I’m normally quite a fan of Phillip K Dick’s work. However I am a little ambivalent about “The Man in the High Castle”.
It depicts an alternative version of the sixties in America where Germany and Japan won the Second World War. Various characters are shown going about their lives in this environment. A thread running through the story talks about a fictitious book that many characters are reading, which depicts an alternative history where the allies won the war. It’s a clever idea.
The author creates an interesting world, and, curiously, one where the conquered don’t appear to have any resistance to the status quo. The American characters appear to be accepting of their Japanese ‘masters’, and almost everyone in this story makes obsessive use of the I Ching to determine their actions. This book is often seen as a book of wisdom as much as divination, but it’s only used for the latter by the characters in the book. The Americans express resentment and envy of the Japanese, but it’s all passive. The I Ching seemed to me to highlight the characters’ passivity, in that they seem to be almost unable to make a decision without checking with the book.
The characterisations in the book are, frankly, poor, barely rising above the blandest of racial stereotypes (Americans are crude, Japanese are inscrutable, Germans are violent etc). The behaviour of many of the characters seemed barely comprehensible much of the time. Emotions are talked about, but barely felt by the reader. It was hard to get enough of a picture of any character to become emotionally involved with them.
The plot is threadbare. Certain things occur in the lives of the various characters. Some of them overlap with each other. There is no main thread running through, and nothing ties it all together.
I suspect Dick may have been intending metafiction here. The story includes a book about an alternate reality that is describing reality, and the story itself suggests that the characters should understand this. Are the characters supposed to understand that their world is fiction, that they are fiction? Is the I Ching a way for the author to say that the characters have no free will, only pre-determined parts set by the oracle? Is the oracle the author? Is that why the characters seem so flat and distant?
It’s not an exciting book, and it leaves you with a lot of questions. Read it if you like to be left with something to think about and puzzle over.
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