Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

I think this book broke my brain.

I mean, it's so many things tied up in a slim little volume - an alt-history "what if Germany and Japan had won the Second World War," a meditation on the inability to ever accurately try to reconstruct what-might-have-beens, one of the most interesting literary experiments I've ever read, a look at chance and fate in how the world unfolds, and a book that can definitely bend your sense of reality.

The alt-history portion takes place after Germany and Japan have divided up North America, after Nazi programs have decimated Africa and started to send rockets to Mars. The action takes place mostly on the West Coast, where the Japanese hold sway. There, we jump between a Japanese trade envoy, a secretly-Jewish craftsman, his estranged wife who teaches judo in a small town in Colorado, a white seller of American "antiquities" to Japanese buyers, and a secret messenger from certain factions in the German regime to certain elements in the Japanese government.

The world that is created is distinctly different from our own, but not impossible to grasp. Dick examines how he thinks Japanese culture would affect San Francisco, and the changes in a society in which the Japanese are the conquering power.

The Man in the High Castle refers to the author of a book within this book, if you follow me. That author, Abendsen, has written an alt-history book about what the world would be like if the Allies had won the war. But it is not a world in which someone has written a book about our world. Abendsen's alt-history differs strongly from our own. But more than that, every time someone mentions the book to someone who hasn't read it yet, each has a theory for what the world would have been like, had the Allies won the war, and no two are alike.

Dick explores the limits of actually attempting to reconstruct what might have happened in any circumstances. The book strongly implies that this is impossible - chance or fate will have its way, and the factors we pick out as important and the ones we dismiss as irrelevant make this a loser's game, if you're going for accuracy.

The I Ching is another recurring theme of the book, and here's where it becomes a fascinating literary experiment. Every time the characters in The Man in the High Castle consult the I Ching, Dick did as well, and used the resulting hexagrams not only in the book, but to shape the subsequent narrative. Despite, or perhaps because of, this trick, the book hangs together remarkably well, becoming a powerful look at interpretation and chance, the moments you can control and those you can't.

The momentum around this builds to the conclusion which scrambled all my thinking for a while. If I remember the paper I heard on this book years ago, writing this book sent Dick a little around the bend into paranoia about the I Ching and the reality of the world.

This book is trippy. There's no two ways about it. It is also audacious, thought-provoking and rewards attention and, I imagine, will hold up to rereads. I look forward to tackling it again in a few years and seeing what I discover the second time.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

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