This is a fascinating work of alternative history written in 1963 by Phillip K. Dick (known more for three of his books that have also been turned into well-received movies: Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report). The Man in the High Castle’s (“TMITHC”) setting is in 1962 in a world where the Axis won World War II and the Allies lost. Furthermore, the US is divided into three parts: the western Pacific States of America (“PSA”) ruled by Japan, the eastern half ruled by Germany and which has retained the name “United States”, and a middle section (approximately from the Mississippi River through the Rockies) which remains independent and is known as the Rocky Mountain States (“RMS”).
First, some background: I first heard of this book only recently when reading an article on Amazon’s new TV series with the same name. The premise sounded interesting, and this is the background on why I decided to read this book. Disclaimer: I have not seen the TV series (not even any previews) and thus, this review is based solely upon the book.
With regards to the plot, while there are several parallel plot threads, it is set primarily in the San Francisco area, and initially centers around a dealer of ‘Americana’ antiques (primarily from prior to 1900), and how Japanese individuals are obsessed with owning such antiques. From there various plot threads develop, where the setting is in the PSA and RMS, and any of the plot involving Germany and the United States is shared via description by the characters. Events transpire throughout the book, both at the individual level, and at the national and international political level. Throughout there are a lot of references also to the I Ching, the 3000 year old ancient Chinese divination text, and how this is used for decision making by several of the characters. From the characters one gets a sense of what life is like in the PSA, the RMS, and the United States, in this altered version of history. The ongoing plot involves spies, a popular book, two friends starting a business, the ‘historicity’ of objects, and other topics – however, beyond this I will not comment further on the plot, since this would give too much away.
The primary strength of this book is how realistic it feels. The way Dick has written the book, describing day-to-day life and various activities in this setting, and slowly providing clues about how life is like in this world, and what has happened to the rest of the world between World War II and the current setting, provides a very realistic feel to the story. The character development is also reasonably well done. Finally, Dick also has done a good job of capturing the subtle cultural aspects of his setting – for example, just as many countries looked to and found many positives in US culture and thinking after World War II, Dick captures the reverse idea in the PSA setting – implying that the defeated will look up towards the culture of the victor. There is one other strength to the book – but I will describe this later.
One area that could have been better is to have included some first-hand description of life in the United States. Understood that this was more of a stylistic call by Dick, but when writing a book with such an interesting pretext, it seems like meeting the goal only half-way by only focusing on first hand descriptions for the PSA and RMS, and not including any first hand descriptions of the Germany-ruled United States. Of coursed Dick also omits a lot of other aspects of the setting – e.g., what has happened to some of the other countries in the world in this alternative history scenario. However, these are acceptable ommissions because it would not have been practical to detail out every single aspect of this setting. But any firsthand description of life under the Germany-ruled United States seems like too much of a gap for a book centered around the US being occupied by both Japan and Germany.
The other area that could have been better would have been to reduce a bit the references to the I Ching. The references to Eastern philosophy in general were both fine in length and interesting, but the constant references to the I Ching started to drag a bit after a while. Apparently Dick himself used the I Ching to make plot decisions for this book, so understood on his fascination for this – but it seemed to dominate more of the story than it should have.
Finally – the ending of the book is disappointing. Very disappointing. I wanted a very clear and decisive ending and didn’t get it. It was vague, ambiguous, and confusing…
…however, upon further reflection, the ending started to grow on me, and very soon I became convinced that the ending was brilliant! This is the hidden gem of the book. A clear and precise ending would have been so simple to write…and both boring and predictable as an ending because this is what almost all books have as endings. But to take a risk with this type of ending, an ending which each reader can interpret in their own way, this is true genius.
Overall, a very interesting book which will really make you think about this story once you’ve finished this book.
Rating: four out of five stars
Parental Guide: 16+