Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick

This was not my first attempt at reading Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. That first attempt, several years ago, did not go very well, and I ended up abandoning this 1962 alternate history novel in a state of confusion about 25% of the way through it. And now, right up front, I’m going to confess that this second attempt was easier than the first one primarily because I watched all four seasons of Amazon Prime’s The Man in the High Castle (a 40-episode series loosely based on the novel) before trying to read it again.

It’s 1962, and World War II has been over for twenty years. The former United States has been split almost down the middle by the victors, Germany and Japan, with Germany occupying the eastern half of the country and Japan the western half. A buffer zone running through parts of Colorado is the only thing that keeps the former Axis allies from each other’s throat. A few “free” Americans manage to live in that zone. The rest are under the thumbs of the Germans and Japanese who treat them as second-class citizens, at best, and as enemies of the state, at worst.

The Germans have continued to exterminate what they consider to be inferior races across the globe, most recently via a botched attempt to do so in Africa. The Japanese are disturbed by the barbarity and aggressiveness of the German government, and they know that Germany must never be trusted. To the Japanese, it is obvious that Germany will settle for no less than total world domination – and that one day she will come for Japan and her North American territory.

Dick shows what this occupation of America is like through the eyes of several characters struggling to survive an America in which they have little hope for a better future. One character is a dealer in rare, historical artifacts, two others are involved in creating the forgeries that are sold to Japanese collectors as authentic artifacts, another is the estranged wife of an American Jew, and a fifth has written a novel of alternate history in which the United States wins World War II instead of the Axis powers. All of them, no matter what they do, live in more or less constant fear of their Japanese occupiers.

Philip K. Dick
The Man in the High Castle is a powerful book, one that demands the close attention of the reader if its full impact is to be felt. It is confusing at times, and its open-ended, ambiguous ending is not a particularly satisfying one. It is said that Dick purposely left the book open-ended because he intended one day to write its sequel. Unfortunately, the author found it so difficult to revisit Nazism that he never got the sequel written. Interestingly (and exactly as happens in the novel itself), Dick used the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, for assistance in plotting The Man in the High Castle. And in September 1963, The Man in the High Castle won the Hugo Award for best novel, the highest honor in all of Science Fiction.

Bottom Line: Seldom, if ever, have I recommended that a movie or television adaptation of a novel be watched prior to reading the book. But despite the huge differences between The Man in the High Castle and its film-version (a whole paper could be written on that subject), I’m going to do exactly that this time. If nothing else, the film leaves the viewer with a more easily imagined vision of America under occupation by its enemies, and it introduces all of the major characters from the novel. Admittedly, one or two of the novel’s characters (especially Juliana) are not much like their film versions, but that will not matter for long. This is one of those science fiction classics that every SF fanatic out there needs to read if they want to maintain their Sci Fi street creds.


  1. Most of the time I prefer the book over any movie, but there are exceptions to that rule. And it sounds like this is one of them! :)

    1. They are so different in this case that it's hard to choose between them, really. The book is under 300 pages long, and the film is 40 hours long, so you can imagine how much was written just for the series. All the main characters are in each, but the main character from the film is a totally different person in the book, and a whole lot less heroic. It's an interesting adaptation, for sure.