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Saturday, 19 November 2011

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

As a Fantasy and Science Fiction fan, I feel somewhat guilty that this is essentially my first foray into what you could consider to be one of the Science Fiction greats, Philip K. Dick. I suppose that up until recently, their collective reputation sort of scared me away a bit. But when The Man in the High Castle turned up at a book give-away last year at University, I decided that because of my implied increase in maturity as a University student I would do well to read some classic Science Fiction. So, can I consider this to be a book worth grabbing on a cold morning on my way to the bus stop? Maybe, maybe not, I'm not quite decided yet; at the very least I can tell you that it was interesting. 

The set-up is a simple but intriguing one: what would the world be like if the Allied Powers hadn't won the Second World War? In this re-imagining of history, America has been split into Japanese and German territories, the genocide of undesirables has continued unabated to the point that Africa has been wiped out entirely, Italy seems to have been largely forgotten and Nazi Germany is now technologically advanced enough to start colonising space. The last point I find utterly ludicrous, especially since the implication is that this takes place before 1970. The other points hold up for the most part. The story follows several different plot-lines as it examines the lives of several people living in San Francisco as controlled by the Japanese, and through these different individuals this new society is examined in contrast to our own. Now this complete change in philosophy and values in this new society is what I find most interesting about this book; the value of discretion and formality in the Japanese controlled society, the tensions between Japan and the nutters still focused on racial purity in Germany, and particularly the odd mix of freedom of speech and censorship. That last point is where the eponymous Man in the High Castle comes in: this is a nickname for an author who wrote a book called 'The Grasshopper Lies Heavy', which details how life would be if the Axis hadn't won World War Two. As well as providing a nice bit of metafiction, it details the differences between the new superpowers of this world; while the Japanese have released it to the public without comment, Nazi Germany is utterly livid about the book, banning it in their territories and even going so far as to send assassins after the author, ignoring the fact that both of these things would serve to make the book more infamous and desirable. But then I suppose these are the Nazis we're talking about, so not exactly the most rational of groups. In any case, this new society is very interesting to be sure, but there is one thing that I'm a little puzzled about: the widespread use of I Ching. Okay, that's not quite accurate. I can understand the use of the I Ching in Japanese territory, seeing as they would have appropriated it from China. What I'm confused about is the ridiculous accuracy of the answers that it produces. While I have never used I Ching before, I am familiar with other methods of divination, mainly tarot cards, and I can tell you with a fair degree of certainty that you do not usually get answers quite that accurate; in any one spread or session of divination there will be certain points where you see connections to whatever your situation is, but there will also be about as many if not more points where you will not understand what possible connection there could be to your question. Furthermore, those times that you do see a connection, well humans are sense-making animals, so there is probably a lot of work going on in your own head. So maybe I Ching is vague enough to let people make their own connections to reality and I'm just being picky? That would be a nice thought, if only the answers they come up with weren't so scarily plot relevant; there is one moment where the I Ching tells a Japanese trade official that his client is actually a spy, a fact that we don't have confirmed for several more chapters. Apart from that point that still boggles the mind, the set-up is definitely a strong one. 
The characters are unfortunately not as well crafted. While the characters were all distinct from one another, I had no real desire to really get to know them particularly well. It just felt like the characters were simply methods of moving from set piece to set piece, in order to look more deeply at society. I would probably talk on this more, but to be honest I can't help but be overcome by apathy whenever I think of these characters. 

Let me make this clear. This is not a book that appeals to our emotions. For me at least, this was a purely intellectual read, with the characters being ultimately superfluous to the set-up and the theoretical look at society in the years after World War Two. I would recommend it if you're looking for an interesting hypothesis to argue over and/or you're feeling emotionally drained after another book. 3.5/5 

Next review: The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett 

Signing off, 

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