‘The Man in the High Castle’ is an alternative history that goes over my head

April 2, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 2, 2014

In San Francisco in the early 1960s, Robert Childan, proprietor of American Artistic Handcrafts Inc., fields a call from an important Japanese official whose order for a Civil War–era recruiting poster Childan has not yet been able to fulfill. Frank Frink,  Fink, ponders how to go about regaining his job at the factory where he has been helping to manufacture fake antiques distributed to Childan and other suckers. Childan’s important customer, Nobusuke Tagomi, consults the I Ching for guidance about how to impress his important visitor, a certain Mr. Baynes of Sweden.

In remote Canon City, Colo., Frink’s estranged wife, Juliana Frink, watches a point of light arc overhead before going into the local diner, where she meets a young Italian trucker named Joe Cinnadella. Aboard that moving point of light — in fact, a Nazi rocket ship bound for San Francisco — the supposed industrialist Baynes has an uneasy conversation with a German seatmate. After the ship lands, Baynes confesses that he is a Jew who, with the help of powerful friends, has survived the Nazi genocide; then he disembarks and meets Tagomi.

Such are the characters introduced by Philip K. Dick over the course of the first three chapters and 44 pages of The Man in the High Castle. This 1962 alternative-history tale about a world in which Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire were victorious in World War II earned Dick the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel.

Dick’s vision of the triumphant Axis powers is a sobering one. San Francisco’s swankiest neighborhood is controlled by Japanese; whites who visit are watched suspiciously, while people of Chinese ancestry have become a sort of caste of untouchables. The United States’ western region is controlled by the Japanese, while in the east the Germans have re-instituted slavery and exterminated the Jews. Worst of all, though, is the fate of Africa, which the Germans have evidently burned to a crisp with atomic bombs.

The Man in the High Castle is unlike the mind-bending science fiction for which Dick is most famous, the novel and novella that formed the basis for the popular movies Blade Runner and Total Recall. (His work has also been adapted as the movies A Scanner DarklyMinority Report, The Adjustment Bureau and Screamers.) Yes, there are rocket-powered commercial passenger ships, and allusions are made to the Nazis’ exploration of Mars, but otherwise the technology featured in The Man in the High Castle seems roughly comparable to what Dick and his readers would have experienced in 1962.

Still, there’s plenty of weirdness going on here; this is a Philip K. Dick joint, after all. The disparate characters are linked in subtle ways, including the original jewelry that Frink begins to manufacture during the course of the book. One of Frink’s pieces makes its way into the hands of Tagomi and either inspires some kind of mental breakdown or else temporarily sends the Japanese trade official into an alternative universe. Afterward, without knowing anything about the case, who it involves or how it is (however tenuously) linked to him, Tagomi refuses to give a pro forma signature to extradition papers, thereby sparing Frink from certain death at the hands of Nazis.

Many of the characters regularly turn to the I Ching, or Book of Changes, for insight into the future. And virtually everyone is reading The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the ludicrously titled alternative-history-novel-within-an-alternative-history-novel in which the Allies managed to prevail over Germany and Japan.

Grasshopper, the work of one (almost as ludicrously named) Hawthorne Abendsen, increasingly captivates the various people in The Man in the High Castle. One secondary character, a German official, considers mounting an assassination attempt against Abendsen, while another actively seems to be scheming to kill the writer.

Here’s a glimpse of alternative-history Bay Area as filtered through the mind of the loathsome Childan:

German or South ships docked at the port of San Francisco all the time, and blacks occasionally were allowed off for short intervals. Always in groups of fewer than three. And they could not be out after nightfall; even under Pacific law, they had to obey the curfew. But also slaves unloaded at the docks, and these lived perpetually ashore, in shacks under the wharves, above the waterline. None would be in the Trade Mission offices, but if any unloading were taking place — for instance, should he carry his own bags to Mr. Tagomi’s office? Surely not. A slave would have to be found, even if he had to stand waiting an hour. Even if he missed his appointment. It was out of the question to let a slave see him carrying something; he had to be quite careful of that. A mistake of that kind would cost him dearly; he would never have place of any sort again, among those who saw.

In a way, Childan thought, I would almost enjoy carrying my own bags into the Nippon Times Building in broad daylight. What a grand gesture. It is not actually illegal; I would not go to jail. And I would show my real feelings, the side of a man which never comes out in public life. But…

I could do it, he thought, if there weren’t those damn black slaves lurking around; I could endure those above me seeing it, their scorn — after all, they scorn me and humiliate me every day. But to have those beneath see me, to feel their contempt. Like this chink peddling away ahead of me. If I hadn’t taken a pedecab, if he had seen me trying to walk to a business appointment…

Some of the plot involves Baynes’ covert mission to communicate with a Japanese official, and German attempts to thwart it. But the book ends with a (to me, anyway) baffling encounter between Julia Frink and Abendsen at the latter man’s home in Cheyenne, Wy., where he is hosting a cocktail party. Ultimately, she seems to convince him that his alternative-history book, which is quite different from the events that unfolded in our reality, somehow reflects the true universe, or at least what should have taken place.

Actually, I found much of The Man in the High Castle baffling: Why did Dick write it, and what does he want his audience to take away from it? Why is the book named after a Abendsen, and a false conception of him at that? (For personal-security reasons, the author lived for a time in a fortress.) What are the various characters — the Frinks, Tagomi, Baynes and Abendsen — meant to take from their inconclusive brushes with death and danger?

Most of this eludes me, to be frank. But Dick’s book does demonstrate how the awfulness of reality as we know it — for instance, the colonial exploitation of Africa and Asia, and the manifold consequences thereof — does not necessarily represent the worst of all possible worlds, as one sometimes fears it might.

The Man in the High Castle is a novel that I think has a rather narrow appeal, as is true of much of Dick’s writing. It’s not for traditional science-fiction fans, and there isn’t enough action or intrigue or romance for it to fit into the traditional thriller, spy or romance genres. The book may well be enjoyed by World War II buffs, or those with a particular interest in the Cold War, or readers who are enthusiastic about Eastern spirituality. All others might well be advised to give it a miss, however.

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