Thursday, 5 March 2009

Review of 'The Man In The High Castle' by Philip K. Dick

Not the first alternative history novel but the one that defines the genre. President Truman was assassinated and the Allies lost WWII. We are in the Western half of the USA which is controlled by Japan. The Nazis, who have exterminated the whole of Africa, are exploring the solar system (but are decades behind in the develpoment of TV) and plotting to nuke the Japanese. They control the Western USA. There are many plot threads. One is about moderate groups in Germany trying to get a warning to the Japanese. The main thread has an author (living in a fortified hideout called the high castle) who has written a mirror image novel of the one we are reading; 'what if the allies had won' from the perspective of his reality. This is very different to our reality.

What I liked about the book was how Dick was not afraid to deal with the issues of racism. I like how he has the Japanese as quite moderate people (much nicer than the nazis). I like how he deals with colonialism by having some US people adopting Japanese mannerisms and speech and thought patterns and how the Japanese will buy any old forged historical relics that they think are authentic pieces of US history.

What I don't like is how he doesn't seem to address the question as to whether it is the German leaders who are evil or whether he considers there to be any redeeming qualities in the German people. The nazis just seem like cartoon nasties. The other problem with the story is that is doesn't go anywhere. Society is not changed by the man in the high castle. The ending has a big revelation which is interesting and deals with parallel universes (and alternate histories) but this is derived from the I-Ching. And this is the BIG problem with the story; PKD worked out the plot by consulting the I-Ching (the book of changes). This must have been very trendy at the time (it reminds me of the use of tarot cards in Slaughterhouse 5) but it doesn't make for a good plot. I also found it a bit boring during the story when the characters consulted the I-Ching to decide their next course of action. The bit where Julia realises that the man in the high castle used the I-Ching to write his book was also a bit self indulgent.

Overall a good book, well written but apart from some interesting ideas it doesn't go anywhere. I enjoyed some passages and found others to be a chore. It's a good sci-fi book but not in my top five.


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