Book: The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
Why: The first fully successful alternative history. Japan and Germany triumph in World War II, but a novelist living in Japan-controlled Cheyenne has written a bestselling alternative history in which Germany lost. Fearing German reprisals, the writer has retreated to a guarded fortress: he has become the Man in the High Castle.
I’ve been meaning to read this for years, and I was so exasperated by James Wood’s snotty pretentiousness that I decided to read science fiction for my second title. Philip K. Dick can be difficult to read. He doesn’t give you a lot of backstory; you plunge right into the story and have to figure out what’s going along as you read. But if you persist, the kaleidescope of fragmented scenes eventually starts to shake itself into a visible image. It’s a composition skill that I admire. When I write, I always overexplain; you have to have a lot of confidence in yourself and in your readers to write as he does.
In one way, The Man in the High Castle is intriguing because it so clearly lent its techniques and strategies to an entire genre. Alternative history existed before this novel, but almost every alternative history that follows it owes Philip K. Dick a debt. By coincidence I just finished watching the prematurely-cancelled TV series Jericho, and was struck by the number of ways in which the episodes pay homage to this book.
As a stand-alone work, the book fascinates by circling around and around the idea of reality. There are three political realities in the book: the one in the reader’s mind (ours), the one in which the characters live (a world divided between Japanese and German control), and the one constructed by the Man in the High Castle’s novel-within-a-novel; the Allies triumph in his book, but there are significant differences between that triumph and the one that we know. A secondary plot involves the sale of “genuine historical artifacts,” American items from before the war, and by the end of the book we are forced to question seriously what “genuine” means. And almost every character has a double identity: which one is “real”?
Philip K. Dick even manages to question his own skills, channeling James Wood at the same time that he laughs at high-brow pretensions. “Amazing, the power of fiction, even cheap popular fiction to evoke,” one of the German victors thinks to himself after reading the Man in the High Castle’s novel. “They know a million tricks, these novelists….Yes, the novelist knows humanity, how worthless they are…swayed by cowardice, selling out every cause because of their greed–all he’s got to do is thump on the drum, and there’s his response. And he laughing, of course, behind his hand at the effect he gets.”
The minus is because Philip K Dick is not much on character development; he’s a plot and theme man, and there’s not a lot of psychological reality to his people. Which is fine. Take the novel on its own terms.