Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Man in the High Castle

Philip K. Dick pushes the boundaries of the metaphysical and epistemological in his works, which go well beyond the rocket ships and space travel we usually associate with science fiction. Just a list of the films inspired by his stories -- Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Adjustment Bureau -- shows how willing he is to question what is real, where does identity reside.

The Man in the High Castle is about historicity and authenticity. The book -- which is the starting point for a Netflix series coming out next month -- begins with a dealer in American memorabilia in a Japanese puppet state that arose on the West Coast after America's defeat in World War II. The backstory has it that we lost the war because Roosevelt was assassinated in his first term. The East Coast is part of a Greater German Reich, though no scenes in the book actually take place there.

The problem with Robert Childan's memorabilia is that they are not genuine, but manufactured for sale to the gullible Japanese. The manufacturer claims that the only difference between the real thing and his fakes is historicity -- an intangible and essentially meaningless quality.

This is the crux of Dick's alternate history. For what drives the plot is an alternate history within the alternate history -- The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. This novel -- in the TV series it is actually a film -- posits that Roosevelt survived the assassination attempt but forgoes a third and fourth term. The Allies win the war but it is Churchill who becomes the dominant leader in the postwar world. The author of this alternate history, Hawthorne Abendsen, is the man in the high castle because he supposedly lives in a well-fortified ranch in the neutral zone between the Japanese and German puppet states.

Dick plays with this quicksand. A Japanese trade diplomat in San Francisco arranges a meeting between a highly place general from Tokyo and a German turncoat from Berlin who warns Japan that Germany plans to bomb Japan as part of its succession struggles. A woman estranged from her secretly Jewish husband falls in with a suspicious truck driver who appears intent on assassinating the man in the high castle. And the husband, secretly a Jew, embarks on a venture to fabricate a new type of jewelry that does not imitate past works but finds little acceptance because it is too novel.

It is a multifaceted plot and it hardly matters if the climax is somewhat anticlimactic and many questions are left open in the end. Dick wants to stretch your mind, not deliver a plot on a silver platter. The question of which alternate history is the real one -- or are both real -- is for the reader to answer. The fact that the TV series makes Grasshopper a film -- with footage of an older Roosevelt -- indicates how the producers interpret it.

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