The Man in the High Castle: Axis Powers win WWII, and then things get weird

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick science fiction book reviewsThe Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

This is a strange and sinister book, even for Philip K. Dick. It’s a carefully-crafted alternate history about a world in which the Axis powers won WWII and now dominate the globe (other notable books in this vein include Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore and Pavane by Keith Roberts), but being PKD that is just the beginning. It prominently features the I Ching (Book of Changes), an ancient Chinese classic that serves as a sort of oracle or fortune telling device for several of the characters. The Pacific States of America are dominated by the Japanese, while the former Unites States of America on the East Coast are ruled by the Germans, with the more independent Rocky Mountain States in between.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThis world of 1962 is a grim one living under the fascist and totalitarian rule of the Japanese and Germans (who themselves are locked in various intrigues that seethe throughout the book). Surprisingly, at least to me, the Nazis are depicted as far more capricious, cruel, zealous and maniacal than the Japanese, who are instead more logical, calculated, and strict but fair. Most of the novel’s characters live under Japanese rule, and despite their feelings that the Japanese are cold and inscrutable, they manage in varying degrees to live their lives. Ideas about racial superiority/inferiority abound amongst the Americans, Germans, Japanese, Chinese, and blacks: this world is profoundly divided along racial lines, but the Nazis reserve the top position on for blond, blue-eyed Aryans, so even their erstwhile Italian allies get short shrift. Regarding the Jews and blacks, they take a ruthless exterminationist approach, whereas the Japanese prefer to treat more moderately the peoples they rule. But in either case they look down upon their subjects.

PKD depicts the political, cultural, and racial relationships between rulers and subjects with a very deft touch, and his vision is terrifying for anyone who has speculated about this “what-if” scenario. I think this scored him high points and helped The Man in the High Castle win the Hugo Award in 1963 (though many fans of Golden Age old-school SF writers like Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov must have been horrified).

However, the book’s other major story arc features a story-within-a-story, in fact an alternate-history novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in which Japan and Germany lose the war to the Americans, British, Russians, and Italians (who switch sides). Okay, are we talking about our world? No, this reality is slightly different as well (the Pearl Harbor attack didn’t destroy the US naval fleet, etc.).

Now we’re talking. PKD is never content to tell a standard narrative without some twist on reality (realities?), and this book plays a major role in the ending of The Man in the High Castle.

That ending is very ambiguous and open-ended, and the I Ching plays a pivotal role in this. I won’t reveal more than that, but clearly PKD took a unique approach to writing this book, and throws a couple of reality-shaking curveballs at the end (you know something must be coming or it wouldn’t be a PDK novel). Whether that works as a compelling story or not is up to the individual reader. For me, though I really appreciate the intricate world-building and plot, I wasn’t fully satisfied with the ending, although the individual characters’ stories were fascinating.

The biggest drawback of the story was that so many characters rely on the I Ching to help in their daily decision-making, along with the conceit that this ancient Chinese classic serves as an oracle and has been introduced by the Japanese occupiers. I’ve lived in Japan for over 15 years, and not once in my entire time here has any Japanese person I know ever mentioned this book. So I think PDK just completely shoe-horned it into his story because he wanted to, not because it is an important part of Japanese culture. Buddhism (various sects) and Shintoism (essentially animism) are alive and well in Japan, but I’ve never seen anyone here throwing yarrow stalks to decide whether they should cross the street or not, eat ramen or gyoza, enter Tokyo University or Keio, or any other decision. So this just totally struck me as off, and his depiction of inscrutable, poker-faced Japanese was a bit too stereotyped for my taste.

So did I enjoy the book or not? Definitely. After not having read any of his work my first 40 years, I read ten PDK books last year, but I’d say my favorites were Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, UBIK, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and VALIS. Still, The Man in the High Castle remains unique and memorable. And our version of reality is much less grim than the one he depicts, but we don’t need the I Ching to tell us that.


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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart’s reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle’s 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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6 comments

  1. “… and then things get weird.” Yes, you have summed up my favorite PKD novel.

  2. Setting aside the strange conflation of the I Ching and Japanese culture, this is one of my favorite PKD novels. (Maybe he was incorporating the newfound interest Americans had in the 1960s in other cultures/mysticisms/mythologies?)

    • I think he was definitely doing that.

      • I read somewhere that Dick used Yijing (I Ching, or however you want to write it) to dictate the direction of the novel. Whenever he came to a plot turning point, he ‘cast yarrow sticks’ and the result indicated where the story should go. I don’t know how true it is, but if it is, it’s ironic that MitHC is one of Dick’s most cohesive novels!! Who knows, maybe Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said would have been less scatter-brained with a little Chinese mysticism!!

  3. Yes, I’ve heard about that rumor as well. It’s a neat story, but can you imagine the logistics of using yarrow sticks to direct your novel? As Jesse said, it’s fairly cohesive for PKD, much more so than something like The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Either way, a nice urban legend to have.

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