With an announcement from SyFy that they have plans to make The Man In The High Castle into a television miniseries, I decided to download it and read it on my Kindle. I was expecting another hard-hitting sci-fi read in the same vein as Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep (the basis for the film Blade Runner) and Total Recall (a short story serving as the basis for the films of the same title), as well as many of the other PKD short stories I have read or listened to over the past several months. Little did I know what a surprise I would be in for.
If you are looking for a hardcore scifi novel, High Castle is not what you are looking for. However if you are looking for a book that will really stretch your imagination and make you think, then you cannot go wrong with this book.
High Castle is set in an alternate reality following World War II. The author imagines what the world would, or more specifically the Western United States, might be like had the Axis powers won the war. In this alternate reality, President Franklin Roosevelt is assassinated before the U.S got involved in the war and the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor is bombed out of existence. This brings the war waged by Hitler and the Japanese empire for world domination to the shores of the U.S. and ends with Germany in control of the eastern part of the country while Japan exerts control over the west. Germany's rule of the east is quite harsh as they continue their quest for racial purity, not stopping with Jews, but also extending their "Final Solution" to the people of African decent. The Japanese on the other hand, are somewhat more benevolent actually assimilating a great deal of American culture, but they do use Americans as slave labor. The American Midwest is a neutral buffer zone between the Greater German Empire and the Japanese Empire, and people are pretty much able to live in relative freedom, but suffer shortages, being caught in the middle.
Hitler, who has succumbed to insanity brought on by the ravages of syphilis, is replaced by Martin Bormann who dies early on in the story and is replaced by Joseph Goebbels who is said to be planning to use nuclear weapons against the Japanese mainland.
There are five main characters in the book that are followed, some of which are tied together with a single thread that weaves throughout PKD's novel, which is a book within a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Grasshopper is a novel penned by a character named Hawthorne Abensen who is believed to be living in a virtual fortress in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The reason for his fortification is because Grasshopper is about the Axis powers losing the war, thus it has been banned by the German government, and Abendsen must protect himself from being killed.
Some characters in the novel try to find direction in their lives by consulting the I Ching, an ancient Chinese text that contains lines to give guidance or helps one interpret events taking place in one's life. The characters cast runes which direct them to lines in the I Ching which is often referred to as the Oracle. One character, Juliana Frink is compelled to follow the Oracle to seek out Abendsen in his high castle and inquire about how and why he wrote Grasshopper.
Juliana does make a pilgrimage to Cheyenne only to find that Abendsen, who once did live behind fortifications, has chosen to live a more normal life in a regular home with his wife because he found that living in a "castle" was too much like living in prison. She further learns that Abendsen actually didn't conceive of Grasshopper from his own imagination, but rather consulted the Oracle and wrote what it indicated. With much consternation, Juliana then consults the oracle to find out what is to be learned from the Grashopper, and is rewarded with the answer that everyone is living in a false reality.
So what is to be learned from The Man In The High Castle? In my studies of philosophy, I have learned that one reason for studying philosophy is that everyone needs to examine their lives, or their reality and be constantly vigilant in doing so. We all filter reality through many perceptions including belief systems, cultural connections, and what we learn as we grow. Perhaps Dick wrote High Castle to remind us that reality needs to be examined, and that one must be aware of the factors that tend to shade our perceptions of reality, and that when this is accomplished, we can get a clear picture of reality. If this was the purpose of writing High Castle, he did so masterfully. So if you are planning to read this Hugo Award winning book, be prepared to think.
In Other News...
I was honored to be invited to join a panel on the Sci-Fi Diner Podcast where we made an attempt to define what constitutes what is science fiction. Along with the hosts, Scott and Miles, I was joined by Raul Ybarra, and Keith R. A. DeCandido where we hashed it out. So what was out conclusion? I really don't think that we came up with an all-encompassing definition. Raul did say something that struck a chord with me though; he mentioned that for him, the definition of science fiction is a "moving target" in many aspects. If you are also looking for a definitive answer to this question, you might listen to Episode 166 of the SciFi Diner Podcast. Aw heck, listen even if you aren't looking for answers, it's just a good show.