The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962) (read in 2019)
Published by marco on
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
This novel is, in a way, more straightforward than many of Dick’s other novels. Instead of multiple onion-skin layers of reality, some drug-induced and (most likely) imaginary (as in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch), there is one extremely intricately imagined alternate reality where the Axis won World War II, as well as one sketched alternate reality in which they did not, but the Allies converted the world to socialism.
The Reich occupies the east coast of America, all of Europe and much of Russia and Asia, as well as South America. The Japanese have the west coast of America. The middle of America is a no-man’s land with few people and no effort made to occupy or suppress it. The Nazis executed a 15-year campaign to exterminate all of the peoples of every African nation.
The British are still around, but largely defanged. China retains a larger sphere of influence, but not nearly as large as Japan. Italy resents its second-class status in the list of conquering nations, but has little power to do anything.
The story takes place largely in San Francisco and in various cities in Colorado. Frank Frink is an artisan who hides his Jewish ancestry. Juliana Frink is his ex-wife, living in the no-man’s land with Joe, an Italian-American truck driver with a military past. Childan is an antique dealer with delusions of grandeur and a deeply sycophantic attitude to the occupying Japanese. Wegener is a former German officer posing as a Swede (Baynes). He is trying to communicate with the Japanese in some covert operation.
Joe turns out to be a Wehrmacht spy, and the “Swede” learns of Operation Dandelion from an elderly Japanese—a plan hatched by the ascendant Goebbels to nuke all of the Japanese Home Islands and to consolidate world power, once and for all.
The majority of the book is about building the world in which these people move, expertly dropping believable and well-integrated information about the alternate history.
Because this is Philip K. Dick, there are two histories: the “real” one and one in samizdat in the form of a book called the The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in which the author depicts an alternate history to the “real” one in which the Allies won—but it’s different and more utopian than our own.
That is, the characters in the book live in a world occupied by the Germans and Japanese that functions largely like our world does today —with superpowers exerting what they consider to be largely benevolent but firm influence on occupied nations who should be grateful for the guiding hand of a superior civilization—but they dream through the eyes of a gifted author of a utopia in which socialism has triumphed and put wonderful technological advances to use in bettering all of mankind. That is, instead of the Nazis eradicating every Neger in Africa, the peoples of Africa are lifted up by the same technology.
As ever with Dick, things aren’t so straightforward: many of the characters use the I Ching to predict their future—and it works (in this book). Even the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy admits that he used the book and the coins to write the book. That is, the book is a “prediction” of sorts. When Juliana finally confronts the author, they use the coins again to elicit from the inanimate seer that the book is actually the truth, that what is written there is the real world and that they have all been living a sick, hallucinated lie.
Tagomi discovers this on his own, when he takes one of Frink’s handwrought jewelry items to a park and focuses deeply on its wu, its inner essence. When he does, he finds himself transported to another world—the world in the The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Terrified, he uses the same technique to somehow make his way back.
As always, Dick is a delight to read and provides plenty of food for thought. His stories are incredibly unique and surprising. Highly recommended.
“The madmen are in power. How long have we known this? Faced this? And—how many of us do know it? Not Lotze. Perhaps if you know you are insane then you are not insane. Or you are becoming sane, finally. Waking up. I suppose only a few are aware of all this. Isolated persons here and there. But the broad masses . . . what do they think? All these hundreds of thousands in this city, here. Do they imagine that they live in a sane world? Or do they guess, glimpse, the truth . . . ? But, he thought, what does it mean, insane? A legal definition. What do I mean? I feel it, see it, but what is it? He thought, It is something they do, something they are. It is their unconsciousness. Their lack of knowledge about others. Their not being aware of what they do to others, the destruction they have caused and are causing. No, he thought. That isn’t it. I don’t know; I sense it, intuit it. But—they are purposely cruel . . . is that it? No. God, he thought. I can’t find it, make it clear. Do they ignore parts of reality? Yes. But it is more. It is their plans. Yes, their plans. The conquering of the planets. Something frenzied and demented, as was their conquering of Africa, and before that, Europe and Asia. Their view; it is cosmic. Not of a man here, a child there, but an abstraction: race, land.”
“They entered the air terminal and together ascended the ramp. Behind them Mr. Kotomichi said, “Harusame ni nuretsutsu yane no temari kana . . .” “What is that?” Mr. Baynes said to Mr. Tagomi. “Old poem,” Mr. Tagomi said. “Middle Tokugawa Period.” Mr. Kotomichi said, “As the spring rains fall, soaking in them, on the roof, is a child’s rag ball.””
““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. Can you feel it?”
“He nudged her. “You can’t. You can’t tell which is which. There’s no ‘mystical plasmic presence,’ no ‘aura’ around it.”
““Gee,” the girl said, awed. “Is that really true? That he had one of those on him that day?”
““Sure. And I know which it is. You see my point. It’s all a big racket; they’re playing it on themselves. I mean, 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. I used to be a collector. In fact, that’s how I got into this business. I collected stamps. Early British colonies.””
“Abendsen’s theory is that Roosevelt would have been a terribly strong President. As strong as Lincoln. He showed it in the year he was President, all those measures he introduced. The book is fiction. I mean, it’s in novel form. Roosevelt isn’t assassinated in Miami; he goes on and is reelected in 1936, so he’s President until 1940, until during the war. Don’t you see? He’s still President when Germany attacks England and France and Poland. And he sees all that. He makes America strong. Garner was a really awful President. A lot of what happened was his fault. And then in 1940, instead of Bricker, a Democrat would have been elected […]”
“Maybe I don’t actually recall F.D.R. as example. Synthetic image distilled from hearing assorted talk. Myth implanted subtly in tissue of brain. Like, he thought, myth of Hepplewhite. Myth of Chippendale. Or rather more on lines of Abraham Lincoln ate here. Used this old silver knife, fork, spoon. You can’t see it, but the fact remains.”
““Human nature.” Joe added, “Nature of states. Suspicion, fear, greed. Churchill thinks the U.S.A. is undermining British rule in South Asia by appealing to the large Chinese populations, who naturally are pro-U.S.A., due to Chiang Kai-shek. The British start setting up”—he grinned at her briefly—“what are called ‘detention preserves.’ Concentration camps, in other words. For thousands of maybe disloyal Chinese. They’re accused of sabotage and propaganda. Churchill is so—”
“Sure, the U.S.A. expands economically after winning the war over Japan, because it’s got that huge market in Asia that it’s wrested from the Japs. But that’s not enough; that’s got no spirituality. Not that the British have. They’re both plutocracies, rule by the rich. If they had won, all they’d have thought about was making more money, the upper class. Abendsen, he’s wrong; there would be no social reform, no welfare public works plans—the Anglo-Saxon plutocrats wouldn’t have permitted it.”
“His tone was earnest, almost beseeching. “Those old rotten money-run empires, Britain and France and U.S.A., although the latter actually a sort of bastard sideshoot, not strictly empire, but money-oriented even so. They had no soul, so naturally no future. No growth. Nazis a bunch of street thugs; I agree. You agree? Right?”
“She had to smile; his Italian mannerisms had overpowered him in his attempt to drive and make his speech simultaneously.
““Abendsen talks like it’s a big issue as to whether U.S. or Britain ultimately wins out. Bull! Has no merit, no history to it. Six of one, dozen of other. You ever read what the Duce wrote? Inspired. Beautiful man. Beautiful writing. Explains the underlying actuality of every event. Real issue in war was: old versus new. Money—that’s why Nazis dragged Jewish question mistakenly into it—versus communal mass spirit, what Nazis call Gemeinschaft—folkness. Like Soviet. Commune. Right? Only, Communists sneaked in Pan-Slavic Peter the Great empire ambitions along with it, made social reform means for imperial ambitions.”
“The hands of the artificer,” Paul said, “had wu, and allowed that wu to flow into this piece. Possibly he himself knows only that this piece satisfies. It is complete, Robert. By contemplating it, we gain more wu ourselves. We experience the tranquillity associated not with art but with holy things. I recall a shrine in Hiroshima wherein a shinbone of some medieval saint could be examined. However, this is an artifact and that was a relic. This is alive in the now, whereas that merely remained. By this meditation, conducted by myself at great length since you were last here, I have come to identify the value which this has in opposition to historicity. I am deeply moved, as you may see.”
“They’re out of their minds, Childan said to himself. Example: they won’t help a hurt man up from the gutter due to the obligation it imposes. What do you call that? I say that’s typical; just what you’d expect from a race that when told to duplicate a British destroyer managed even to copy the patches on the boiler […]”
“You and I—we have no awareness of the vast number of uneducated. They can obtain from mold-produced identical objects a joy which would be denied to us. We must suppose that we have the only one of a kind, or at least something rare, possessed by a very few. And, of course, something truly authentic. Not a model or replica.” He continued to gaze past Childan, at empty space. “Not something cast by the tens of thousands.””
““Paul. One moment.”
“He fingered the bit of jewelry; it had become slimy with sweat. “I—am proud of this work. There can be no consideration of trashy good-luck charms. I reject.”
“Once more he could not make out the young Japanese man’s reaction, only the listening ear, the mere awareness.
““Thank you, however,” Robert Childan said. Paul bowed. Robert Childan bowed.
““The men who made this,” Childan said, “are American proud artists. Myself included. To suggest trashy good-luck charms therefore insults us and I ask for apology.”
“Incredible prolonged silence. Paul surveyed him. One eyebrow lifted slightly and his thin lips twitched. A smile?
““I demand,” Childan said. That was all; he could carry it no further. He now merely waited. Nothing occurred. Please, he thought. Help me.
“Paul said, “Forgive my arrogant imposition.” He held out his hand.
““All right,” Robert Childan said. They shook hands.”
““Sir,” Mr. Baynes said to the general, “I am Captain R. Wegener of the Reichs Naval Counter-intelligence. As understood, I represent no one but myself and certain private unnamed individuals, no departments or bureaus of the Reich Government of any sort.”
“The general said, “Herr Wegener, I understand that you in no way officially allege representation of any branch of the Reich Government. I am here as an unofficial private party who by virtue of former position with the Imperial Army can be said to have access to circles in Tokyo who desire to hear whatever you have to say.”
“Weird discourse, Mr. Tagomi thought. But not unpleasant. Certain near-musical quality to it. Refreshing relief, in fact.”
“This talk will fail, Mr. Tagomi thought. No matter what is at stake. We cannot enter the monstrous schizophrenic morass of Nazi internecine intrigue; our minds cannot adapt.”
“But what does it matter? Even if Doctor Goebbels is deposed and Operation Dandelion is canceled? They will still exist, the blackshirts, the Partei, the schemes if not in the Orient then somewhere else. On Mars and Venus. No wonder Mr. Tagomi could not go on, he thought. The terrible dilemma of our lives. Whatever happens, it is evil beyond compare. Why struggle, then? Why choose? If all alternatives are the same . . . Evidently we go on, as we always have. From day to day. At this moment we work against Operation Dandelion. Later on, at another moment, we work to defeat the police. But we cannot do it all at once; it is a sequence. An unfolding process. We can only control the end by making a choice at each step. He thought, We can only hope. And try. On some other world, possibly it is different. Better. There are clear good and evil alternatives. Not these obscure admixtures, these blends, with no proper tool by which to untangle the components.”
“Juliana said, “I wonder why the oracle would write a novel. Did you ever think of asking it that? And why one about the Germans and the Japanese losing the war? Why that particular story and no other one? What is there it can’t tell us directly, like it always has before? This must be different, don’t you think?””