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The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick: book review

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick - book coverI’m a great fan of Philip K Dick novels – indeed reading one has become part of the Christmas tradition for me – so I look forwarded to reading this novel which is more counter-factual history than science fiction.

Although space travel features briefly in the background of The Man in the High Castle, it is a novel about a different post-Second World War world – one in which Japan and Germany had won and partitioned the US.

This fictional world is well drawn, using enough reference to actual people and events to create as plausible an alternative reality as that created by Robert Harris in Fatherland.

Unlike Fatherland though this is not a book of dramatic plotting. The wide cast of characters develop slowly, the plot (in as much as there is one) develops but little during the book and, as you would expect of a Philip K Dick, the finale certainly doesn’t wrap up loose ends or provide a clear ending to the events of the book.

Instead, the book gives a rich picture of how different characters might have reacted to this different world. It plays with the reader about the moral ambiguities of dealing with two evils. The Japanese dictatorship comes over as far more preferable than the Nazi one whilst amongst the Nazis it is the most evil who in fact offer the most hope for a peaceful future because, as transpires during the book, it is ‘moderate’ Nazis who hunger for a further world-wide war.

Whether or not the book entertains rests on two key plot devices. First, I Ching features heavily in the book and is frequently used to develop the characters. According to taste that either make for a refreshing infusion of a different culture into a science fiction novel or makes for annoying obscurantism.

Second, the final twist is served up very briefly and plainly, with neither the characters nor events responding much. The facts of the twist are stated briefly and that’s it. It is a twist that spurs the usual Philip K Dick thoughts about quite what we mean by reality, but unlike his other novels the book’s twist does little more than say “here is something to think about” in a remarkably minimalist way and then leaves it to the reader to do the rest.

The reader has certainly been warmed up with some neat discussions about reality and authenticity. In particular, there is an exploration of what it means for an historical artefact to be genuine and how the value we place on it is based on the associated documentation of its place at an historical event rather than the artefact itself. The presence or absence of such documentation changes our attitude towards artefacts even though they have not in themselves changed.

Moreover, in a theme popular with Dick, the fake is better than the original in many ways – in the case of historical artefacts on sale in the novel because if you present something as not being an historical artefact, you can produce more and do not have to worry about authenticity. It’s a theme that echoes an observation from American writer and TV executive Barbara Bloom: “When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandise the damage by filling in the cracks with gold. They believe that when something has suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful”. Being flawed can make an object be seen to have higher, not lower, value.

Those questions of reality and what we value are ones returned to frequently is his later novels, and often with more panache in more traditional science fiction settings. The Man in the High Castle has overtones of his earlier novel, Time out of joint, which also has only a brief passing reference to the traditional science fiction theme of interplanetary travel and also has difficulty providing a satisfactory ending to the book.

Still, with the rich alternative history backdrop this is certainly a novel to enjoy. Just don’t expect too much in the way of plot development or resolution.

You can buy The Man in the High Castle from Amazon here and you can read my other book reviews here.

0 responses to “The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick: book review”

  1. Hi Mark,

    An interesting post.

    I read this about 20 years ago, and from what I can remember you’ve summed it up pretty well. Though I thought the plot development was pretty good.

    One of the touches I Iiked was that in this alternative history, someone had written a book in which the Allies had won the war, but this vision is one in which the USA and Britain then slug it out between themselves for world domination…..

    I don’t like much else by Dick though!

  2. Glad you liked it.

    With the likes of Aldair and Colpertino subsequently doing self-referential novels, I think the book within a book idea has probably aged less well (ie doesn’t sound very novel to a modern ear) than other aspects of it.

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