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The Man 

in the 

High Castle 


Philip K. 




Read it!



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"The book is fiction. I mean, it's in novel form. In it Roosevelt isn't assassinated in Miami. He is still President when Germany attacks Poland, France and England. He makes America strong. Garner was an awful President. A lot of what happened is his fault. And then, in 1940, instead of Bricker another Democrat would have been elected. His theory, instead of being an isolationist like Bricker, Rexford Tugwell would have kept Roosevelt's Anti-Nazi policies going. So Germany would have been hesitant to come to Japan's help in 1941. They would not have honored the treaty. Don't you see? Germany and Japan would have lost the war!" 

 -- a summation of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy

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The year is 1962, and in the fifteen years since World War II ended with the defeat of the Allies by the Axis in 1947, America has been split into three different zones: the Pacific states (-- basically from the Sierras west --) are under Japanese control, while Germany controls everything east of the Mississippi, leaving what's left in the middle to comprise the as of yet unoccupied Rocky Mountain States.

Over the ensuing occupation, with their strict code of honor, morals, and social status, the Japanese have done much to subjugate and exploit the conquered, lower-class people and their former nation's natural resources. They've also developed a voracious appetite for pre-war Americana, creating a ripe market for genuine American antiques, where an authentic Mickey Mouse watch or Civil War era pistol is practically invaluable. Their religion has also set in as more and more Americans convert to Tao and rely on the book of I Ching to make decisions for them: basically, you toss around some coins or sticks, and then depending how they fall, translate the results from the book as to what your future holds or which decision to make. Meanwhile, Nazi Germany's nefarious Final Solution was carried out completely in all of their controlled territories. Make that almost completely, as the few remaining Jews are in hiding -- mostly in plain sight. These atrocities also spilled over onto the natives of Africa as there are several allusions to some kind of "catastrophe." Russia has also been conquered and all the Slavs are turned into slave labor. Exploiting that source, Nazi engineers dammed up and drained the Mediterranean Sea for more farmland. They didn't need it. They just wanted to show it could be done. German rockets have also colonized the moon and landed on Mars, but they still can't quite perfect television -- which raises some questions of the validity of the Mars and moon landings. Are they just more propaganda to over-glorify the Fatherland?

So is the mad mastermind behind all of this enjoying his Third Reich? No. Quite the contrary. Seems Hitler has gone senile and is currently confined to a sanitarium while syphilis inevitably eats away his brain. And as with all dictatorships, the power struggle to replace him wasn't pretty with plenty of coups and assassinations. And our story proper begins with the death of the current Reich's Chancellor and the upheaval in Berlin that grows more deadly as a new Fuhrer tries to position himself to seize power.

In America, things have been bad since the Great Depression that never really ended. FDR had tried to change things but was assassinated during his first year in office in 1932. So by the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the country was in no position to retaliate. England couldn't hold on her own, and after the defeat in North Africa, Churchill was voted out as Prime Minister and capitulation soon followed. With that, all that's left of the free world is the Rocky Mountain States and Canada. 

After Capitulation Day there was talk of starting a subversive front to retake America. (To this day, Bob Hope continues a guerilla radio broadcast from Canada.) But fifteen years later the revolution still hasn't come, and most Americans in the conquered territories have tried to move on with their lives and survive as best they can. Most surviving Jews have either fled to the mountains or changed their names to hide their heritage. Germany's secret police operates freely, even in Japanese held territories, and the furnaces have been lit at the first death camps built on American soil in New York. With all this background established, the story then moves forward, focusing on several characters whose lives and destinies will intertwine over the next few, and crucial set of days.

Frank Frink is one of those Jews hiding in plain sight in San Francisco, whose just been fired from his manufacturing job and decides to go into business with his friend, Ed McCarthy, to make a new kind of jewelry; a risky venture since all the money is basically Japanese and they don't care about new American innovations, just the old. Juliana Frink is Frank's ex-wife, who fled to Colorado and has met up with a swarthy Italian war veteran named Joe -- who seems to know too much about some things but not enough about others, raising our suspicions that he is not what he appears to be. Robert Childan is a wholesaler in American antiques. He's also a milksop and a suck-up to his Japanese costumers. But his world is starting to unravel when he discovers that the vast majority of his merchandise are forgeries and bootlegs. He's also going insane because no matter how hard he tries, he can never get a proper read on his Japanese customers and must always be on his toes to not insult them. A Mr. Tagomi is one of Childan's infuriating customers. This Japanese businessman is also expecting an important guest named Mr. Baynes, another man who isn't who appears to be, but to reveal too much about him would ruin the story, so let's just say the Gestapo are very interested in Baynes and are desperately trying to find him.

Most of these characters rely heavily on the I Ching a/k/a The Book of Changes, but another book has come into their lives that has a profound effect on all of them. Written by a man named Abendson, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is on Berlin's most banned list because it postulates what the world would have been liked if the Allies had won the war.

Then things really start to heat up when Frink's secret is discovered; and while his building is raided by the Gestapo, Togami, Baynes, and a mysterious third party have their meeting to discuss something called Operation Dandelion -- that is a lot more sinister than it sounds; elsewhere, Childan gropes with his inner turmoil as to whether to go on being submissive or assert himself over his tormentors; and Juliana is so moved by Abendson's book that she and Joe head to Denver, where its rumored that the author lives in a high castle surrounded by barbed wire and several large guns, to seek him out. And with each decision one of these character makes, it has a resounding effect on the others. How does it all turn out? Sorry, for that you'll have to find out for yourselves by reading The Man in the High Castle.

Author Philip K. Dick has been a long time contributor to the science-fiction genre, but he's probably best known these days for the big screen adaptations of his work: Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sleep begat Blade Runner; We Can Remember it For You Wholesale was the basis for Total Recall; and Minority Report became, obviously, Minority Report.

Until now I had never read anything by Dick before, and I can honestly say that I never made the film connection until I started researching the author after reading this book. As a World War II history nut, I picked this thing up at a used book store based solely on the cover, promising an alternate ending to the war. I've been told that this is Dick's easiest work to read, but I'll still give a friendly warning to casual readers as there's a lot to plow through and absorb, and I won't even begin to try and explain Tao or how the I Ching works because I haven't a clue. But as they are both vital to the story, I have a feeling that some comprehension of it's intricacies with the sticks and coins would enhance the reader's understanding as Dick barely gives you enough information to get by.

Beyond that, there's some serious intrigue and several puzzles to unravel as we realize several characters aren't who they claim to be. Yet the story is punctuated with some very funny, laugh out loud moments as well:

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"It's the fault of those physicists and their synchronicity theory, every particle being connected with every other; you can't fart without changing the balance of the universe."

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But what I enjoyed most about the book was when characters were reading The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, or when a clue was dropped about how this alternate history came about and what's changed. Abendson's book is not strictly history as we know it. FDR wasn't assassinated but only leads the country out of the Depression. And after his second term is up, he gives way to another strong leader named Tugwell, who sniffs out Pearl Harbor before it happens and the Japanese Navy is caught in a surprise and ambushed. After the Allies win the war, the victory comes at a great price with an unofficial Cold War between the U.S. and Great Britain -- believe me, the Soviets have their own problems.

Dick's ending can best be described as ambiguous -- and at worst completely retarded. And to me, personally, it wasn't completely satisfying and even a little disappointing. Disappointing and annoying. Annoying enough that when I finished it, I tossed the book over my shoulder with a hearty call of "Oh, bull@#%*!" In author's defense, I have every intention of rereading the last chapter -- where Juliana finally meets Abendson, because I feel I either missed something or something just didn't click.

More over, less under, The Man in the High Castle is more of a character study than history lesson -- and all the characters go through a massive personality change. (Childan goes through the biggest.) The characters are engaging enough, but they don't really do a whole lot until the last few chapters. And I really want to like this book more than I do; it had me enthralled until it totally unraveled at the very end, so here's hoping the ending is better the second time around.

Despite these complaints, the book is still a good read and well worth the investment if you're either a hardcore sci-fi buff or an alternative history junkie. But if you're expecting a high adventure story where the gist of the plot is fighting the Nazis and the Japs to retake America, or to somehow correct history and get it back on course with our reality, that is not what this book is about at all. For that you'll have to look elsewhere.

Originally Posted: 12/22/02 :: Rehashed: 05/20/09

Knuckled-out by Chad Plambeck: misspeller of words, butcher of all things grammatical, and king of the run on sentence. Copy and paste at your own legal risk. Questions? Comments? Shoot us an e-mail.
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