The Man in the High Castle


My wife – Ashley – and I do a sort of exclusive book club. In February, I choose a book that we both read together and in March, she picks a book that we read together and discuss.

We both enjoyed watching Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle miniseries, so I thought that reading the book would be a good idea. I should mention that due to an alarming lack of internet at our house we have not seen the final two episodes.

But I do feel component to speak to the differences between the book and the movie, as it were. It’s a weird book to turn into a series. It just doesn’t really call for it. Perhaps the original idea was simply a story set in Philip K. Dick’s alternate history universe.

Because The Man in the High Castle is about ethical choice, spiritual and personal questing, and moral action. A series of characters ruminate on their lives and situations. Each struggle with forces beyond their control. There is no one single overarching story, but a series of personal situations and resolutions which only have tenuous – but crucial and interesting – connections. In fact, the various characters never fully meet or recognise each other; each remains alone.

It’s 1962, and the Japanese run the western seaboard. The Nazis have taken over basically everything east of St. Lewis. There is a neutral buffer state which keeps the two titanic empires from direct contact; this buffer state is under the sway of the Japanese. Philip K. Dick’s acute understanding of totalitarian society and the actual nature of fascism reveals itself in the situation. The Nazi’s are very advanced in hard technology, such as rockets and jets. But they lag behind in soft technology like televisions or radio programming. They have exterminated Africa and drained the Mediterranean. It’s a world thats both scary and very, very believable. The Japanese are the relative good guys.

Philip K. Dick does a great job depicting and illustrating how these catastrophes come about and how they are explained and why people believe in the propaganda. The reality? The Nazis have economically wreaked Europe and as their economy gets worse and worse, the Nazi leadership (Hitler is alive but is essentially too ill mentally and physically to have any influence) is driven to increasingly grandiose and absurd lengths to make things look ok.

Essentially, then, the setting for The Man in the High Castle is that WWIII is about to start between Germany and Japan; the Nazis planning a nuclear strike on the Japanese Home Islands to assume control over the much healthier economy of greater Japan. This book is less about overthrowing the Third Reich then it is subtly about moral choice and attempts to avert WWIII.

It’s a short book. Too short. Philip K. Dick seems to deliberately avoid plot line that would push the tender limits of his alternate universe too far. And in the end, I think this is right. It’s a meditation on moral choice and defining the self in a strange and cruel universe. And it’s an awesome fantasy which I’m surprised people haven’t riffed off of.

Better than the tv series.


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