'The Man in the High Castle' by Philip K. Dick (1962)

The Man in the High Castle - George Guidall, Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 249pp

 

The Man in the High Castle is an intriguing but occasionally confusing book. It uses a science-fiction alternate history, in which the Axis powers won World War Two, to pose a number of questions about the nature of reality. The overall concept, insofar as I could grasp, is the idea of certain realities/parallel worlds being 'false'. More specifically, it is about the perceptions of people within those 'false' worlds and whether they realise, or accept the possibility that, their world is a false one, a fictional one. Beyond this, it posits that the words 'fake' and 'true' have no solid meaning; it all depends on whether we perceive its falsity, whether we believe it to be truthful. For Philip K. Dick, truth is not an absolute. There is also an interesting, persistent theme wherein the 'fake' may be better, more useful, than the 'authentic' counterpart. From what I know about Dick, this is a persistent theme in his work; the most well-known example is, of course, the replicants from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (made into the film Blade Runner). In The Man in the High Castle, this is shown in, amongst other examples, the Colt revolver that Tagomi owns and the various physical deceptions that some of the characters make about their identities.

This interpretation that I gleaned from reading the book is perhaps erroneous; this is the sort of book where you could have a wildly different interpretation from someone else, and you both would be able to cite examples from the text to support your view. I like these sort of books that exercise your mind long after you've finished the last page, but this one in particular requires a lot of mental effort. Dick aids the reader in this in some respects. He writes well, with occasional humour to provide a respite from the heavy philosophical concepts and also from the oppressive totalitarianism present in his alternate world. He also provides good characterisation, even if the majority of said characters are unlikeable. However, he hinders the reader's understanding in other ways. There is no plot really to speak of. Some of the philosophising is rambling and impenetrable, with certain passages requiring repeated re-readings (at least for me). The fervent advocacy of the I Ching by many characters (and, therefore, by the author) also gave me an aversion to engaging with High Castle - it felt at times like Dick was trying to convert me. But as alternate histories go, this is one of the more intelligent ones; certainly it is one of the few that transcend the strictures of the 'alternate history' niche to become a genuinely thoughtful piece of literature.