The Man in High Castle | Philip K. Dick | 1962 | 274 Pages | 3 Stars
I am tragically behind on my book reviews. It’s bad. Really bad. But I wanted to get caught up again, one back-logged book at a time, so here we are, talking about something I read in June 2017. Yikes. I do take notes and highlights as I go- a kind of draft-review if you will, but even with those notes, and the months and months to ruminate, I’m still not sure how I feel about today’s highlighted work.
Philip K. Dick wrote The Man in High Castle in 1962, setting it in that very same year which was only a half a generation removed from the war whose history he subverts. In this universe, it is the Axis powers who win, with America carved up between the powers that were, in reality, defeated. Japan controls the west coast, Germany the east, the Rocky mountains are a buffer zone in the middle, and for some reason, everyone is just totally chill about an independent Canada.
The “what if” retelling of World War II isn’t a unique plotline. Certainly, Dick was one of the earliest writers to explore that scenario, but this particular work is perhaps too close to events of the war to really dive deep into an alternate history, in so far as imagining different technologies and political changes. It also has the downside of trying to combine too much into too few pages.
My edition topped out at 274 pages, and through that Dick tries to cram multiple storylines that highlight the changes found in a Japanese-controlled West Coast, a German succession crisis, a backstory that highlights how America ended up that way in the first place, a forbidden book, and comments on the antique trade and an obsession with old Americana. There is so much happening that no particular story is really given its proper due, and as a result, the characters feel thin and the world and its apparent atrocities are only half formed. As I went through my notes for this review I found them lacking because my own concern for the characters and their livelihoods was slim.
As with many “early” science fiction works, The Man in High Castle is worth the read for it’s historical and cultural significance (though no, I have not seen the TV show). It’s an early take on the dystopian and alternate history genre and is innovative in that context alone. However, by the time I finished the story I had to go back and wonder if the author penned a follow-up, because the concepts, characters, and the plot itself seemed curiously weak. (The answer to the sequel question is, interestingly, no.)
It’s an interesting concept and is worth a three-star review, but if you’re looking for a more compelling classic novel of the dystopian variety, dive into 1984 instead.