Book review: The Man In The High Castle

Philip K Dick’s The Man In The High Castle.

Author: Philip K Dick
Publisher: Gollancz (SF Masterworks)

Philip K Dick is often known for the adaptations of his work rather than his work itself. Ask anybody if they’ve heard of Total Recall or Blade Runner, and you’ll likely hear an affirmative response. Ask them if they’ve read Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? and you’ll likely receive a different one. Despite his novels being classed as accessible enough to be turned into films, and a focus even within the literary scene on books such as Ubik and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, one of his finer, yet less frequently cited novels is The Man In The High Castle.

Set in the 1960s, in a world where the Axis powers won WWII and carved up America between the Third Reich and the Japanese Empire, the inhabitants of this alternative reality live a nightmarish existence. The Japanese and the Germans themselves are locked in a Cold War that, it is implied, the Nazis are winning, having landed astronauts on Mars and developed incredibly hard and advanced plastics. Their racial policies are absolute, while the Japanese are portrayed as totalitarian but honourable. The novel follows a number of characters who touch each others lives in some way – a Jew in hiding, a Japanese tradesman, and a German spy among others.

Perhaps the greatest feature of The Man In The High Castle is the way that Dick manages to paint the vision of his world with innuendo, casual mentions and suggested imagery rather than spelling it out for us. Africa is revealed as being more or less wiped out in one particularly chilling, yet relatively oblique mention near the beginning, while other world events subtly affect life rather than drastically impact it. This book is all mind and skill, rather than the insanity of his later efforts, and it works as a result.

The characterisation is also a treat to read, with each multi-layered player giving shreds of details that help build them into fully realised people. For example, the ex-soldier who once stored guns for an uprising that never came, and still retains his pre-war racial philosophy despite adopting Oriental mannerisms, or poor Mr Tagomi, caught up in events beyond his comprehension. The themes and motifs within the pages are too numerous to adequately analyse here, but it is clearly one of the more deftly dense works of alternate history fiction around.

It does have issues, of course. Those unfamiliar with the I-Ching will struggle with Dick’s repeated mentions of the mystical device, and it never follows a typical structure. There is no ending to the novel, per se, which some may find frustrating. Some may also find the book-within-a-book mechanism irritating, although we found it enhanced the novel, and again, helped to build the world that it existed in. The Man In The High Castle is clearly a brilliant work of science fiction – flawed, perhaps, and it certainly feels incomplete, but brilliant nonetheless.

[isbn name=”The Man In The High Castle”]978-0575082052[/isbn]