The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick
(Gollancz SF Masterworks III, £14.99, 249 pages, hardback; first published 1962; this edition 25 October 2001; ISBN 0575073357. Also: Penguin, £6.99, 249 + xii pages, paperback; this edition 2001, with a new introduction by Eric Brown; ISBN 0141186674.)
Dick's famous alternate history, perhaps his greatest novel, has now been reissued in the livery of Gollancz's popular 'SF Masterworks' series: specifically, as number three of a new hardback series of ten SF Greatest Hits. The text inside the covers is a straight mimeograph of the same battered old 1970s paperback edition that you probably have on your shelf (or if you don't -- and shame on you -- then its an edition you'll find easily enough in charity shops if you look with enough assiduity), although Chris Moore's cover-art is extremely nice, and the whole book is a pleasure to hold in the hand. (The new Penguin edition also uses the 1970s text-setting, although it includes a new introduction by Eric Brown - ed.) Gollancz are presumably banking on SF fans wanting certain classic novels in a more durable format, and this novel is precisely the sort of classic the true fan will want to own, to read and re-read.
With a book so famous, summary runs the risk of superfluity. The novel is set in West-Coast America in the 1960s, but a 1960s in which the Axis powers won the Second World War. The old USA has been partitioned, with Nazi-run Eastern and Japanese-run Western portions and a notionally non-aligned buffer-zone along the Rockies. The main characters are a number of San Francisco Americans getting on with their lives in their various ways. The Japanese overlords are totalitarian but honourable, and many of them have a penchant for collecting old US-memorabilia -- civil war pistols, 1920s comic-books and the like, a market a number of Americans are happy to supply. Meanwhile the Germans have landed astronauts on Mars, drained the Mediterranean for farmland, and have almost entirely liquidated the black African population in an extension of the 'final solution'. Dick's use of detail to sketch out his alternate reality is well-nigh flawless, a model for others to copy: not too egregious, but always suggestive and thought-provoking. But the masterstroke of the book is the marginal character Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of the pulp bestseller The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Living in the castle of the book's title in the Rockies, Abendsen has consulted the ancient Chinese book of Changes, the I Ching, and used his readings of it to write a sort of Science Fiction potboiler, an alternate-reality tale in which America and the Allies win the Second World War. His book has become a popular success, so much so that the Nazi high command want him assassinated.
There's no point in beating around the bush: this book is a masterpiece. Stylistically what makes it especially good is its restraint; it has none of the loony excess of late-period Dick, but all the inventiveness and vision of his best work is here, carefully modulated and controlled. Nothing in the novel is superfluous, everything contributes to theme and form -- because this book is very much more than a straightforward SF narrative. It is a meditation on the nature of history, a quasi-philosophical work cast in fictional form, as are several of Dick's masterpieces from his great Decade (1962-72, or thereabouts).
Dick's novels have inspired a voluminous posthumous body of critical exegesis, probably a more extensive range of critical interpretations than any other SF author save Wells. Readings of The Man in the High Castle have tended to concentrate on the relativist philosophy of History the novel embodies, for what are doubtless obvious reasons. But in fact this is a much more sophisticated, and consciously artistic, tale than this. This is a book about the inter-relations of history, truth and creativity: indeed, one of Dick's most brilliant touches is to advance the idea that there is a connection between these three terms, that they need to be understood in relation to one another.
The issue of 'collectibles' with which the book starts is an example. With so lucrative a market there are many fakes, as we might expect. One of the main characters, Frank Frink, is involved in making and artificially ageing Colt Pistols that can be passed off as civil war memorabilia. Dick uses these artefacts to focus questions of what 'history' actually is: whether it inheres in 'material reality' in some way ('facts', we might say) or whether it is a purely relativist, textual phenomenon. Wyndham-Matson, another character involved in the fake-memorabilia scam, makes this point to a girl he is seeing. He gives her two very similar-looking cigarette lighters, one of which is worth 'maybe forty or fifty thousand dollars on the collector's market.' Why? Because of 'the historicity'.
She said, 'what is "historicity"?'
'When a thing has history in it. Listen. One of those two Zippo lighters was in Franklin D. Roosevelt's pocket when he was assassinated. And one wasn't. One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. As much as any object ever had. And one has nothing .... You can't tell which is which. There's no "mystical plasmic presence", no "aura" around it.
Wyndham-Matson's point is a radically relativist one: '"a gun goes through a famous battle, like the Meuse-Argonne, and it's the same as if it hadn't, unless you know. It's in here." He tapped his head. "In the mind, not the gun"'. Postmodern and deconstructive historians have been involved with more traditional historians in precisely this debate for several decades now: whether history is 'out there', a realm of solid fact like the fetishized artefacts Wyndham-Matson is discussing, or whether it is 'in the mind', radically indeterminable, textual rather than factual. Dick takes the argument further along than a Foucault or a Hayden White could dare.
His premise, that of alternate reality, foregrounds precisely this indeterminacy. If history is 'in the mind, not in the gun', then it is hard to establish the primacy of one timeline over another. The tendency when we encounter the 'alternate history within an alternate history' of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is to assume that Abendsen has somehow stumbled upon 'the real history' of the twentieth century; but in terms of the fictive logic of the book the Axis victory is the 'real history', and Abendsen's version only 'in the mind'. Because the book links its meditations all along to Frink's difficulties in establishing himself as a maker of authentic American jewellery -- as a creative artist, in other words, like Abendsen -- Dick is actually exploring the ways in which the 'in the mind' reality of history is in fact creative.
Memory is another form of history, and a notoriously unreliable one. Juliana Frink, Frink's ex-wife, falls in with an Italian truck-driver called Joe. He reminisces about fighting in North Africa, and claims to have killed the infamous British Commando Colonel Haselden. '"I was on sentry duty, Haselden sneaked up ... He tried to break my larynx. I got him"'. Juliana doesn't believe him. 'His account simply did not convince her. Perhaps he had not been in North Africa at all, had not even fought in the war on the Axis side, had not even fought' [The Man in the High Castle, pages 138-9]. As the novel goes on it becomes clear that Joe is indeed not what he seems. The point, not laboured but explored thoroughly, is that, by extension, no form of history is reliable; all is relative.
Dick stops the premise becoming too abstruse by connecting it, expertly, to our experience of the twentieth-century all the way along. Frink's meandering thoughts about on-going Nazi atrocities in Africa:
Africa. For the ghosts of dead tribes. Wiped out to make a land of -- what? Who knew? Maybe even the master architects of Berlin did not know. Bunch of automatons, building and toiling away. Building? Grinding down. Ogres out of a palaeontology exhibit, as their task of making a cup from an enemy's skull, the whole family industriously scooping out the contents -- the raw brains -- first, to eat. Then useful utensils of men's leg bones. Thrifty, to think not only of eating the people you did not like, but eating them out of their own skull. The first technicians! Prehistoric man in a sterile white lab coat in some Berlin university lab, experimenting with the uses to which other people's skull, skin, ears, fat could be put. Ja, Herr Doktor. A new use for the big toe; see, one can adapt the joint for a quick-acting cigarette lighter mechanism. Now, if only Herr Krupp can produce it in quantity ...
Because we live in a world in which real Nazis made lampshades and the like out of real people, this grisly recitative never strays into the phantasmagoric; its black humour remains a commentary upon the actual world as well as upon Dick's imagined alternate universe. It is this 'reality' -- precisely (of course) the term Dick is most famous for challenging and problematising, but nonetheless -- it is this 'reality' that gives the novel depth, bite and power. Dick ties his symbols together deftly, eloquently: the lighter with historicity because Rooseveldt was carrying it when he was assassinated; the lighter made out of the big toe of a murdered human: both connect with a subtle set of images that have to do with cigarettes, from the first chapter (Childan 'lit up a marijuana cigarette, excellent Land-O-Smiles brand', page 13) throughout.
This builds towards one of the moments of what might be called conventional climax in the book, when the 'Swedish' industrialist Baynes reveals himself to be actually Captain R Wegener of the Reichs Naval Counterintelligence, offering his Japanese contacts his secret intelligence in the form of cigarettes ('you will find each cigarette to be a hollow container for microfilm', page 185). But the greatest pleasures in Dick's novel are not to be found on the 'surface' level of thriller, on-the-run-from-the-Nazis adventure story or spy tale, well-handled as those elements are. Instead the balance of image, symbol and theme registers itself as a wonderfully modulated harmony throughout the text. Indeed, the semiological aesthetic of the book, the habit of 'reading' signs for their hidden significance, is at the heart of the novel's detailed underpinning by the I Ching. The cigarettes remind us, in shape at least, of the yarrow stalks, thrown when consulting the oracle. Not that the oracle is any gold standard for the novel: it gives one purchase on truth, although the I Ching-inspired The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is as often 'wrong' about our reality as 'right' (so it describes the siege of Stalingrad, which never happened in Dick's alternate reality, but it also posits the British and American Empires clashing after the war, with the Brits victorious). Of course, 'truth' is one of the slipperiest quantities in Dick's moral universe, and Dick is careful to indicate the sort of interpretative strategies that make sense of the universe, based in this work on Taoist concepts of balance, without spelling out easy answers.
Dick is frequently described as an anticipator of deconstruction and postmodernism, a philosophical relativist who found in SF the best medium for his ideas. This is a fair assessment, but can underplay the solid ethical foundations to his work. Ultimately, although this is a novel premised on a profound relativism, it is nonetheless grounded in an unambiguous sense of the fact that some things are plain wrong. Halfway through the novel the German Fuhrer Bormann dies. As the Japanese discuss the likely successor to the Nazi throne, Tagomi, one of the delegation finds himself becoming more and more upset. Political expediency means determining which of the various butchers and psychopaths would be the 'best' appointment from a Japanese point of view, and as the likely candidates' characteristics and histories are reviewed, Tagomi rushes from the room with a sort of existential terror upon him.
There is evil! It's actual, like cement.
I can't believe it. I can't stand it. Evil is not a view ... it's an ingredient in us. In the world. Poured over us, filtering into our bodies, minds, hearts, into the pavement itself.
This is a suitably fundamental image for the evil of Nazism that Dick's alternate history brings powerfully into focus. A towering (high castling) masterpiece.
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© Adam Roberts 19 January 2002