Philip K. Dick's 1963 Hugo-winning novel is an alternate, Nazi-filled version of what's now our past. But was it an accurate prediction of our present circumstances, too?
Marshall McLuhan quotes Ezra Pound as calling artists the "antennae" of the human species — they sense what's coming before the rest of the organism, and report it to us. I especially like that in reference to Philip K. Dick, because he writes the sort of stories that make you think of antennae, the insect kind and the alien kind (sometimes both at once).
But the metaphor doesn't seem precisely applicable to The Man in the High Castle, since (as the book itself points out, at one point) it isn't a story about the future — it's a story about the present (the present at the time it was published, anyway), an alternate present, one in which the Axis won World War II. Germany and Italy (but mostly Germany) rule Europe and Africa and Western Asia, and Japan rules the rest of Asia, the West Coast (practically if not nominally), and most of South America. (There's a map, if you want.)
The story, as Wikipedia will tell you, is about a bunch of different people connected in various ways at various times, and deals with themes about what's authentic and what isn't, how arbitrary the distinction can seem, and how deceiving appearances can be. These are pretty common ideas in Dick's work — even if all you know of his oeuvre is Blade Runner (which, yes, technically is more like "inspired by" his oeuvre than fully part of it), you've seen them at play there. More subtly, I think those themes come through in his style, too, all the time. His writing always seems solid but gentle and a bit heartsick to me — not tentative, but as if he was aware of what a tenuous thing life is and needed to break it to his readers both totally honestly and with great care. For as upsetting as his stories can be, I never get the sense that Dick delighted in upsetting his readers (or in putting his characters in upsetting situations), but rather that he was moved by an enormous compassion to do it.
Maybe, if there's any truth to Pound's theory, Dick sensed how nebulous reality was about to become. The Man in the High Castle marks the spot, really, where SF literature breaks away from its Golden Age roots, where the mainstream stories stopped feeling quite so straightforward and concrete, and started to handle ideas in a more abstract fashion. It's a product of a time I think we look back on now as when America started to become less sure of itself: The Vietnam War had just begun, all of a sudden people who weren't white were demanding to be noticed, and the first generation of kids raised on TV was coming of age. The year High Castle won its award, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, ushering in the era of the pop-culture conspiracy theory.
And half a century later, the breakdown is in full swing. White men, the demographic who for hundreds of years shaped Western civilization, find themselves on the defensive; painstakingly crafted programs called "reality" shows are an entertainment staple; and the simple question of where our president was born is a hotly contested issue in some quarters.
Then there's the less obvious stuff, that's even trickier: We talk to friends every day whose faces we don't see and whose voices we don't hear; and though the fact of communication is no less real, if we're wise, we're cautious — because no matter how absorbing online exchanges are, they involve a lot fewer of our perceptive senses. In this, we're not unlike one of High Castle's characters, the white American Robert Childan, a minority businessman constantly trying to negotiate the complicated world of the wealthy Japanese who are his clients, never quite sure of his footing and always nervous about it.
But that said, actually the characters in the book are all cautious — or are if they're wise — because, despite living in a world without the Vietnam War and notably without television, and under the very tangible supervision of the Nazis, they seem to have a very shaky grip on reality themselves, in some way or another. So maybe Dick wasn't an antenna at all. Maybe he was just highlighting an aspect of the human condition — the anxiety and alienation of not knowing what is true — that obtains universally throughout earth and history.
I like that thought better than another possibility. At the end of The Man in the High Castle, it's revealed to some of the characters that the world they inhabit may not be the real one — it may just be a false alternate that came into existence when Giuseppe Zangara successfully assassinated FDR. It's implied that the real universe is our own.
And maybe when Dick wrote the book, ours was the real universe. But then maybe the next year, when JFK was assassinated — maybe besides fueling the imaginations of thousands of nuttos, that shooting sent us off into our own alternate history? And perhaps that's why we, like the novel's characters, find ourselves confronted with a less cut-and-dried perception of things every day. I mean, probably not. But how would we know?
"Blogging the Hugos" appears every other weekend. In the next installment: Here Gather the Stars (aka Way Station), by Clifford D. Simak, from 1964.
Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. He can usually be found here.