Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Man in the High Castle Book Review

The Dieselpunk classic, The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick is set in an alternative timeline in which the Allies lost World War II resulting in the Japanese Empire and Nazi Germany dividing the US between them. Each empire create puppet states with the eastern US half retaining the name of the United States of America and under the control of Germany while the western half was renamed the Pacific States of America and is controlled by Japan. The Midwestern states primarily serve as a buffer zone between these two massive empires.

For a moderate size novel, it surprised me how many characters it follows. Overall The Man in the High Castle follows primarily six characters. That being said, there is one character, Juliana Frink, who is a judo instructor and lives in Colorado that starts out in the novel as a minor character yet ultimately plays an important role in the story.

I found several very compelling aspects to this novel. One was the way Dick imagines San Francisco dominated by Imperial Japan. American culture has been replaced with a fusion of Japanese and other Asian customs (such as the Taoist oracle I-Ching) while the Japanese language has replaced English. Most alternative history stories that I’ve read have speculated about living under German domination so I found this reimagining of America based on a Japanese imperialism a refreshing change.

Another compelling aspect of it is that the Japanese/ German domination of the world is really a tool by which the author explores deeper, philosophical questions. After a point in the novel, you realize that you’re reading a novel about an alternate universe in which the characters are themselves reading a novel about an alternate universe. Philip K Dick succeeds at taking you down the rabbit hole, to borrow another literary reference, where by the time you’re done with the novel you may find yourself questioning reality much like Chuang-tzu’s Butterfly Dream. 

I have several recommendations before you read the novel. Don’t expect intense action or adventure. While there are a few moments of action, overall the Man in the High Castle is a slow burn novel. My other recommendation is to learn about the author Philip K Dick, for the more you know about him then more aspects of the novel will make sense. I want to conclude by saying that ultimately, The Man in the High Castle is not so much a story about alternative history as it is a philosophical exploration about the search for what is Reality.

Note: There are several television adaptations of the book in early production. In each case, Ridley Scott is involved. He’s currently producing a four-part version for the BBC and last month the SyFy channel announced that they had signed a deal to also adapt the book as a four part miniseries, with Ridley Scott serving as the executive director and Frank Spotnitz as the lead writer.

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