April 6, 2017
What would it be like for white Americans to be second-class citizens in their own country? What if we had to accommodate ourselves to a dominant culture that wasn't native to us? What if we had to negotiate different values, different customs, different ways of speaking, and a lower economic status than we are used to--all with the vague fog of inferiority hanging over us constantly as we and others compare us to a superior race? What would it be like? How would it feel?
That is one of the fascinating scenarios Philip K. Dick exposes us to in his classic The Man in the High Castle. This 1962 alternative history portrays a world in which Germany and Japan win World War II, and then divide the United States into Eastern and Pacific spheres of influence, with the Rocky Mountain states acting as a neutral buffer zone between the two.
Set in the early 1960s, fifteen years after the Axis victory in 1947, much of the book takes place in San Francisco where we see Robert Childan, owner of an antique shop, struggle to befriend prominent Japanese individuals as well as advance in a society now ordered by Japanese sensibilities. Despite his best efforts, he never quite succeeds. He is always on the outside looking in.
Another plot line follows those who seek to resist the occupying forces. Dick introduces a clever twist here. The populace is intrigued and inspired by a novel within the novel which is also an alternative history--this one, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, portraying a world in which the Allies won World War II, though not exactly along the lines of history as we know it. Despite the book being banned, it has become an underground bestseller.
The first season of Amazon's highly rated TV series of the same name, roughly follows the outlines of Dick's book with a number of changes. For example, instead of a book within a book, we have a film within a film--an underground video portraying the world in which the Allies win. Subsequent seasons extend the plot in ways only hinted at by the book.
I have admired Dick's work for years, but this is his best. He delves more thoroughly into many themes than he is able to in much of his short fiction--the meaning of history, the tendency of despotic regimes to cannibalize themselves, and importantly how ethnic and cultural pressures can affect us on societal and very personal levels.
Here is a book that takes us to another world--but that also opens a vital door into the world we know too well and not well enough.