Philip K. Dick’s Hugo Award winning book, The Man in the High Castle, ponders the horrific but possible idea that World War II had gone the opposite way. Rooted in the idea that FDR was the USA’s savoir, the leader that indiscriminately pulled the country out of depression and into a position of worldwide economic and militaristic dominance, is assassinated in the 1930’s. Thus the USA is under a different steward, one who lacks the necessary abilities to navigate a decade wrought with peril, and in the end this leader forfeits the war. In this world, the Germans have divided the United States in two, sharing it with Japan while dominating it as a whole with their secret police.
A thought provoking world structure is presented. Japan dominates the East, Germany the West. The Germans have decimated Africa on the heels of their successful European campaign of genocide, have entered space and begun intergalactic colonization, and they have their sights set on the East in an effort to take the world wholly into their grasp. That said, the novel offers a compelling story, one full of characters that intrigue while working to establish a universe distinctly different than our own. Germans still hunt down Jews, most of which have gone into hiding by changing their names and appearances. Hitler rots in an asylum, having gone insane as the result of disease, and his cronies and supporters are passing away in due time, leaving messy, nearly medieval battles of succession. Either way, the quest for the ideal man remains, with all of those who defy the mold being cast aside and left expendable.
Yet, while the novel mentions German politics and examines a moment of German succession, the events concentrate more on the state of the States, specifically in the western half, the one controlled by the Japanese. Here life has descended into two communities: dominate class of Japanese and a subservient culture of Americans. The Americans, such as Frank Frink and Robert Childran hold the Japanese in high esteem, wishing to serve them, earn their respect, and come to understand their culture. On the other hand, the Japanese view the Americans with a degree of curiosity, collecting relics of American past, relics that Americans once mass produced and now go to great lengths to counterfeit. Collectors, such as Tagomi strive to understand their surroundings, live in fear of their German partners, and constantly consult the I Ching for answers. The mysticism of the oracle rains supreme, answers their questions, and writes their future.
Strangely enough, the book’s title is owed to writing within the writing. A book within the book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, comes from an author reputed to live in fear, hiding out in a high castle protected by security in order to keep the Germans at bay, for the author known as Abendsen has written a novel in which the Germans are defeated and the Americans win the war. Such material boarders on treason and thus leaves the author open to attack, hence his secure hiding spot. While the alternate reality here isn’t the same as the truth, it creates ire among the German secret police, inflames the masses, and calls the war itself into question. This ponderance hits on one of the books main points: what is reality, how is it determined, and where is our plain of existence. Are we a book with a book? A truth? Or are we at the mercy of the Oracle. In the end the novel asks more questions than answers, yet serves as a satisfying glimpse into a world that never was from the world we hope that is.