A man, a plan, a book, Phil Dick
Coming on the cusp of another summer thunderstorm, the Beamers met in August to discuss another classic of alternate history (a “cousin” of science fiction whose position on the family tree is much debated) by a noted sf author, The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. This tale of an America occupied by the victorious Japanese and Germans was Dick’s only Hugo winner and is still regarded as his best novel. Beamer mileage, however, did vary.
The Only Thing We Have to Fear is …
The most obvious sf element in The Man in the High Castle is the divergence from our history caused by the assassination of FDR (who was not hit during a shooting incident in Miami during a post-election victory tour). An isolationist and economically struggling US winds up on the losing side of WW2, with the West Coast now part of the Japanese Co-Prosperity Sphere and the East Coast part of the Nazi empire. (The middle states, “flyover country”, remain free if forgotten.) The book follows the lives of several West Coast residents and one emigre to the Rockies States as they become entangled in the world politics of a Nazi state undergoing a leadership change. Dick credits William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Alan Bullock’s Hitler: A Study in Tyranny for his research, and, upon re-reading the book, I was even more impressed at his adroit use of actual personalities and cultural forces to impart a very realistic side to his speculations.
When in Trouble or in Doubt
The Man in the High Castle reflects a number of Dick’s interests, particularly mysticism and Asian philosophy. The characters in the book, whether under Japanese occupation or not, consult the I Ching (Book of Changes), a Chinese divination guide, which became a major sticking point in our discussion. Some of us found that the constant referrals to the I Ching were a distraction on several levels. Alan thought the reliance on fortunetelling made the characters a bit too irrational and lacking in personal agency. Liz agreed, feeling that having a book of proverbs became a presence in the novel overshadowed the characters too greatly. Chris, otherwise enjoying the quick pace of the book, was thrown out of the flow by the frequent injections of hexagrams and long digressions on how to interpret the throws of coins or yarrow sticks.
Even those of us who liked the introduction of a non-Western philosophy could find fault, as Edward noted that the strongly nationalistic Japanese would much more likely look to native Shinto beliefs than an imported Chinese artifact like the I Ching. And yet, I argued, that the novel would lack its center if the I Ching were removed or shrunk down in size, as Dick seems to put all of the “reality” of his book within the pages of the I Ching, the one constant that unites not only the various plotlines but also the various alternate worlds within The Man in the High Castle (at least 3, by our count). In a book in which identity is often falsified (some characters are spies) or at least challenged (one character is Jewish and not happy to be identified as such), the Book of Changes remains the one, true, fixed reality.
Another Face in the Crowd
The multiple nature of characters and split of the book’s narrative into 3 different plotlines also gave us some pause. Some of the Beamers disliked the way in which the focus of the book skips around among the various plotlines, finding the narrative too incoherent. Some of us just disliked one or more of the plotlines, particularly the one set in the Rockie Mountain states, where Juliana, ex-wife of artist Frank Frink, is drawn into the alt-history novel-within-the-novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, and an assassination plot on its author. Jon thought that the various plot threads were not well connected. Robin found Juliana to be somewhat of a stereotypical female character, blessed with innate “intuitions” that guide her to both deal with the assassin and to uncover the “truth” of the fictional alt history (where the Nazis lose, thanks to the British helping the Russians at Stalingrad and a Democratic “New Deal” America outsmarting the Japanese).
The one character who received most praise was Mr. Tagomi, the Japanese bureaucrat who becomes involved in uncovering a German plan to drop the H-bomb on Japan. We found him a credible portrayal of a responsible person who does the right thing even when it threatens his own beliefs and his livelihood. Robert Childan, the antiquities dealer, seemed to pass us by, though, despite being one of the more problematic characters in the book, despising yet aping and even befriending the Japanese.
The Art of Story and the Story of Art
The issue of reality and worlds and the importance of setting was also under debate, as Jon thought that the book, while posing some questions about the importance of Art (none of the answers with which he agreed), did not truly use its alternate world for any significant effects. We responded to both of Jon’s provocative assertions. On the matter of setting, I held that the book is exploring the issue of can one do Good in an Evil world, even one so all-encompassing as one dominated by Fascist powers.
A key encounter in the book, Robert Childan refusing to sell out a new original artist for a lucrative deal to make cheap knock-offs, is predicated on the idea of how occupied cultures are more ready to imitate their conquerors. Nick, sending in his thoughts via e-mail, noted that book offers a look at life under occupation and how assimilation runs in both directions (young Japanese administrators using names like “Paul” and “Betty”, older ones collecting historical American artifacts). Not everyone found that focus on social changes to be successful. Fran disliked the stilted dialogue that results from imitating Japanese grammar in English. And the overall impression of the Japanese occupation is much less distressing (despite the presence of slavery) in comparison to the malignant German empire (where Africa is ruined for “scientific” purposes).
Still, some of us argued for the context of the book’s original 1962 publication to be considered. Donna noted that Mr. Tagomi, a pacifist Japanese, would be more unbelievable than Nazis on the moon to readers who could angrily recall Pearl Harbor. And I thought that the portrayal of the advanced Nazi sciences (rocket planes! Mars colonies! Drain the Mediterranean for farms!) was a deliberate provocation to readers who might sympathize with the advanced technology of the Third Reich, just as America was doing in 1962 by going to the Moon with Wernher von Braun (“Our Nazi scientists were better than the Russians'” went one old Space Race joke).
As for the question of Art and whether it is “something people do in their spare time”, as Jon held, suffice it to say that a significant point was reached in the revelation that Jon was wearing white tube socks, of different weaves. Carol, his wife, was awarded a certain amount of sympathy by the group.
A Book Group’s Home is its Castle
Overall, there was a general acknowledgement of how The Man in the High Castle came to be an alt-history classic, even if some of us were bemused at the news that Syfy Channel was planning a 4-hour miniseries on a book with so much character introspection and confusing shifts of identity and reality. Maybe the best summation was Chris, who would recommend the book with the reservation that it dawdles on Chinese sayings too much, which offers a counterpoint to my own reservation that the humane and optimistic tone of the book makes it a less typical recommendation to anyone who would like to read Phil Dick. The Man in the High Castle (who, as we find, actually lives in a ranch house) remains a bit enigmatic but definitely worthy of attention.