The Man in the High Castle
By Philip K. Dick
First Published: 1962
Review © 2009 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Science Fiction, Alternate History
The Man in the High Castle is one of the best books written by Philip K. Dick. This is a completely absorbing, intelligent, alternate history based on the premise that Germany and Japan were victorious in WWII. In this universe, following the war, the United States was divided up between Japan and Germany with Japan taking over the western states and Germany taking over the eastern states. The story begins almost 20 years later in 1962 with a world that is a very different from the one with which we are familiar.
With The Man in the High Castle, PDK does a masterful job of extrapolating a very realistic alternate reality down to the smallest details. It really sucks you into a world which seems both very alien and familiar at the same time. As the story unfolds, just finding out what changes have occurred due to the devastating loss of WWII and the rebuilding efforts of the Japanese and German states is fascinating. While this is much more of a thinking novel than an action novel, that’s not to say that there isn’t any action. The few action scenes are emotional and powerful climaxes to the human drama.
The novel bounces back and forth between 4 main narratives which are all connected in some way. Three of the narratives take place in the San Francisco bay area, which is heavily occupied by the Japanese, while one narrative follows a woman in Colorado where people have maintained semi-independence from the Japanese simply due to the fact that this territory has been considered to be of minimal value.
Most of the main characters in The Man in the High Castle are Americans, struggling to survive in the new post-war economy with a new strict social hierarchy. However, one main character is the ranking official of the Japanese trade mission in San Francisco who soon finds himself involved with spies and infighting between various factions of the German totalitarian government which maintains an uneasy alliance with the Japanese. The character development is carried out really well. All the characters are complicated, have flaws, and are drawn in great depth. Most of the Americans have a mixture of dislike and admiration for the Japanese. The Germans, on the other hand, are viewed much more negatively by many but, as you might imagine, there are those Americans who fully support the Nazi ideals. While most of the novel takes place in Japanese controlled territory, there are plenty of references to German politics and their efforts to carry out the “master plan”.
The alternate world created in this novel is a great sounding board for examining ideas of philosophy, social hierarchies, politics, race, art, destiny, fear, and hope. In a stroke of genius, PKD also created a character who is the author of an underground alternate history book where the US and allies won WWII. This book has grained great popularity and the author of this alternate-alternate history book is none other than the man in the high castle. Some of the main characters read or quote from this book which provides some terrific irony and adds even more contrast for the ideas contained in this novel. What’s really effective is that this alternate-alternate reality does not describe our world accurately because the author couldn’t predict everything that would happen correctly. In fact, he has imagined the world as being far more ideal than our actual world.
There is a lot of Japanese and Chinese philosophy found in this novel as almost all the characters, even the Americans, use the I-Ching to help make decisions and predict the future. Through Mr. Tagomi, PKD does a terrific job of showing and describing some of the cultural differences between East and West with a few insights into Japanese philosophies.The Man in the High Castle is one of the best alternate history novels ever written. If you’ve never read a book by Philip K. Dick, this is as good a place to start as any. This novel should be read by everyone for a fascinating look at our world from a completely different perspective.