Book Review: The Man in the High Castle

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Even the I Ching, which they’ve forced down our throats; it’s Chinese. Borrowed from way back when. Whom are they fooling? Themselves? Pilfer customs right and left, wear, eat talk, walk, as for instance consuming with gusto baked potato served with sour cream and chives, old-fashioned American dish added to their haul. But nobody fooled, I can tell you; me least of all.

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

I majored in English literature in university, and my favorite classes were those that revolved around less-canonical titles. My seminar, for instance, was on Victorian detective literature (which covered much more than just Sherlock Holmes). Another class I took had a science fiction theme, although I recall our instructor deemed it a class on the “post-human”. We started with Frankenstein and ended with Octavia Butler’s Dawn, but the work that left the biggest impression on me was Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

When reading Androids, I was especially intrigued by how Dick portrays the novel’s value systems in contrast to our own: in a world of androids and humans, of real and electric animals, what does it mean to be real or fake? Which, if any, is more valuable? In the world of the novel, real animals have been wiped out and are now coveted, less as pets than as status symbols. Although imaginative, this new value system is strikingly logical, and I was impressed by how easily Dick portrayed the fragility of accepted value systems in the face of societal change.

Like AndroidsThe Man in the High Castle portrays a society disturbingly similar, yet dissimilar to our own. Instead of a future where humans have colonized Mars, The Man in the High Castle is an alternate history novel, imagining a world where the Axis won World War II. Jews live undetected, disguised; Germany has expanded their colonization efforts to the rest of the solar system; and characters obsess over a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, an alternate history novel that imagines the world if the Allies won the war.

The society portrayed in the novel is fleshed out and substantial. The novel changes between the perspectives of different characters, so it can initially be difficult to keep track of who’s who, but this gets easier as time goes on. The depiction of multiple perspectives provides a comprehensive view of the world of the novel, as it includes Japanese, formerly American, and German characters. For me, I found the stories of Robert Childan, an antiques shop owner in San Francisco who caters to the Japanese elite, and Juliana Frink, a judo instructor who uses her sexuality to manipulate men and develops an obsession with The Grasshopper Lives Heavy and its titular author, the man in the high castle, the most thought-provoking.

One aspect of the novel that I enjoyed was how characters navigate this new  world. Childan in particular is in a tough spot. His shop is popular amongst elite members of society, namely the Japanese, yet he himself must be constantly on alert as to not offend his customers by adhering to Japanese social customs. Yet the accepted social customs of the day are not strictly Japanese, as Japanese, North American, and German customs have blended in the novel’s post-war society. Childan’s shop itself is a victim of this new societal shift, catering to Japanese occupants of San Francisco who want kitschy, outdated Americana to decorate their homes, as coveted, rare symbols of a culture now dying out. This struck me as insanely clever, and a fun poke at those who pretentiously display artwork created by other cultures in order to appear more cultured.

I also appreciated the character of Juliana, who is one of the novel’s few female characters, if not its only female protagonist. I found her character, if not entirely sympathetic or likeable, quite realistic as an attractive young woman in the novel’s society. I also liked that her enjoyment in her own sexuality is not depicted negatively (except sometimes by the other characters, which I found realistic), and that it even helps drive the central plot forward and gives the character agency. I would have loved if Juliana was fleshed out more, but I didn’t find her any more less detailed than the other characters. Since there’s such a large cast of characters, I found the amount of characterization given to Juliana and the other characters sufficient to keep the novel short and still thought-provoking.

YES OR NO?: A resounding YES. I became a fan of Dick’s work after reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheepand I will definitely continue reading his work after this novel. The novel is deftly written, concise, and still has me thinking about its themes days after finishing. Highly recommended.

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