Fiction Reviews


The Man in the High Castle

(1962 / 2017) Philip K. Dick, Gollancz, 12.99, hrdbk, ISBN 978-1-473-22348-6

 

This 2017 edition of Dick's 1962 classic was released due to the continued interest (season 2) of the first season (2015) of the television series. Indeed that series was arguably one of the best visual SF offerings of that year; its pilot episode was Amazon's most-watched pilot to date.

As with the television series, the novel is set in a parallel Earth in the novel's present (1962) in which the allies World War II against the axis powers. The US is divided into two: the western US is governed by Japan and the eastern seaboard by Germany with a buffer zone in between the two.  Robert (Bob) Childan owns an Americana antiques shop in San Francisco that is frequented by those Japanese with a fascination for American 'culture'. A high-ranking Japanese official, Nobusuke Tagomi, seeks some artefacts.  Tagomi has a character quirk in that he uses the randomness of the I Ching to guide him in important decisions. Meanwhile in Germany, an elderly Hitler is incapacitated and Martin Bormann becomes Chancellor in the interim with other leading lights of the Nazi regime positioning themselves in anticipation of an imminent power vacuum.

Tagomi is expecting a visitor from Europe whom he wishes to impress with some Americana, but the visitor has news that some of the Nazi party wish to remove the non-Ayrian Japanese from their ruling position. Japan has been content with its dominance of the Pacific basin but Germany never stopped increasing its territorial gains and had in recent years successful space missions with bases on the Moon and Mars.

Throughout the novel some of the characters rely on the I Ching as a way of making key decisions.  More ingeniously, Dick employs the device of a book -- The Grasshopper Lies Heavy that depicts an alternate present in which the Allies won, not lost, World War II. And so we have a book about an alternate reality within a book about an alternate reality.  But the reality described in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, though closer to our real reality in which the Allies won, it is not our really reality as Britain retains its empire and the US escaped Pearl harbour.

While Philip Dick in his writing often returns to the theme of alternate realities he does so through the idea of probability and the chance of different events happening: it's a kind of Hugh Everett Multiverse of parallel universes. But with The Man in the High Castle the notion of the I Ching randomness used for prediction provides some sort of rationale for the parallel universes (especially at one point Tagomi briefly enters wanders into and then out of an alternate Allies won universe).  In this alternate, parallel timeline sense Dick seems to be coming close to some of the elements of quantum theory (though I do not remember Dick actually referring to quantum theory in his fiction but he could in theory have heard of it given he wrote The Man in the High Castle, and let alon other novels, decades after the formulation of the Copenhagen Interpretation. And so The Man in the High Castle has a certain relevance which to my mind makes the work even more poignant.

This brings us to the 2015television mini-series of The Man in the High Castle.  While this had significant differences from the novel, most of the novel's plot elements were there, albeit in an altered form.  One of the key major differences is that the novel's fictional novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, is not there (hence nor is The Grasshopper Lies Heavy's author who lives in a guarded estate called 'High Castle').  Instead the underground are transporting very realistic news reels that depict an alternate timeline series of events in which the allies won the war.  Series' spoiler alert: Season one ends with a scene from the novel in which Nobusuke Tagomi finds himself in the alternate time line in which the allies won the war.

The Man in the High Castle is one of Philip K. Dick's landmark novels. Undoubtedly, the 2010s television mini-series resurrected interest in this work and many will probably want more than a paperback for their shelves.  As such this inexpensive Gollancz hardback fulfils a real need.  A plus for me is that there is no paper dust jacket (which would get more easily damaged over the years).  Instead, there is a four colour illustration printed directly onto the cover's board. Interestingly, the back cover shows two film reels; this is undoubtedly a nod to the television series.  This edition is timely and fulfils a real need.  Those who were taken by the television series will be fascinated by this the original, novel.  Enjoy.

Jonathan Cowie


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