Wednesday, May 25, 2011

26. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick is another one of those SFF authors that I've been meaning to get to for a while. My boyfriend read this one first, and would not deviate from his one-word description of it as "weird." It was recommended to us by a man at the information desk at our local Barnes&Noble when we had a Groupon and asked him to suggest SFF classics. The Man in the High Castle is better classed as alternative history, but I don't doubt it's a classic and it is a winner of the Hugo award.

Germany and Japan won World War II. A terrifying prospect, as is a book written entirely without articles. I am not sure if this is completely true, but it is at least lacking articles most of the time. As a former (and possibly future) ESL tutor, primarily for Japanese and Korean clients, lack of articles is not as scary or baffling to me as it might be for some people. I think Dick makes an interesting statement by having English re-written essentially in terms of Japanese. When he writes from the viewpoint of the main Japanese character, Mr. Tagomi, also my favorite character in the book, he creates a whole new language through writing in English as I have heard educated Japanese speak it, showing off an extensive vocabulary, inverting and adapting word meanings, and creating new, oddly appropriate phrases. He illustrates how even language bows to the political, how who is in power shapes the fabric of the world.

The Germans and Japanese have divided the world between them; Europe, Russia, and the East Coast belonging to the Germans, Asia, the Pacific Islands, and the West Coast belonging to the Japanese. In between, the Rocky Mountain States hold on to a hazy American way of life, but also serve as a buffer zone between the Germans and Japanese. In German territory, Jews and other undesirables including blacks are gassed, and society is stratified according to ethnicity. Genocide is committed against virtually all of Africa. The Japanese society is also stratified according to ethnicity and class, but there are no concentration camps. Most of the book takes place in San Francisco, where the Japanese are the dominant ruling class. Naturally, Germany schemes to overthrow Japan and at last complete domination of the world, though they are thrown into chaos upon the death of their leader Herr Bormann, until Dr. Goebbels emerges on top. Our protagonists are Mr. Tagomi ("a high official on the Trade Commission of the Pacific Coast"), Frank Frink (a hidden Jew living in SF), Juliana Frink (Frank's estranged wife, living in the Rocky Mountain States), Mr. Baynes (the alias of a member of the German Resistance, the Abwehr), and Mr. Childan (owner of American Handcrafts Inc., dealer in historical Americana, a collectors' hobby among wealthy Japanese). The eponymous Man in the High Castle is Hawthorne Abendsen, author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a novel about what would have happened if the Allies had won the war.


There are a number of clever elements to this book, I've already mentioned the language, but also clearly the device of creating a parallel for the author and the book, that interestingly enough, does not correspond to our history. There's a quote on the back from Ursula K. Le Guin that names Dick "our own homegrown Borges." Without going quite that far, I can see the connection. Like Borges, Dick comments on the nature of fiction and reality, all possibilities are simultaneous, all our selves and our histories could be written a million different ways. Dick also seems to suggest that certain occurrences are simply a result of human nature, as long as we continue, so will conflict and hope and change and deviation.

So, do I think this book was weird? Yes, if you're not used to reading this type of book. Do I think it's worth reading? Yes. Do I think it's an absolute, will-change-your-life must read? Maybe, maybe not. It wasn't for me, but I would definitely be willing to read more Philip K. Dick based on this book.

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