The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

28241880Fiction — audiobook. Read by Jeff Cummings. Brilliance Audio, 2015. Originally published 1962. 9 hours, 58 minutes. Purchased. 

In 1962, fifteen years after the end of World War II, a defeated America has been split into three zones — the Pacific States ruled by Japan, the East Coast colonized by Nazi Germany, and a demilitarized zone comprised of the Rocky Mountain states.

In Colorado and Wyoming, individuals who once (and still) identified as Americans live far freer than those on either coast. While the Nazi secret police, the Sicherheitsdienst, still works in the region, there is no reciprocity agreement for deportations of “criminals” (Jews, blacks, communists, etc.), and the Nazis have been unable to capture or kill Hawthorne Abendsen, author of an alternative history novel where the Americans won the called titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. 

In the fifteen years after the end of World War II, the Japanese have developed a particular affection for pre-war American artifacts. Both officials in the trade ministry and wealthy Japanese arriving in San Francisco, the defacto capital of the Pacific States of America, are determined to acquire antique guns and other paraphernalia, including 1938 Mickey Mouse watches, to display within their homes. Bob Childan, a white American living in San Francisco, manages one of the Americana antique shops frequented by the Japanese ruling class, including the high-ranking Japanese trade official Nobusuke Tagomi.

When one such individual informs Childan that his antiques are fakes, he ends up begrudgingly going into the business of selling jewelry handcrafted by Frank Frink, a Jewish-American veteran who underwent plastic surgery to disguise his heritage and keep the Japanese from turning him over to the Nazi. Frink’s ex-wife, Juliana, left him after the occupation and relocated to Colorado to live in the neutral buffer zone. At the same time that Childan is being introduced to The Grasshopper Lies Heavy via his Japanese connections, Juliana learns about the book from an Italian truck driver and ex-soldier named Joe Cinnadella.

While the publication of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy encourages Childan, Frink, and others in the novel to question their realities, it is actually another book — I Ching — that encourages them to question their decisions. Stolen from the Chinese and imported to America by the Japanese, the I Ching provides prophetic messages on how events will unfold, how individuals should react to their fate, how much the present is a true reality.

Since I’ve seen (and love) the Amazon series based on Dick’s novel, it would be impossible for me to discuss the book without making some comparisons to the television series. There are some major changes between the two; The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is a film series rather than a novel in the television series and the I Ching does not feature at all (so far).

The man lurking in the back of the tie-in book cover (above) is not a character in Dick’s novel, although I really appreciate how the  television show gives more insight into what could be occurring on the East Coast through their added character. I also like how the television series fleshes Juliana out as a believable character. Dick seems to have a very superficial understanding of women; his Juliana is concerned about the propriety of wearing an evening gown as she flees from the law.

That said, the source material for the television show still has much going for it. The decision to focus on the more ordinary individuals — those who live on the periphery of abuse at the hands of the powerful — allows the reader to insert themselves into the story, which provides a level of realism that may not always be found in science fiction. (The exchange between Childan and his Japanese patron on whether or not alternative history counts as science fiction provided a brief moment of levity. Very meta.) And I applaud Dick’s ability to interweave the stories of different characters based on familial or economic rather than physical connections.

The ending, unfortunately, is rather abrupt, and I felt rather underwhelmed with the novel by the end. The question “and, so?” still pops in my head when I think about the book. Thank goodness for the television show and its ability to expand upon Dick’s intriguing idea.

The Man in the High Castle won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1963.

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