The Man in the high castle

By Philip K Dick

The Man in the high castle is the hugo award winning alternative history novel by Philip K Dick.

After the Axis won the Second World War the African continent is virtually wiped out, the Mediterranean drained to make farmland and the United States divided between the Japanese and the Nazis.

The Japanese are in control of the entire west coast, the Germans the East and in the center is a neutral zone dividing these great superpowers. There lives the author of an underground best-seller, his book a rallying cry for all those who dream of overthrowing the occupiers and offers an alternative theory of world history.

Does "reality" lie with him, or is his world just one among many others?

While many have dreamed of what would have happened if the Allies had lost the war, here PKD dreams of what would have happened had they won. It's an incredibly original and thought provoking idea and is written not as a science fiction novel but as literary fiction that just happens to be set in an alternative history to our own in the relative present (1962 when the novel was written).

One of the things I really love about PKD's work is the quiet confidence he displays, that he knows his writing is sufficient not to require much backstory or world building and he credit's his readers with the intelligence to work out what's going on as the story develops and small snippets of information are naturally placed. This method of story telling means that almost as much as the story itself the reader is motivated to find out more.

As with just about all of his novels, The Man in the High Castle is very much driven by everyday characters and how they react to the situations around them. The quality of the prose is striking, and the minimalist use of science fiction tropes makes the story all the more powerful. The characters are oh so very human, full of emotions and those little physiological foibles that make us who we are. There are very few authors that can create such life like and realistic characters as PKD and this has got to be amongst his finest works.

The edition reviewed here is the Penguin Classics and a mention must be made of the cover, taking the USA's most striking symbol and making a slight change evokes a powerful message and really set's the tone of the novel, personally I love it and it has to be one of the most effective covers I have seen.

This dystopian vision within the divided America (and the wider world) is a very different place where the Nazi totalitarianism shows a striking racism which is fueled by the "ethnic cleansing" begun during the second World War. There is an endemic culture of racial superiority (both with the Nazi's and to a lesser extent the Japanese) and widespread corruption.

The novel is written from the point of view of those living in the middle of this partitioned country and the principal theme running throughout the novel is the interpretation and confusion of true and false realities. This theme is explored in many different ways, the most obvious with the "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy", the story within the story that offers an alternative history where the Allies won the war, superimposing another reality over the original fictional reality which is again different to the readers version of reality.

There are also themes of gender (and inequality), justice, identity (both culturally and personally) and of course the racism caused by a fascist society and the effects this places upon the culture.

The Man in the high castle is simply incredible, with a neat and easy reading style that allows the subtly played messages to float to the surface. Capturing some of the most original and thought provoking ideas and still as powerful today as it was almost 50 years ago.

Written on 20th January 2011 by .

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