I enjoyed Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1966) which I read years ago and I totally loved the related movie Blade Runner. Ubik was also excellent and I think I read something else by PKD, but don’t remember what. I’ve also read a couple of short stories by him – Perky Pat, for one. The thing is that although I’ve really wanted to read more of his books, I just haven’t for absolutely no good reason. So I was pleased when The BookGroup List selected this for our April 16th (2015) discussion.
PKD (as he’s known) was an interesting guy and he wrote interesting fiction which has held up over time. He published between 1951 and 1982, the year of his death – a lot of his works were transformed for film and television and The Philip K. Dick Award is an annual sci-fi prize given in his honor. Brief biography of Philip K. Dick at Wiki
Classics can be so enlightening in the way that the historically minded reader gets a real bird’s-eye view into the concerns of the era in which the works were written as well as the literary styles and devices of the day. In a way, classics become historical artifacts in themselves and they speak to us directly from and about another era. This is very true of The Man in the High Castle.
The premise or basic question for Dick’s fascinating 21st alternative fiction – almost dystopian but not quite dark enough – is “What would the world look like in 1962 if Nazi Germany and their ally, Imperial Japan, had won WWII in 1947?” (15 years prior). The main setting of the book is San Francisco which in PKD’s alternate 1962 is geographically a part of Japan’s Pacific dominion.
Another section of PKD’s wonderfully imagined world is set somewhere in Colorado, a part of the “neutral” zone.
Meanwhile, the Germans control the East Coast of the US and most of the remaining world is divided up between Germany and Japan although there are areas where much smaller entities have more control. This state of the world transpired because in PKD’s imagination a break with what we know as history started when Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president of the US at the time, was shot some time in the late 1930s, leaving lesser men to lose the war. The ravages of Nazism is a recurrent theme.
Maps and photos developed from and for the book: –
There’s a lot more there – see the notes especially. (Click on the map for a larger view):
The plot and characters:
In San Francisco, Robert Childan is the owner of an upscale retailer of Americana artifacts (“collectables” – like stamps, posters and guns) and is about to close on an excellent deal with a Japanese notable when he discovers that another item in his collection, an antique Colt .44, is fake. The Japanese are huge collectors of this Americana.
Meanwhile, Frank Frink, a Jewish man who deals in wholesaling Americana artifacts is trying to get a foothold to sell his wares in Childan’s business. Unfortunately, he first peddled fake goods but with Ed McCarthy decides to go into the sale of authentic jewelry but using start-up money from Wyndam-Matson. His wife has left him and he is scared, lonely and seriously misses her.
Wyndam-Matson is the company (with an eponymous owner) which employs Frink – they know what they’re doing – they’re supposed to be good enough they don’t get caught! He takes action.
Frank’s wife Juliana Frink is living in Colorado where she comes in contact with the ex-Axis fighter Joe Cinnadella, of the Italian forces now working as a long distance truck driver but with an interesting life in the intervening years. She and Joe go to meet Hawthorne Abendson, the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.
Nobusuke Tagomi appears as a trade missioner in Japanese San Francisco, buys and gives antiques and artifacts. He wants to buy something from Childan to give to Baynes or Tagomi, the visiting dignitary from Japan.
Mr. Baynes is apparently Jewish and masking as a neutral Swede, but actually working for the Germans as a spy but he’s actually acting as a double agent on a dangerous mission to inform the Japanese about an impending attack by Germany.
Herr Reiss – a Nazi functionary in San Francisco who deals with the Japanese and reads The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Reiss wants to see the author killed.
There are a few other characters involved but it all comes to a head in a strange ending which, in the 21st century and having read Stephen King’s 11/22/63, is not so strange.
In the course of the first quarter of the book Wyndam-Matson’s mistress, Rita, introduces him to a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy written by someone named Hawthorne Abendson who lives in a “High Castle” somewhere in Colorado. This “story-within-a-story” is itself an alternate history, but more utopian than dystopian and based on the premise that Roosevelt lived and that the Allies won the war. The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is banned in the German sections of the world,
In Colorado Joe has the book and Juliana is introduced to it, fascinated. They eventually take off to meet Abendson who lives somewhere in Colorado.
Other characters are introduced to Abendson’s book and have individual reactions – some violently opposed. Later in the story the author, Abendson, becomes a focus point. The ending felt a bit flat I guess because I wanted Abendson involved in more plot action.
Themes: First of course there are the ravages of Nazism, Hitler and his minions. Also, PKD covers a more philosophical inquiry into the ideas of what is real and what is false or imitation or masked. This exploration includes artifacts, both real and forgeries, people in disguies – are they as they present themselves, hiding, masks, name change, spies. And of course, in the end, which history is real? Is reality what we bring to it when we believe?
The I Ching is an interesting thread in the book as well as apparently being significant in Dick’s actual writing of it. All but one of the characters use it to make their decisions and assess their fates. The one who doesn’t use it seems to have some ups and downs, too.
And then there’s the literary theme of the story-within-a-story, but that fits with the reality / imagination theme and “what do we believe,” “what is dangerous,” “censorship,” etc.
The science and technology PKD refers to is also interesting from an historical perspective. He was not at all aware of the contemporary (1962-63) inventions and discoveries involving communications or the transistor and computer games – but television, plastics, and space travel, exploration, colonization was of huge interest to the public. In PKD’s alternative history, television was not invented until much later – 1960 maybe. Much of this is probably right on for 1962 and what most Americans at the time would have found plausible – maybe even applauded certain parts. – There is way too much about the early 1960s to annotate.
In PKD’s version, Communism was a big baddie of the world, but was destroyed by the Germans. – In today’s standard history of 1962 – 63, the US was in the middle of the Cold War and anti-Communist sympathies are evident in PDK’s alternative history. That one works both ways as the Nazis absolutely loathed Communism.
Except for Hugo Reissn and a couple of others mentioned in passing, the names of the German officials are all historical as far as I can tell. The word “Frieherr” means “free lord” indicating a male of high standing. The $250 Frink and McCarthy have in their accounts in 1963 translates to $1,931 in 2015 – would the Japanese have required their sections to convert to Yen? (??) –
Context: In 1962-63 the Japanese had been pretty much forgiven (for the time being) by the US and the Allies but the horrors of Nazi Germany lived on in the minds of the citizens. There were trials of Nazi war criminals throughout the late 1940s, (See Nuremberg Trials) and continuing through the 1950s. Adolf Eichmann was captured in 1960, tried in 1961 and rumors of the survival of Bohrmann and Hitler’s survival were – if not rampant, common.
The drama “Judgement at Nuremberg” was well received and very popular -Trials of “lesser” Nazi criminals were held in Frankfort Germany between 1963 and 1967. Then president John Kennedy was killed in 1963 and there were rumors that the assassination was instigated by Nazis. The Mafia was involved in Nazi-hunting.
I get the feeling that the Japanese are treated much better in PKD’s book than they would have been fifty years later when the news of their own atrocities in China and the South Pacific became known.
There are lots and lots of reviews out there –
Amazon television adaptation – 2015:
I watched it – was not impressed – what’s with all the violence? I guess it had to be spelled out like that for 21st century audiences. Otherwise it was probably fine – I have no idea if I’ll watch more episodes or not.