The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick (1962)

I read a bit of mid-century American science fiction in my teens and even then found it a stranger world than that of Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. I could cope with the imagined stuff, but the rest was a bit too American and male-focussed for me: all that hedonism and preoccupation with a woman’s bust size and the lurking hangover of McCarthyism.

So, despite opening this novel without much interest, I was surprised how quickly I was hooked. Dick combines a recognisable world with a counter-factual one where Germany and Japan prevailed in the second world war and the United States was divided between the two conquerors (rather as Germany was in the real world) and a neutral backwater. It’s fascinating and very cleverly imagined: Americans who want to please and emulate their Japanese masters, the enthusiastic adoption of elements of eastern culture (the I Ching, pedicabs), the continuing Nazi obsessions with racial purity (they are all blond now and have done something unspeakable in Africa), Lebensraum and technology (rockets take you from Berlin to San Francisco in 45 minutes, Mars is being colonised and the Mediterranean has been drained for more farmland).

Dick writes densely – both in terms of plotting and language – and the book moves quickly. (A modern author might have turned it into a doorstop.) He makes the most of free indirect speech to give us a view of this strange world from different angles. He even plays with the form of language, so that Robert  Childan expresses his thoughts in a Japanese-style idiom which reflects how much he admires and envies their culture and success. Mr Tagomi is one of the moral centres of the book: he cannot stop his physical revulsion at the account of Nazi actions. His attempt to find enlightenment in Frink’s squiggly pendant is both funny and very touching.Yet he – like Juliana – is also a killer.

There is also a counter-counter-factual world outlined in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a book which many of the characters are reading. In this world, Germany and Japan lose the war, and the United States extends the New Deal to China. There is increasing friction between the USA and the UK (which has retained its empire but starts acting like the old Nazi Germany) which ends badly.

I was puzzled by the importance of the I Ching in the book – particularly at the end, which either collapses in on itself or is ambitiously ambiguous, depending on which way I look at it. I suppose it emphasises the difference of Dick’s world from the “real” world in 1962; it  reflects an unfamiliar (to me) spirituality and moral sense; and it highlights the tension between individual helplessness (in that you are asking the oracle to help decide for you) and moral behaviour (it is up to you how to interpret the answer). Certainly it gives a different spiritual sense to the American characters from the stereotypical god-family-country trinity. The greatest surprise is when Childan is persuaded – redeemed – by Kasoura’s spiritual admiration of Frink’s jewellery to reject the opportunity to have the designs mass-produced as cheap good-luck charms for poor countries. Childan – who until now has acted through the profit motive, whether of money or sex – commits himself to American art and thinks “Here I stand” – Hier stehe ich. (But those are also the last words of the counter-counter-factual Hitler, so they’re definitely multi-purpose!) (And – another tangent – I half-caught a radio interview yesterday with an Australian Aboriginal artist who made boomerangs in the traditional way. He was being undercut by cheap, mass-produced ones from Indonesia for the tourist market. His view echoed that of Kasoura: the crafted object has wu, authenticity, inner beauty, whatever which cannot inhabit cheap imitations.)

So – yes – a great depiction of alternative worlds and plenty to think about afterwards.

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