With The Man in the High Castle streaming on Amazon Prime I figure it’s time to repost another piece from The Valve. This one appeared on March 6, 2008, and generated an interesting discussion. I recommend it to you.
I've just finished reading Philip K. Dick's 1962 The Man in the High Castle and find it pretty interesting – and sophisticated as well. It seems to be a meditation on the nature of history and of fiction, but without the self-conscious hijinks one finds in, say, John Barth. As you may know, it's set in an alternative history of the mid-20th century in which Germany and Japan win World War II. The eastern seaboard of the USA becomes German territory while the western seaboard becomes Japanese territory. The central area remains more-or-less independent.
One Hawthorne Abendsen lives in that central area, near Cheyenne. He's the man in the high castle, though he does not, in fact, live in a high castle. Nor is he a central character in the novel, though he's quite important. He's written a novel entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy that is quite popular in what remains of the USA, but is banned from the German and Japanese sections. Why? Because it is an alternative history in which the Germans and Japanese have lost the war, that's why. We see this history only in little bits here and there, as characters in the book either read or discuss Grasshopper. Those fragments are enough, however, to tell us that that history is not of our world, the history known to Dick's readers. Rather, it is a second alternative alternative history.
Grasshopper is not the only book within the book. We also have the I Ching, an ancient Chinese text often used for divination. One character in each of the books loosely linked plots consults the I Ching regularly. Beyond that, Abendsen, whom we meet at the very end of the book, made constant use of the I Ching in plotting Grasshopper. According to the Wikipedia article, Dick himself used the I Ching while plotting The Man in the High Castle.
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Most of the story takes place in San Francisco. Much of the action centers on Nobusuke Tagomi, a Japanese trade representative. He's the focal point of an attempt by a Nazi faction to contact the Japanese government about a secret Nazi plan, Operation Dandelion, that involves the nuclear destruction of the Japanese homeland. Tagomi consults the I Ching and is in the process of reading Grasshopper.
He also buys antiquities from one Robert Childan, who links to another plotline involving one Frank Frink (a Jew, and thereby in mortal danger), who goes into the jewelry business with a colleague. Frink consults the oracle and has read Grasshopper. And then there is Frink's wife, Juliana, a judo teacher somewhere in Colorado. Like Frank, from whom she is separated, she is a devotee of the I Ching and is in the process of reading Grasshopper, prompted by her paramour, a truck driver named Joe.
She's the one who, at the end of the book, meets Abendsen. At that meeting she casts an oracle:
“Do you know what hexagram that is?” she said. “Without using the chart?”“Yes,” Hawthorne said.“It's Chung Fu,” Juliana said. “Inner Truth. I know without using the chart, too. And I know what it means.”Raising his head, Hawthorne scrutinized her. He had now an almost savage expression. “It means, does it, that my book is true?”“Yes,” she said.With anger he said, “Germany and Japan lost the war.”“Yes.”
And, more or less, is the end of the book. We don't know what happened with Operation Dandelion, a plan to destroy the Japanese homeland with nuclear weapons. So much is up in the air.
And yet we are to believe that the Japanese and the Germans lost the war when, in very obvious terms, they won it. By what Inner Truth can we consider them to have lost? That, I suppose, is one of the questions posed by The Man in the High Castle. There are certainly others. As our own Adam Roberts [who used to post to The Valve] observes:
Readings of The Man in the High Castle have tended to concentrate on the relativist philosophy of History the novels embodies, for what are doubtless obvious reasons. But in fact this is a much more sophisticated, and consciously artistic, tale than this. This is a book about the inter-relations of history, truth, and creativity: indeed, one of Dick's most brilliant touches is to advance the idea that there is a connection between these three terms, that they need to be understood in relation to one another.
Yes. And yet what most impresses me is that Dick manages this exploration with apparent ease and casualness. This is not a pyrotechnic performance. It does not draw its attention to its artistry. It simply goes about its business.
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Laura's Addiction, Philip K. dick from A to Z (site loading may be a bit wonky):
An interesting article: “Dickian Time in The Man in the High Castle”:
Plotline diagram that goes with the preceding article:
What the diagram shows is that the Juliana-to-Abendsen plotline ends well before the Tagomi-Baynes plotline, despite the fact that its conclusion is also the conclusion of the book.
Here’s a nice Philip K. Dick website:
R. Crumb on Dick's religious experience:
A bunch of covers for the book: