Source of book: Borrowed from the library.
This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. This book was actually our “Make it a Double” selection for January. Starting this year, because a bunch of us have a bit of extra time on our hands due to a certain malevolent virus, our hosts decided to add an optional second book for those who wanted a bit more to discuss. As I said, this was for January. Unfortunately, the decision was made less than a week before our January meeting, so the book came in to the library (we are on curbside appointments right now) the night before. That meant I couldn’t contribute to the discussion. Oh well. I do hope to participate in the future ones. In any case, I can write about it.
I haven’t had much experience with Philip K. Dick. I think I read a short story or something at my brother’s recommendation years ago, but I can’t remember which one or what it was about. I never saw Blade Runner or read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Side note: my wife had to read Androids for a class in college, and loathed it so much she won’t touch Dick ever again.) So really, what I know best is the movie versions of Minority Report (good) and Total Recall (cheesy as hell.) So, I read this one, and The Man In The High Castle turns out to be really nothing like either of the others.
That said, I actually enjoyed it more than I expected. It did have some flaws, which I will start with. I felt that the various threads of the story didn’t hang together particularly well. It felt more like he had several ideas for short stories set in his alternative history, and then had to figure out at the last minute how to make them relate to each other. The most disconnected to me were the San Francisco plot, involving the Nazi double agent and the attempt to assassinate him, and the Colorado plot, involving the attempted assassination of the mysterious author. Not only did the two plots not really connect - either could have stood alone as a novel (the San Francisco plot) or a short story (the Colorado plot), the attempt to tie them together by having two characters be estranged spouses, who literally never interact in the book seemed like hackwork. Within the San Francisco plot, some of the incidents and characters seemed a bit beside the point of the rest. On that, however, I am willing to concede that I probably missed some of the symbolism Dick intended. Finally, the title is the term used for the mysterious author, which, as I noted, is essentially a separate short story welded to the rest, which makes the title, at the least, seem inaccurate as a description for the book. All of these seem like things that a bit more time spent plotting and polishing the book could have cured.
Having mentioned what I disliked, here are the good things. The concept itself is excellent: The Axis Powers have won World War II, largely as a result of the assassination of President Franklin Roosevelt, who then was unable to pull the US out of the Depression, which led to isolationist policies and a lack of preparedness for the attack by Japan. The US is now divided into four regions. The western seaboard is ruled by Japan as a vassal state, with both whites and Chinese immigrants serving as lower castes in the society. The Rocky Mountain states are more or less independent, but not a military factor - they serve mostly as a buffer zone between Japan and Germany. The South has returned to slavery, and is an ally of the Nazis. The Northeast is a puppet state of Nazi Germany.
Speaking of Germany, they have been busy in the 15 years since the war. They have pretty much exterminated the Jews, the Slavs, and other minority groups in Europe and Asia. And, they have conquered Africa and pretty much exterminated the population. And drained the Mediterranean Sea for farmland, and sent rockets to Mars, and...well, they have been busy, particularly after Hitler ended up in an asylum with end-stage syphilis.
Japan, in the meantime, has been pretty nasty to the Chinese - like they were before the war - but have, ironically, adopted the I Ching as the religion/superstition that everyone seems to use to make decisions. (This goes for the white characters too.) The Japanese also fetishize “early American artifacts” such as cowboy guns and 1920s kitsch. This desire for genuine antiques ties together several characters in the San Francisco plot, although, in the end, they get marginalized for the bigger plot, which is Germany’s plan to nuke the daylights out of the Japanese “Home Islands” and exterminate all non-Aryans. A double agent reveals these plans, escapes assassination, but then, for reasons which are not clear, returns to Germany, where two factions are battling it out for succession to the now-deceased successor to Hitler. We never do learn what happens, because the book abruptly ends at this point.
As far as the Colorado plot, the estranged wife of one of the creators of forged artifacts realizes she is in a relationship with an SS agent who wants to assassinate the mysterious author. She kills him (that’s a pretty good scene, actually), and goes to warn the author, who is….not at all what she was expecting. So we are left hanging there too. She has just committed a murder, she has nowhere to go, and isn’t sure how to contact her ex…
Oh, and about the author. His (fictional) book is The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which is in itself an “alterative history” - it assumes the Allies won World War II, but then things turned out very differently from the reality we know. (Churchill remains in power, goes nuts in his old age, and turns kind of fascist, then starts a war with the US over the British colonies in Asia...we never do learn how that all goes.) So that’s kind of meta, I suppose. An alternative history that contains an alternative history of its own. In any case, two very fascinating “what if” scenarios. As I said, that part of the book was really great. Dick clearly thought through the implications of how things would be different.
I liked Dick’s writing style as a general rule. His sentences, descriptions, characters, and the little things are all carefully and memorably drawn. His issue is clearly with the big picture in this book, not the details. I think he also did a fantastic job showing the shoe on the other foot. What if white people became a minority? Would the majority condescend? Oppress? Patronize? In this book, the Nazis just go full Dalek on everyone, but the Japanese act surprisingly like...American white people. In that sense, the idea that this book is about “what if the Nazis won” is inaccurate. It is really more about “what if the Japanese won” - and is therefore a parody on “benign” racism and white supremacist beliefs. Here is one of the best scenes, between newspaper magnate (and secret agent) Mr. Tagomi and Mr. Ramsey, dealer in artifacts:
“You understand that Mr. Baynes, who as you know is arriving shortly in person, holds to the Nordic ideology regarding so-called Oriental culture. I could make the effort to dazzle him into a better comprehension with authentic works of Chinese scroll art or ceramics of our Tokugawa Period...but it is not our job to convert.”
“I see,” Mr. Ramsey said; his Caucasian face twisted with painful concentration.
“Therefore, we will cater to his prejudice and graft a priceless American artifact to him instead.”
“You, sir, are of American ancestry. Although you have gone to the trouble of darkening your skin color.” He scrutinized Mr. Ramsey.
“A tan achieved by a sun lamp,” Mr. Ramsey murmured. “For merely acquiring vitamin D.” But his expression of humiliation gave him away. “I assure you that I retain authentic roots with - “ Mr. Ramsey stumbled over the words. “I have not cut off all ties with - native ethnic patterns.”
Another interesting scene is in Colorado, when Juliana meets Joe, who she doesn’t know (yet) is an SS assassin, but seems different from the Jugend.
This guy - Joe whatever - hasn’t even got the right expression on his face; he should have that cold but somehow enthusiastic look, as if he believed in nothing and yet somehow had absolute faith. Yes, that’s how they are. They’re not idealists like Joe and me; their cynics with utter faith.
I was also struck by the description Baynes, the defector, gives of life in a fascist state.
A psychotic world we live in. The madmen are in power. How long have we known this? Face this? And - how many of us do know it? Perhaps if you know you are insane 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 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.
I feel like Dick got inside my own head, during the era of Trumpism and Theofascism. Baynes goes on to talk about the lust for conquest, the belief in race and volk and “Blood and soil.” What is it about this impulse to dominate? To see others as lesser? I do wonder how those in thrall of Trumpism can be so unaware of the damage it has done, and is doing. Is it just cruelty? Ignorance? Blindness? I don’t get it. This is an example of how perceptive Dick’s writing is at its best. Here is another example. The secondary plot in San Francisco revolves around the fabrication of artifacts. Hey, there are too few genuine items for the demand, so supply increases to fill it, right? And really, we aren’t talking about handmade violins, but about mass produced stuff like weapons and cigarette lighters and posters and stuff. What exactly does make a genuine old one better than a new one?
“That’s my point! I’d have to prove it to you with some sort of document. A paper of authenticity. And so it’s all a fake, a mass delusion. The paper proves its worth, not the object itself!”
I remember vividly a conversation from back in my teens with a longtime family friend who makes violins. Really amazing, world class string instruments. As in, people in the LA Phil play them. I’ve played a couple, and, yeah, someday when I get rich. In the meantime, I trust them for repairs and maintenance of my own instruments. (Hey, if Hans was good enough for Heifitz, he’s good enough for me.) Anyway, Hans was talking about the racket that old violins are in a way. Yes, the very best of the old instruments are amazing. But there are a lot of new instruments that are fantastic too, and may well become the legends of the 20th Century 300 years from now. So what makes the difference? It’s what is on a piece of paper, and our own personal beliefs about the value of old things. Either a violin is great, or it isn’t, and that fact is in what it sounds like and plays like, not in the piece of paper that tells you who made it.
Another philosophical question plays out in an awkward scene, where antique dealer Childan has dinner with the Tagomis, and ends up saying the wrong thing throughout. (This is, to be honest, an amazing scene of cultural differences and the difficultly of “code switching.”) As part of this dinner, they discuss The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Tagomi’s wife, Betty, doesn’t think it is science fiction.
“Oh no,” Betty disagreed. “No science in it. Nor set in future. Science fiction deals with future where science has advanced over now. Book fits neither premise.”
“But,” Paul said, “it deals with alternate present. Many well-known science fiction novels of that sort.”
I get the impression Dick got this a lot from readers. I also found it interesting that the Tagomis talk in this stereotypically “Asian” way when they are at home, but not in the workplace. The white Americans likewise try to imitate it when they are around Japanese, reverting to American vernacular when among themselves. I believe this is part of Dick’s portrayal of code switching and the social dynamics. It seems a bit wince worthy, but looking at it as part of his satire gives it an entirely different feel.
Here is another interesting bit. The general consensus among virtually everyone in this book is that it was a good thing for the Nazis and Japanese to win the war. Why? Well, because the other side would have been worse. Particularly the...wait for it….Communists, who would have destroyed the world. And, of course, those nasty, dirty Slavs.
“I have strong convictions on the
subject,” Robert said. “I have frequently thought it over. The world would be
much worse.” He heard his voice sound out firm, virtually harsh. “Much worse.”
They seemed taken by surprise. Perhaps it was his tone.
“Communism would rule everywhere,” Robert continued.
Paul nodded. “The author, Mr. H. Abendsen, considers that point, as to unchecked spread of Soviet Russia. But same as in First World War, even on winning side, second-rate mostly peasant Russia naturally takes pratfall. Big Laughingstock, recalling Japan War with them, when -”
“We have had to suffer, to pay the cost,” Robert said. “But we did it for a good cause. To stop Slavic world inundation.”
Betty said in a low voice, “Personally, I do not believe any hysterical talk of ‘world inundation’ by any people, Slavic or Chinese or Japanese.”
Betty Tamogi is arguably the most sensible person in the entire book, choosing carefully what she says, and far more knowledgeable than she lets on.
I should also mention another scene that was really well done, even if it seemed like a drug trip in the middle of the book just for fun. Mr. Tamogi purchases an abstract piece of jewelry from Childan, and has a bizarre spiritual experience, where he perceives an alternate history version of San Francisco - one that looks a lot like that Dick would have known. I visited SF a decent bit as a child, since my grandparents lived in Oakland for a number of years. So, one thing really stood out in that vision. I mean, apart from the fact that, in many ways, the “Tokyo on the West Coast” of the book sounds better than cities in America right now.
God, what is that? He stopped, gaped at hideous misshapen thing on skyline. Like nightmare roller coaster suspended, blotting out view. Enormous construction of metal and cement in air.
Mr. Tagomi turned to a passer-by, a thin man in rumpled suit. “What is that?” he demanded, pointing.
The man grinned. “Awful, ain’t it? That’s the Embarcadero Freeway. A lot of people think it stinks up the view.”
“I never saw it before,” Mr. Tagomi said.
“You’re lucky,” the man said, and went on.
Oh yes, the Embarcadero Freeway. What an abomination, and an example of everything wrong with a certain era of urban planning. I mean, who puts an ugly, brutalist, double-decker freeway right on one of the prettiest waterfront views in the world? It was bad enough that there were calls to tear it down as early as 1963. It took an earthquake - literally - the freaking San Andreas Fault got pissed off and damaged it (while collapsing the Oakland version, the Cypress Street Viaduct), which eventually led to it being torn down. Good riddance. The SF waterfront is so much more walkable now, as it should be.
Seriously? Who puts an ugly freeway right in front of the iconic Ferry Building?
While we don’t know exactly what happens in the end, the book does leave with a bit of hope. Baynes, now revealed to be Wegener, sees the rift in Germany as a positive sign that Nazi hegemony is cracking. Indeed, no totalitarian regime lasts forever - the seeds of its destruction are baked in from the beginning.
It goes on, he thought. The internecine hate. Perhaps the seeds are there, in that. They will eat one another at last, and leave the rest of us here and there in the world, still alive. Still enough of us once more to build and hope and make a few simple plans.
Likewise for the other dreamers - Julianna, the Tagomis, the novelist, even beat-down Jew-in-hiding Frank. On the ruins of the collapse of hate, the good people will once again do what they can to build a better world. In the wake of Trump’s defeat, and the Republican party eating itself over Q Anon and conspiracy theories, there is hope that we can overcome the racism, the xenophobia, the social darwinist economic theories, and build a better world. It’s never easy, but hope finds a way.
The Man In The High Castle isn’t a perfect book, but when it is good, it is really good, and there are many things to like. I am thinking I should probably read more Dick in the future.
Just for fun, here is the list of books that our book club has read. At least the ones I have read too. Most of these were read for the club, but a few were ones I read previously - those posts pre-date the club discussion - and some I read afterward, because I missed the discussion. A few of the books were “optional” second books for a given month.