Monday, 17 September 2012

A departure from my string of Doctor Who posts to talk about an entirely different branch of science fiction, as I've just finished reading Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. I knew I'd enjoy it, being a fan of his classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (and its film adaptation Blade Runner), but can safely say it's gone straight onto my list of favourite books.

High Castle is set in a parallel world in which Germany and Japan won the second world war and features a remarkably detailed piece of world building - the alternative timeline begins in 1933 when the assassination of President Roosevelt, a failed attempt in our reality, sets events in motion for America to be unprepared to save the Allied war effort. This leads to a world in which the Western USA is occupied by Japan, the Eastern USA is occupied by the Reich, and the central states are a neutral buffer zone. The Nazis have sent all of New York's Jews to concentration camps, wiped out Africa's native population, and developed a space program to send rockets to Mars (yes, Iron Sky wasn't the first example of space Nazis). With Hitler in an insane asylum and his replacement Bormann dying, the Nazi higher ups are squabbling for power and planning their next moves. Meanwhile, an American novelist has written a novel speculating on what the world would be like had the Allies won the war - but in a different way to in our reality. Yes, by incorporating the novel-within-the-novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, Dick has created not one but two very interesting theories of what could have happened had history taken a different course. 

This last part may sound a little self-indulgent, but The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is one of many elements of the world that come together to explore history from a variety of character viewpoints, for High Castle isn't an action packed war story; rather, we explore this world through the lives of a variety of people and cultures mainly living in what has become of the United States. High Castle isn't a long novel, but a lot is packed in - from the Japanese trade missioner Tagomi struggling to  find meaning in his life to the factory worker of Jewish descent finding himself without a job and the Abwehr spy defying his country to bring a message of warning, it's a tensely realised world in which everyone is lost, hopeless, and afraid of superior authorities. There's a chilling darkness inherent in many characters - Childan, the antique store owner, is particularly dislikable - he's bitter towards the occupying Japanese yet panders to their every need, secretly admiring the Nazis as noble yet too cowardly to express his racist sentiment. Dick has a gift for conjuring up thought-provoking horror through the thoughts of ordinary people in an evil world.

There is, nevertheless, a spirituality to the book. Many of the characters consult the I Ching, the Taoist Book of Changes, for advice in times of trouble - Tagomi's reliance on the I Ching is almost obsessive. Indeed, there's a Taoist interconnectivity to the stories as the characters' lives intertwine, sometimes in ways they don't even realise. Meanwhile, other characters prefer to read The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, and one tries to connect the two, with a very strange result. Yes, as expected of Dick, it's not a story of neat conclusions or happy endings. If you thought it's ambiguous whether Deckard is an android (he is), High Castle's endings will really perplex you.

A fascinating, concise yet detailed study of history, of spirituality, and of humanity, The Man in the High Castle is a perfect example of the power of science fiction.

A side note, back to my usual film and TV focus - there hasn't been a single adaptation of High Castle for either medium, and I can see why. It's very focused on inner monologues, making it hard to adapt for the screen. The internet indicates that a BBC version was in development at one point, to be produced by Ridley Scott, but only the I Ching can tell what's happened to that. I'd be cautious about watching it, though looking at some of the BBC's other quality adaptations such as Parade's End, it could potentially be excellent. Nevertheless, what is true is that The Man in the High Castle has been very influential in developing the whole alternate history sub-genre, one I'd like to be influenced by at some point. When I get around to writing my Space Nazis series.


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