The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High CastleThe Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A Penguin Modern Classic, this book won a sci fi award in 1962, the year of its release, and has now been serialised for television.

The scenario is an alternative 1962, after Nazi Germany and Japan won WW2. The former USA is sliced into an east and centre under Nazi rule, a west coast run by Japan, and a neutral zone around the Rocky Mountains. Most of the action is in San Francisco, where several lives intersect. Nobusuke Tagomi is head of Japan’s Imperial Trade Mission. But he also is intellectually restless, an earnest seeker of Truth. He is learned in eastern and western philosophy and religion, a follower of the Tao, and regularly consults the I Ching. Robert Childan sells antiques to rich Japanese collectors, fawning on his Japanese masters, but yearning toward the east, where white men rule. Frank Frink sells jewellery and metal-work art to the same layer of Japanese collectors; born Frank Fink, he is a Jew – something to conceal at all costs lest he be sent off to the Nazis. Frink’s estranged wife Juliana lives in the Rockies, teaching judo.

The Japanese have established rigid racial hierarchies and an authoritarian but law-bound regime which will execute rebels, but also price-gouging landlords. A place for everyone and everyone in their place. It is liveable, and liberalism is sprouting in the younger generation of Japanese professionals. But over the mountains a nightmare looms, revealed through the characters’ stray thoughts and comments. The Nazis have seemingly irresistible military superiority: a menace distant but looming ever closer.

The unity of opposites pervades the story: Axis and Allies, Germany and Japan, good and evil, past and present, illusion and reality, the spiritual and material, Yin and Yang, the external world and the world within our heads. And then there is the story-world and our world: a mysterious writer called Hawthorne Absenden, aka the Man in the High Castle, has written a popular novel describing a world in which the Allies had won the war.

It is a philosophical novel rather than science fiction in the classic tradition. The sci fi touches, such as human being landing on Mars, are irrelevant to the story line and could easily have been deleted.

Spoiler alert

After passing a critical moral test, Tagomi meditates on a silver ornament, perceiving it as a unity of the dark mineral earth and the sparkling fire of the heavens; he senses a chance to enter Nirvana, to escape illusion and the cycle of death and rebirth. Instead he finds himself transported to the San Francisco of our world. Without deciding anything about its existential status (though speculating that it might be one of the terrifying transitional places between death and rebirth depicted in the Tibetan Book of the Dead), he finds it dingy, coarse and ugly and a place where whites, offensively, do not defer to Japanese. He realises he is “Out of my world, my space and time” but quickly decides he has “broken from my moorings and hence stand on nothing… One seeks to contravene one’s perceptions – why? So that one can wander utterly lost, without signpost or guide?” The strange new world is no longer awesome to him, but merely a place of half-wakeful confusion, where the conscious and unconscious are all mixed up.

Perhaps he has been vouchsafed a glimpse of another world as a reward for his goodness. Or perhaps we humans are irrevocably anchored to the world we know, so our longings for the Beyond can never be assuaged.

Meanwhile Juliana meets Absenden and seeks wisdom from him. She also receives from the I Ching the message Inner Truth, which she interprets as meaning that Absenden’s book is somehow true: the Axis had lost the war. Juliana urges the novelist to “believe” but he shakes his head, and says he is not sure of anything.

Yet since we are dealing with Yin and Yang, the unity of opposites, Dick seems to suggest that his own book is also “true” – the Allies did lose the war, in some sense. Or perhaps both evil and good won and lost in both the alternative world and our world. Dick is not morally indifferent: he depicts the consequences of Nazi conquest unsparingly. But also he warns us not to absolutise the goodness of the Allies’ victory, and even though the alternate world seems on a path to ever greater horror, he offers a reminder that the actions of individuals can change the course of events. The light of the Yang reappears in the darkest Yin.

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