Book Review: “The Man in the High Castle

high castle

Cover image for the novel “The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K. Dick

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.

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9 thoughts on “Book Review: “The Man in the High Castle

  1. Perhaps the writers of the TV series were equally unimpressed with the original novel, and have merely taken its essential premise as a starting point and improved upon it. In fact, the demands of an ongoing series virtually require that it not cycle back upon itself with no development. The door is then wide open to redeveloping the story, tying up prior loose ends, creating new cliffhangers between seasons, and taking the story in directions that the original author could not do in a single novel. Indeed, the new writers might even reboot the story entirely, possibly even tracing alternative realities and timelines. They might then instigate another war or an uprising that reverses the prior conquest, sends the Japanese back to their islands, destroys the Nazis, and re-establishes the USA upon its original values foundation or upon some other one altogether. Perhaps the unimpressive author in Colorado, who doesn’t actually live in a fortress, might be exploited along with his novel to inspire a “Highcastle” underground movement in which he has no actual involvement but rather some of his inspired readers operate to foment the needed rebellion.

    If you’re at all interested in what has been done with this story, perhaps there is an online summary of the TV series that would save you the time of viewing actual episodes in order to compare the series with the novel, and to answer questions about possibilities such as I’ve suggested above. Apparently, it is already showing its third season and has been renewed for a fourth, so the writers must be doing something to entice viewers as successfully as they have done. I can only postulate that ingenuity which elaborates on the original story premise in ways such as I’ve suggested will be needed to propel the story onward for additional seasons.

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  2. I thought the first half of the book was great, lots of plot ideas that could have gone somewhere. and then the last third of the book? Everything just kind of trickles to nothing. i’ve noticed a lot of PKD books go that direction.

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    • It’s a well used theme in speculative fiction, but there’s usually a point, either an attempt to change history to be more like our own world, or a heroic revolution, or something to make the reversal have a point. Oh, I’ve done a lot of reading on the Nazi’s and Japan’s World War Two nuclear programs and they were both way behind us, and without significant changes in how they managed their projects, might never have been successful. Japan suffered additionally from the lack of uranium, which the Germans did have. The chances of tinkering with history to such a decree is highly unlikely, and those are only a few of the reasons.

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  3. I’ve seen some of the show. I’m glad to know not to waste time on the book. I really liked the show, although I haven’t seen the most recent season (and maybe not all of the prior one).

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