My son Michael and I were talking about the television series The Man in the High Castle, which is based on the 1962 novel of the same name authored by the late Philip K. Dick. I’ve never seen the television show (and probably never will), but I did recall reading the novel sometime back in the 1970s.
Unfortunately, that’s all I remembered about it. Curious, I decided to check a copy of the book out of my local public library and re-read it.
The novel is set in the year it was published and postulates what the United States would have been like if the Axis powers had won World War Two thanks to the Nazis having developed the atomic bomb first.
The US is divided into three zones, with the Nazis in control of the East, the Japanese in control of the West, and a sort of DMZ existing across the Rocky Mountain States.
The “Man in the High Castle” refers to the author of a controversial novel called “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” written by the mysterious Hawthorne Abendsen. It postulates what the world would have been like if the Allies had won the war. The book is tolerated in the West, but the Nazis have made it illegal in the East and there are rumors that there’s an ongoing attempt to assassinate the book’s writer. Thus Abendsen is said to live in a fortress (“High Castle”) in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
The novel follows a cast of characters in and around San Francisco, as well as two others in Colorado, whose lives have intertwined in some manner. I hate to say this about an author of Dick’s stature, but I couldn’t stand any of them. They almost all came across as whiney and needy.
The other problem with his book is it seems to have no point at all. We are given a taste of life under Japanese and Nazi rule, several “important” events occur, including the uncovering of a plot that the Germans are going to “nuke” Japan, a major upheaval in leadership is taking place within the Nazi regime, and a covert Axis agent is planning on murdering Abendsen.
Julianna Frink, ex-wife Frank Frink (formerly Fink – an attempt to hide the fact that he’s Jewish), plays a key role in unwittingly uncovering the identity of the assassin and killing him. Then she travels to Abendsen’s home in Cheyenne to warn him, only to discover that he lives in an ordinary house with his wife and child, and is completely unconcerned with any attempt to kill him. This mythic character appears to be completely unremarkable.
Julianna, now purposeless, like the rest of the book’s characters, wanders away to an unknown fate after the novel’s climax.
Dick did allow one hint about how the world (or at least San Francisco) might have looked if history had been changed, in the form of allowing Nobusuke Tagomi, a high-ranking Japanese trade official who has become despondent after being forced to kill several Nazi agents to protect his guest, seemingly having a vision of the Embarcadero freeway in San Francisco, which doesn’t exist in his reality, but does in the alternate timeline. Afterward though, he returns to his version of the world and nothing changes.
That’s the problem. By the end of the novel, nothing is different. Yes, there are some dramatic events in the lives of a few of the characters, with one Nazi traitor almost certainly to be executed, but the world doesn’t change. Tagomi’s vision makes no difference to the tale and thus no sense.
I understand the TV show is in its third season, and I can only hope it is more goal driven and focused than Dick’s novel. I don’t mean to disparage him in any sense, but “The Man in the High Castle” starts nowhere and ends up in the same place. Maybe that’s why I didn’t remember it.