The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Having just finished the first season of the TV series by this name, it’s extremely tempting to compare and contrast it with the original book in great detail.  The more I consider this, the more I realize that it would be an entertaining exercise, but it’s not exactly fitting for a review.  Besides, I don’t want to give away spoilers for either one.  I’ll highlight some of the differences at the end of this and leave it at that.  But first, the review of the book itself.

For those not already familiar with Philip K. Dick, there are certain things that have to be made aware when approaching his work.  He is a giant in the realm of science fiction.  He has an award named after him, after all.  But that doesn’t explain anything about the man.  The first thing to note is that most of his works have no plot whatsoever.  He writes what would be referred to today as “character driven stories.”  He creates characters that are fully-formed without really being fully-formed, and through them he expresses his thoughts about the world, be it our world or the world of the characters, sometimes both at the same time.  The second is that his work is steeped in paranoia.  This is because the man himself is steeped in paranoia.  Read up on him sometime.  His story is a twisted little psychodrama, and it plays out in various forms through his characters.  It makes for interesting setups and questions, however, which add to the richness of his work.  For most readers, PKD is one of those where you either really love his work or you really hate him, but neither of those sentiments tends to come from the first couple of stories you read.  First there is the question “Did I enjoy this?”  Then there is the question “Why did I enjoy this?”  or sometimes “How could I enjoy this?”  None of these has a definite answer.  But if something tugs at you to keep reading his work, before you know it you’re sucked into a rabbit hole like a you’re suddenly part of some conspiracy theory.  His ideas are such that if you’re not repulsed, you’re left wanting more, and you’ll never get more without seeing a translation of his work on screen.  If you enjoy sci-fi, odds are good you’ve seen those adaptations already.  Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly… the list goes on.

And that brings us to this novel.  I’m embarrassed to say that until the series made a splash, I had never heard of this book.  Or if I have, it didn’t make enough impression on me to stick.  It won the 1963 Hugo Award for Best Novel, bridging the gap between science fiction and alternate history.  Published in 1962, this novel takes place in an alternate version of the same year.  Inspired in part by William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubiliee (which recounts an alternate history where the Confederacy won the American Civil War), PKD brings to subtle and somehow elaborate life a world where Franklin Delano Roosevelt was assassinated in 1933.  His replacement, an isolationist, was incapable of steering the nation through the Great Depression, and World War II was ultimately won by the Axis Powers of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan when Germany develops and drops the atomic bomb first.  Italy is seen almost as an afterthought in this equation.  By 1962, Germany has used atomic power to colonize Mars, Venus, and the moon, and political machinations suggest they’ve got their sights set on taking out Japan.

As I say, the characters drive the story here.  Through them, we experience different aspects of life under these regimes, three of whom rely on the I Ch’ing to dictate their realities.  This is because PDK wrote the entire novel using this oracle, yet another influence on him at the time.

Within the novel is another novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.  It is verboten in Nazi controlled areas, while it has become a runaway bestseller in the Japanese territories.  The book tells of an alternate history where the United States and Britain won the war… but it’s not as it unfolded for us in our real world.  I won’t spoil the details, but suffice to say it’s an equally intriguing study on the what ifs of historical extrapolation.  I love that sort of thing.

On its own, as a character study or as a thought experiment, The Man in the High Castle is an amazing book.  It is, however, by its very nature incomplete and open-ended.  PKD had intended to write sequels, but those attempts translated into very different works.  And while I admire the thought experiment by itself for what it is, most readers who are not predisposed to enjoying the author’s works already will likely find this an unsatisfying read.

Modern audiences will very likely find this book to be offensive in the extreme.  Racial slurs, prejudices, and stereotypes abound, as do other conceits and situations that really existed in 1962, further blown out of proportion by the idea of an Axis victory.  If your impossible virgin sensibilities can’t take it, steer clear and save yourself.  You’ve been warned.  On the plus side, this book is an equal-opportunity offender in many regards.

Now a bit about the TV series by comparison.  It is virtually impossible to translate a character-driven thought experiment into a series and make it into compelling drama.  Oh, it can be done, and I’m the first one that will shout from the rooftops that it should be done.  After all, why translate an author’s story into something so far off the rails that it becomes something else entirely?  Well… in this case while I’d support a direct translation as a 2 or 3 part mini-series, the seeds planted in the novel, both in the ideas and in the characters, make for some more compelling “what if?” situations.  The characters in the book have been changed considerably for the series, there are several important new characters added, and the result is that the ideas cross-pollinate between the two.  What’s in the book opens a more personal level to what you see on screen, and what’s on screen blows the hinges off the door and adds a new level of terror and realism to the ideas in the book as only a fully-realized big budget production can do.  As wildly different as they are on the character level, and as different as they are in the details of how certain things unfold, they somehow compliment each other.  At least, they do in my mind.  That said, the series is much more an action/drama with goals and consequences outlined by the existence of an outlawed film (“The Grasshopper Lies Heavy”) which shows film footage from our world of the way World War II “might” have ended.  In addition to various factions and power plays that are pushed even further from print to screen, the series gives us an underground American rebellion centered around that film.  As with the novel, the series stands on its own and is excellent in its own right, but with an understanding of the source material, I find my own imagination can’t keep from wanting to look around every corner and see the possibilities.

And as difficult as this is for me to say this because it’s so rare… the series is better.  What PKD did in his novel is genius level material as such thinking wasn’t exactly common in fiction back then.  He’s one of the people that pushed alternate history into popularity.  But the series is bigger, bolder, nastier, more vicious, and more visceral on virtually every level.  It’s also more nuanced at the character level, and only one character relies on the I Ch’ing.  Oddly, the version of this on screen uses sticks instead of coins, but that’s a case of me knowing just enough to make me dangerous.  The point is, it’s all used to greater effect, but it’s the kind of thing that the entertainment industry wouldn’t have been able to pull off without the source material to inspire or guide them.  They’re just not that clever.

For me, the DNA of the ideas linking the two versions is bigger than the sum of the parts, and that makes this book a better read on account.  Without the series, this would be a three star read, good and entertaining, definitely worth it, but lacking the substance to make me truly care about the characters we meet, no matter how believable they are.  Personally, I’m glad I missed it until now because the series does help me to appreciate it on a new level, perhaps on a level closer to the author’s original intent.

4 stars

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