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Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Man in the High Castle (1962)

The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick’s Hugo Award winning 1962 novel, is credited by many with the creation of the alternate history genre. It may not have been the first alternate history novel published but it does seem to be the one that jump-started the genre. And what an alternate history is tells.

Franklin Roosevelt was assassinated in the early years of the Great Depression and America’s contribution to the Allied efforts during World War II were limited by its delayed recovery from those disastrous years. In fact, Germany and Japan have won the war and have pretty much divided the globe between them, with Japan in control of Asia and Germany of Europe and Africa. Even the United States has been divided between the two: Japan has the western part of the country, Germany the eastern part and there is a buffer of “free states” between the two sections. Almost twenty years later, Germany, still determined to finish its extermination of the Jews, has decided to do the same to dark-skinned peoples and has turned Africa into a massive killing ground.

Japan, on the other hand, rules its territories under the rule of law and those living in the San Francisco area, where much of the novel takes place, are the lucky ones. Americans, especially white-skinned ones, are definitely second class citizens in the Pacific States of America, but they do not live in fear the way that residents of the German territory do. However, Germany is the more powerful of the two superpowers and is able to demand the handover of all Jews identified in the PSA.

The Man in the High Castle focuses on ordinary Americans, many of whom were children during the war and who do not remember much of pre-war life, as they try to make their way from day-to-day. Dick cleverly included one character, Hawthorn Abendsen, who has written an alternate history of his own, a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy in which Germany and Japan lost the war (an alternate history within an alternate history). The world described in Abendsen’s book is very different from the real world and is an irritant to both the Germans and the Japanese. But, as usual, it is the Germans who want to take things to the extreme by exacting their revenge on the author and German authorities have sent someone to infiltrate Abendsen’s supposed fortress of a hideout.

Dick chose to end The Man in the High Castle in such an abrupt and ambiguous manner that most readers will be left scratching their heads and trying to reconcile 99% of the book’s content to what is disclosed on its last three pages. Readers usually enjoy surprise endings but this is not a very satisfying one and they are likely to find it more annoying than surprising, something that will ruin their overall perception of the novel. I found the core of Dick’s plot to be well crafted and enjoyable but the book’s ending is the reason I cannot rate it higher than I have.

Rated at: 3.0
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