Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Man in the High Castle: Philip K. Dick

I have been meaning to read Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle for years, but I finally got motivated and bought a copy when I watched the first season of the TV adaptation, produced by Amazon Studios. The book was not what I expected, especially based on the TV episodes.

In The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick creates a world in which the Axis countries won World War II and the United States has been split into three sections. The Western coast is under Japanese rule, the East coast is governed by the Germans, and in between is a neutral zone, sort of. The year is 1962 and the story starts out in the Japanese sector.

There are elements of science fiction in this novel, but most of all it is just a story about an alternate version of the world following World War II. Other authors have written books along the same lines; two that I know of are Len Deighton's SS-GB and Robert Harris's Fatherland. I have not read either of those. Jo Walton wrote a trilogy of books based on a similar idea. The Small Change books consist of  Farthing, Ha’penny, and Half a Crown, which I have read and enjoyed. That series is in a universe where Britain made peace with Hitler before the US entered in the war.

The Man in the High Castle has three story lines, which only touch each other tangentially. One centers around Tagomi, a Japanese trade official. Two men, one from Japan and one from Germany, are trying to meet with him to allow the transfer of some information between the two countries. The second one features Frank Frink (a Jew, born Frank Fink) and his friend, Ed McCarthy. They go into business producing jewelry. Also important to this story line is Robert Childan, who runs an antique store, very popular with the Japanese, who are very interested in American memorabilia. In the third plot line, Julianna Frink (Frank's ex-wife) meets young truck driver Joe Cinnadella in the Rocky Mountain States and they go on a road trip. This is the part of the story I found the most interesting, but I also want to say the least about it because I don't want to spoil it for readers.

The three story lines are linked by references to one or more common characters. Tagomi, the trade official, is a buyer of American antiques in Frank Frink's story line, for example. They are also loosely linked by a book which is circulating in all parts of the American states, titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Joe Cinnadella is reading it and lends his copy to Julianna. A Japanese couple interested in antiques discusses the book with Robert Childan. This book within a book is an alternate history detailing how the Axis powers lost the war.

One element of the book I found very interesting was the pervasive use of the I Ching, often referred to as the oracle. Frank consults the I Ching. The question is: "Will I ever see Juliana again?" The answer is not comforting: "The maiden is powerful. One should not marry such a maiden."

This leads Frank to reminisce about Juliana:
Juliana—the best-looking woman he had ever married. Soot-black eyebrows and hair; trace amounts of Spanish blood distributed as pure color, even to her lips. Her rubbery, soundless walk; she had worn saddle shoes left over from high school. In fact all her clothes had a dilapidated quality and the definite suggestion of being old and often washed. He and she had been so broke so long that despite her looks she had had to wear a cotton sweater, cloth zippered jacket, brown tweed skirt and bobby socks, and she hated him and it because it made her look, she had said, like a woman who played tennis or (even worse) collected mushrooms in the woods. 
But above and beyond everything else, he had originally been drawn by her screwball expression; for no reason, Juliana greeted strangers with a portentous, nudnik, Mona Lisa smile that hung them up between responses, whether to say hello or not. And she was so attractive that more often than not they did say hello, whereupon Juliana glided by.
The story is very complex and, even though at times it was hard to follow, I have no complaints. It had a lot of depth and I am glad I finally read it.

The TV adaptation is very different from the novel. Philip K. Dick's book takes average, ordinary people in this alternate universe and explores how the situation affects them and their reactions. Although there are elements of a spy novel here, related to the political maneuvering of the two major powers, it is a small part of the story.  The TV series includes many characters from the book, but in some cases they have different names and most have very different story lines. It also adds many more people to the story; there is more emphasis on the people in power in both the Japanese and the Nazi areas and more emphasis on direct resistance to those groups. Readers who are purists when watching an adaptation might not find the TV version satisfying.

Both the book and the TV series present a picture of a very scary alternate history, at least for me. That was less a problem for me reading the book than watching the TV episodes, but it is the reason I put the book off for so long. I don't want to imagine that world. The adaptation has more thriller elements than the book. Each show has been a very tense viewing experience for me.

The TV series is very well done and well worth watching. The actors are mostly new to me, but they all do a very good job. The production values are very good. My husband especially likes the photography and the title sequence.


Publisher:   Mariner Books, 2011 (orig. pub. 1962) 
Length:       274 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      US states, occupied
Genre:       Alternate History
Source:      I purchased this book.


Anonymous said...

It is unsettling to imagine the world that's depicted in this story, Tracy. I can see why that made you uneasy. Still, it sounds like a very well-told story, and I always respect it when the film adaptation captures the elements of a book really effectively. Glad you enjoyed both.

Rebecca said...

I haven't seen the series yet but I was wondering how they could make an entire series out of this small book - then again, I assume that the book serves as the setting, and that all sorts of things could be made from a Japanese controlled USA. Great review!
Rebecca @ The Portsmouth Review
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TracyK said...

It is a great story, Margot, and I am glad I finally read it.

TracyK said...

When I started watching the series, Rebecca, I thought it was just a mini-series and the story would be resolved in ten episodes. It wasn't until the first season was over and season 2 was approved that I realized how different the book and the movie are. But they have done a good job of taking the basic story and characters and expanding on that, with a somewhat different focus.

Anonymous said...

Love the book but not seen the TV version, which I am very curious about, Not surprised they changed it though! Great review Tracy, thanks.

Yvette said...

I wonder if I want to read this, Tracy. Have to think about it. Haven't seen the TV series either. Have a hard time with this sort of theme, especially in today's political climate. There are several 'alternate history' titles out there and scaredy-cat that I am, I can't remember ever reading any of them. Though I must have, at one time or another. Back when I was young and strong. :)

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Tracy, FATHERLAND by Robert Harris is a terrific novel set in the aftermath of WWII. I guarantee you won't be able to put it down. It reminded me of Cruz Smith's GORKY PARK. I enjoy reading alternative history very much, especially war, sf and western. I will remember to read this particular novel by Philip K. Dick. It sounds fascinating.

TracyK said...

I would like to see an adaptation that is closer to the book, but the TV series is very good, Sergio. Although very tense too. More scary to me than the book.

TracyK said...

I think we are in the same boat with this type of book, Yvette. I put off reading alternate histories like this because they are too scary, and depressing (or I imagine they will be). THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE was not that scary to me though.

TracyK said...

I do plan to read FATHERLAND this year, Prashant, and SS-GB by Deighton. I think you would like this book.

TracyK said...

And I meant to agree with you, Yvette, that this book is not the greatest type to read at this time. But I did anyway.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Yes, it's been a while since I read Deighton.

dfordoom said...

It's one of Dick's less weird books. I tend to prefer him when he pushed the weirdness to the max. I think it's his only straightforward alternate history book although most of his books deal with reality not being what we think it is.

Mathew Paust said...

This book intrigued me while reading a bio of Dick, but I never went looking for it. Now I'm even more intrigued, Tracy. That last paragraph of the excerpt you included, especially.

TracyK said...

Reading this book did encourage me to find more books by Dick, dfordoom. I had already planned to read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? but I will be looking for others too.

TracyK said...

A bio of Dick would be interesting, Mathew. I will read more of his books first though.