This review contains no spoilers – the Notes section does –
This book is only 250+ pages on my Kindle and although PKD’s books and stories are complex and thought-provoking, they are not known for being “difficult reads.” So I expected an enjoyable, somewhat amusing little brain exercise – HA! I got involved. I got really involved. And I read slowly, taking a lot of breaks, savoring the concept, the themes, the plot and Googling a fair amount for background, context and specifics. I didn’t want it to end so reading took me about a week with a couple other books on the side and ending up with a NOTES page as well.
This was written back in 1962 so it might seem dated to some readers, but to me 50+ years ago makes it a classic and I get a little peek at what the world was like in 1962. Yes, of course I remember 1962 and I must say that the 21st century is radically different from those “olden days,” what with its all-important Cold War, space exploration, faster planes, television and Civil Rights issues – just as Dick describes – also rock and roll and a booming economy, etc – neither of which would have likely existed had Nazi Germany won the war. Meanwhile, there was no digital age, no oil issues or major problems in the Middle East – except dealing with the defunct Ottoman Empire. PKD’s imagined world reflects all of the above in addition to providing some great entertainment in the form of “what if.”
Today’s dystopian fiction involves ecological collapse (Friend of the Earth by T.C. Boyle), runaway killer viruses (Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel) and The Dog Stars by Peter Heller) or perhaps a mysterious Chinese take-over (see On Such a Full Sea) or an unknown event (The Road by Cormac McCarthy).
So – what would the world look like in 1963 had Germany and Japan had won WWII in 1947? That’s the concept – how would the US and the world be divided up? What would be safe where? What would life be like for the average San Francisco businessman and others? How about life in the Neutral Zones? And what if, in that invented dystopia, someone then wrote an alternative history in which the US and Allies won? Literature can be powerful, can foment and communicate ideas, it can be subversive – the Nazis certainly know that. (Look at the flags in the map.)
The characters are well enough drawn I hurt for one as he tried to set up a sale of jewelry, and for another as she pondered her relationship with the new man.
The themes explored are related to the ideas of reality vs fakery including artifacts, relationships, people and identity, books, etc. racism – all set in the wonderfully imagined world of Post-WWII Nazi rule.
The story itself alternates between three basic plot lines. The first deals with a couple of businessmen trying to set up trade in San Francisco, one or whom is Jewish and worried. They are involved in various levels of fraud. The second plot thread involves the wife of the Jewish businessman (they are separated) and her new boyfriend reading the alternate history book. The third watches as a German emissary (a spy as of page 21) interacts with visiting Japanese dignitaries. The I Ching is important to almost all the characters as it was, apparently, to PKD. Whole pages have been written on the I Ching’s involvement here.
Do I recommend it? – Although I enjoyed it, I don’t think I can really recommend it. It’s great for historical interest and it’s well written, but if you’re looking for relevant dystopian fiction you might want to try something more contemporary.