The Man in the High Castle

by Philip K. Dick

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1242

The Man in the High Castle belongs to the subgenre of science fiction known as alternate history. Most science-fiction novels postulate future developments (ranging from intergalactic travel to all manner of bionic devices) which have brought about a world much different from that of the reader. In contrast, alternate-history novels look into the past, imagining how subsequent history might have developed if the outcome of some key events or series of events had been different. Ward Moore’s novel Bring the Jubilee (1953), for example, is based on the premise that the South won the Civil War. Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration (1976) imagines a Europe in which the Reformation never took place. On a larger scale, Orson Scott Card in Seventh Son (1987) and its sequels has created an alternate history of America in the nineteenth century.

The Man in the High Castle imagines a world in which Germany and Japan, rather than the United States and the Soviet Union, are the two superpowers. In Dick’s alternate history, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was assassinated during his first term; the lack of his strong leadership was one factor that contributed to the Allies’ defeat. World War II ended in 1947; the action of the novel takes place fifteen years later, in 1962 (the year in which The Man in the High Castle was published).

The setting is a conquered America, divided into several distinct zones. The Pacific States constitute one such zone, under the relatively benign administration of the Japanese. The Rocky Mountain States form a buffer of sorts, controlled neither by the Japanese nor by the Germans but lacking any real power. From the Rockies to the Atlantic Ocean are the United States, under brutal German control.

There are several intersecting plot lines in The Man in the High Castle. In no other novel does Dick develop such a variety of characters so fully. Moreover, he shifts point of view rapidly from character to character, allowing the reader to view the world of the novel from many different perspectives; even deeply flawed characters are presented with a measure of sympathy. Robert Childan owns a shop in San Francisco, specializing in Americana (the Japanese are passionate collectors). He is an obsequious racist, a classic “little man,” full of envy and bitterness. Juliana Frink is a judo instructor in Colorado; her estranged husband, Frank, makes jewelry in San Francisco and hopes to keep his Jewishness a secret. Rudolf Wegener is a captain in the German navy who is morally opposed to his Nazi superiors; he comes to San Francisco under a false identity to meet with a Japanese official, Nobusuke Tagomi, and warn him of a secret German plan to stage a border incident in America that will serve as a pretext for an all-out nuclear attack on Japan.

Indeed, all of the characters are forced in some way to confront the horrors of Nazism. In the world of the novel, that includes not only the Holocaust but also a genocidal “experiment” in Africa that has resulted in the virtual depopulation of the continent. Yet The Man in the High Castle is not primarily concerned with the peculiar nature of the Nazi phenomenon. Rather, Nazism functions in the novel as an especially potent embodiment of primal evil.

Countless science-fiction novels depict an archetypal conflict between the forces of good and evil. Dick’s treatment of this theme, however, is highly distinctive. Here, as Mr. Tagomi perceives in a moment of insight, evil is not simply a concept: “There is evil! It’s actual like cement.” Yet this palpable evil, Mr. Tagomi realizes, is not confined to the Nazis and their ilk: “It’s an ingredient in us. In the world. Poured over us, filtering into our bodies, minds, hearts, into the pavement itself.”

Such a recognition can be shattering; in a scene that is repeated with variations in many of Dick’s novels, Mr. Tagomi finds that for a short time, reality itself appears to be dissolving before his eyes. What saves him from moral paralysis is a counter-recognition or intuition that, however muddled human attempts to do good and fight evil may be, they are in harmony with the order of things that underlies the world of appearances.

That such an order, though imperfectly perceived, really exists—that it is not merely a product of wishful thinking—is suggested in the novel in two ways. First, there is the role in the narrative of the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of divination. To use this oracle, one tosses coins or yarrow stalks and then consults the text according to the patterns in which they fall. In the course of the novel, several of the characters repeatedly have recourse to the I Ching. The fact that its guidance generally proves to be reliable suggests metaphorically that beneath the seeming chaos of human experience there lies a meaningful order. At the same time, the fact that the oracle is frequently enigmatic, requiring considerable interpretation and never easily verifiable, suggests that human access to this immutable order will remain incomplete, always subject to distortion.

Second, there is the intriguing novel-within-a-novel, Hawthorne Abendsen’s “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” which is read or alluded to by many of the characters in The Man in the High Castle and from which several passages are quoted. Abendsen’s novel, banned in German-controlled territories (where it nevertheless enjoys clandestine circulation) and very popular in the Pacific States, describes an alternate history in which Germany and Japan were defeated in World War II. The world of Abendsen’s novel, while it closely resembles the real world outside the frame of The Man in the High Castle, is not identical to it. For example, Rexford Tugwell, not Franklin Roosevelt, is president of the United States during the war. (In Abendsen’s version, Roosevelt is president through 1940 and is thus able to prepare the country for war.)

The climax of The Man in the High Castle occurs when Juliana Frink, having killed a Nazi assassin who was on his way to kill Abendsen, seeks the novelist out in his home in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Abendsen, who is rumored to be entrenched in a fortress (the “High Castle” of the title), is in fact living with his family in an ordinary stucco house on a residential street. There, with Abendsen looking on, Juliana consults the I Ching about “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.” (She has guessed, correctly, that the novelist himself used the I Ching when writing his book.) The oracle’s verdict is at once clear and mysterious: the hexagram for Inner Truth. Abendsen’s book is true.

Much of the fascination of alternate-history novels derives from the fact that, like allegories, they have two levels of meaning. On one level there is the imagined world of the story. At the same time, the reader is implicitly led to compare this fictional world with the actual historical world. In The Man in the High Castle, however, there is an added level of complexity, for in Dick’s novel the characters themselves (some of them, at least) become aware of an alternate reality beneath or parallel to the surface reality of their world. This link between the situation of the characters and the situation of the reader is one of the features that makes The Man in the High Castle not only an exceptional example of the alternate-history novel but also one of the enduring classics of science fiction.

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