publication info: NewYork : St. Martin's Press, 1974, c1972.
General Note: Published in 1931 under title: If; or, Historyrewritten.
Contents: Guedalla,P. If the Moors in Spain had won -- Chesterton, G. K. If Don John of Austriahad married Mary Queen of Scots -- Maurois, A. If Louis XVI had had an atom offirmness -- Belloc, H. If Drouet's cart had stuck -- Fisher, H. A. L. IfNapoleon had escaped to America -- Nicolson, H. If Byron had become King ofGreece -- Churchill, W. S. If Lee had not won the Battle of Gettysburg --Waldman, M. If Booth had missed Lincoln -- Ludwig, E. If the Emperor Frederickhad not had cancer -- Squire, J. If it had been discovered in 1930 that Baconreally did write Shakespeare -- Knox, R. If the general strike had succeeded --Petrie, C. If: a Jacobite fantasy -- Trevelyan, G. If Napoleon had won theBattle of Waterloo -- Taylor, A. J. P. If Archduke Ferdinand had not loved hiswife.
Subject term: History, Modern.
4. HISTORY AS INTERPRETIVEFICTION
How do these themes apply toattempts to reconstruct the “real world”? How, for instance, dothey apply to speculative works like the film JFK?
When presenting history, weuse the format of narrative. What does historical writing have in common withthe writing of fiction? Is the historian a more respectable (and worse paid)kind of novelist? When does historical narrative shade into fiction?
What role do novels andfictional works play in shaping and reshaping views of historical reality? Giveme examples. What relationship does historical fiction have to“historical” or scholarly history? How different are they inpractice?
What does John Bodnar sayabout the role of fiction and film in reshaping American views of world war II?
What is myth? How, if at all,does it differ from history?
5. HISTORY AND MEMORY
History changes all the time,especially in the way it is commemorated in PLACES. If we look at the historycommemorated in some places, the changes over time make the various realitiesalmost unrecognizable. Why does this happen? Think of some good real worldexamples. HINT: civil war related sites like Harpers Ferry offer some wonderfulexamples, but think of some of your own.
George Orwell famously wrotethat whoever controls the present controls the past, and whoever controls thepast controls the future. Think of some examples of how modern societies haverewritten their histories for various ideological ends. How did they bringcertain people and events to the foreground, suppress others? Please note thatthis kind of thing is painfully easy to do in the context of totalitariansocieties, but how does it happen in democratic and advanced communities?
Some examples forconsideration and debate: the Holocaust; the Vietnam War; the Western.
By what means do such alteredaccounts win acceptance and come to be seen as indisputably true?
How, in turn, are theyreplaced by new narratives as political and social circumstances change? How dothese new realities establish themselves? Again – how subjective ormalleable is history?
How do we see these issues atwork during the ENOLA GAY controversy of the mid-1990s? Who, if anyone, wasrewriting history? Was there a solid “real” history to bedistorted, or are we simply dealing with competing truth-claims?
6. PIERRE NORA AND JOHNBODNAR
Pierre Nora writes that“We are witnessing a world-wide upsurge in memory. Over the last twentyor twenty-five years, every country, every social, ethnic or family group, hasundergone a profound change in the relationship it traditionally enjoyed withthe past.” What does he mean? Is he right? Is there an upsurge of memory?
To what extent has historicalremembering been revolutionized by the triumph of consumerism? Is the consumerthe ultimate judge of historical truth?
To what extent is thestruggle for memory a struggle for legitimacy?
How do new interest groupsstake new claims for particular memories?
Why do so many of thestruggles over memory involve the events of war?
Nora and Bodnar both discussparticular events, places of memory and rival interpretations of these. In whatsense are these events and places religious in nature? Is the struggle overmemory ultimately a contemporary variety of religious devotion?
I stress by the way that thesort of history that Nora and Bodnar do is very influential in terms ofhistorical work these days, in terms of ideas like commemoration,memorialization, heritage, etc.
7. POSTMODERNISM AND HISTORY
The dreaded P-word. What ispostmodernism and how does it apply to history? A case can be made that“post-modern history” is a contradiction in terms, since theapproach and the subject are such violent odds over basic issues. Is this afair comment?
Remember that postmodernismgrows out of artistic movements, which through the early twentieth century weredominated by ideas of subjectivism, impressionism, and the need for multipleviewpoints. Can historical research and writing be reconciled with post-modernideas such as the infinite malleability of texts, and the denial of authorialintention? If any and all texts find their meaning only in the way they arerelieved by an audience, if readers create their own meanings, is any kind ofcertainty possible? If (as post-structuralists hold) meaning emerges as theinterpreter enters into dialogue with the text, can there be any objectivehistorical truth?
Post-modernists declarethemselves opposed to the Enlightenment project of science, scientism andrationality. Does not all academic history today arise from the nineteenthcentury scientific approaches of von Ranke and his German counterparts?
If we deny that texts are orshould be privileged, are we not denying the fundamental rule of all hithertoexisting historical scholarship?
An example of the kind of problemto discuss. If the vast majority of people believe that the moon landings werefaked in a film set in Arizona, does it then become impossible to write ahistory of the American space program? Always assuming there was an Americanspace program….
We will also look at thecritique of logocentrism, the exaltation of Reason and reasoning, which forpostmodernists is oppressive in its denial and suppression of alternativeviewpoints, the views of the excluded, the weak and marginal, whether social,sexual or racial. It excludes what is uncertain, what does not fit, the Other.Is academic history of its nature not logocentric?
Postmodernism denies theexistence of metanarratives. Are not historical facts a kind of metanarrative?
Deconstruction means strippingaway layers of constructed meaning – but when the process is complete,does any core remain? Is there a real history to free from levels ofinterpretation? Is history like an olive (with a core) or an onion, without?
"...thinking begins onlywhen we have come to know that reason, glorified for centuries, is the moststiff-necked adversary of thought." MartinHeidegger
"The movement by which,not without effort and uncertainty, dreams and illusion, one detaches oneselffrom what is accepted as true and seeks other rules -- that is philosophy. The displacement and transformation offrameworks of thinking, the changing of received values and all the work thathas been done to think otherwise, to do something else, to become other than whatone is -- that too is philosophy.... It is understandable that some peopleshould weep over the present void and hanker instead, in the world of ideas,after a little monarchy. But thosewho for once in their lives have found a new tone, a new way of looking, a newway of doing, those people, I believe, will never feel the need to lament thatthe world is error, that history is filled with people of no consequence, andthat it is time for others to keep quiet so that at last the sound of theirdisapproval may be heard." MichelFoucault
In summary, I offer thismoment from George Bernard Shaw’s play THE DEVIL’S DISCIPLE:
SWINDON: I can't believe it! What will History say?
BURGOYNE: History, sir, willtell lies, as usual.