(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 1242 words.)