Here we go again. Please don’t worry about whether or not I’m going to be able to read all these books by August — I’ve read more than 5 of them, but I’m just behind on my posts.
Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is a fantastic science fiction/literary masterpiece that takes place in an alternate future immediately following World War II. In this universe, the Germans and the Japanese won the war, creating a powerful regime spanning the whole world and even into outer space, which Dick imagines that the Germans have begun to explore. The narrative sits behind the eyes of quite a few point-of-view characters. A couple are Japanese, one is (supposedly) Swedish, and a few are white Americans. In this world, Jews are (expectedly) given short shrift; I got the feeling that even being of Jewish descent is illegal. One of the main characters, Frank Frink (nee Frank Fink), has an illicit Jewish history and so he had his nose altered and his last name changed.
Within the first few pages, I began to suspect that something was up. The main point of view characters are based for the most part in San Francisco, which was familiar, but I started to get glimpses that something was wrong with this world — something different from our own. When I finally realized where and when we were, and what had happened (the Nazis winning the war), I was somewhat blown away by the audacity of it (in a good way). Here is a story telling us what would have happened if history had turned out differently; it was more than that, however. Near the end, one of the main characters (Japanese, so elevated in society), has an epiphanic moment where he glimpses the world as we, the readers, know it. I won’t spoil the mystery of the moment, but I will say that the way Dick has cultivated this world allows him to make judgments about the real-world society he is writing in simultaneously with the one he has made up. This book is thought-provoking and intense, and I definitely enjoyed it as a piece of literature and I’m glad I had the chance to read it.
Here are some notes about the book — things I liked, things I thought were done well, things I’m confused about.
The narrative style of this novel can be a little stilted at times. Sometimes Dick forgoes traditional syntax in favor of a sentence structure that forgets about subjects and jumps right into the predicates. Seventh-grade sentence diagramming language aside, here’s what a general sentence (mostly first-person thought) will look like when a character is stressed or confused or excited about something:
We’re blind moles. Creeping through the soil, feeling with our snoots. We know nothing. I perceived this . . . now I don’t know where to go. Screech with fear, only. Run away.
Laugh at me, he thought as he saw the chauffeurs regarding him as he walked to his car. Forgot my briefcase. Left it back there, by my chair. All eyes on him as he nodded to his chauffeur. Door held open; he crept into his car.
I think this is interesting because Dick is here attempting to simulate what human thought is actually like. We don’t think in complete sentences most of the time, so why should the characters in our books? I’ll try to remember this when writing my own characters’ thoughts.
Something else monstrously fantastic about the book (and part of what drives the main plot) is a novel written by the Man in the High Castle. This book, called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, is a popular novel that describes what would have happened had the Nazis lost the war — in other words, the mirror image of The Man in the High Castle itself. And the author of said novel has sequestered himself in his own “High Castle” (with turrets, ballasts, etc.) because, obviously, the German authorities think it’s a political statement and are trying to kill him. As a result, the entire book (The Man in the High Castle) is very meta. For instance, when discussing The Grasshopper Lies Heavy:
“Not a mystery,” Paul said. “On contrary, interesting form of fiction possibly within genre of science fiction.”
“Oh no,” Betty disagreed. “No science in it. Nor set in future. Science fiction deals with future, in particular future where science has advanced over now. Book fits neither premise.”
Amazing, the power of fiction, even cheap popular fiction, to evoke.
The book is full of this. I find it fascinating, because I love meta.
That first quote brings up something else I wanted to discuss that might tread on the soles of that post I made a couple weeks ago about genre. The friend who suggested I put this book on my reading list lamented to me the other day that it’s considered science fiction by the masses, much like Betty above. He thinks it should be placed in the “literary” corral, and I might have to agree with him (insomuch as I can agree with those labels). The way it is structured doesn’t seem like science fiction — there are no epic plotlines, no futuristic science, pretty much everything Betty said. To me this is a HINT, HINT from the author that the publisher didn’t pick up on. Funny.
How does this help me in my current project?
Again, I think the way Dick structures the thoughts of his characters will be helpful to examine for ways I can possibly emulate.
Wow this post was A LOT longer than I thought it was going to be. I apologize. But really, what a fantastic book. Go read it!
Next up: Beloved by Toni Morrison; Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson; Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.