The Man in the High Castle (1962)
Philip K. Dick (1928-1982)
After losing World War II, America has been occupied and split into three zones in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. The Japanese rule over the west coast, and the Germans the east coast; in the center, the so-called Rocky Mountain States of America remains nominally independent, a buffer zone of little interest to either of the occupying powers.
Set in 1962, fifteen years after U.S. capitulation, Dick’s novel takes place largely in San Francisco, where the Japanese dominate life in the city. Ruling through a puppet government, they control the main economic activities and live in the nicest neighborhoods. Black slavery has been re-instated, while whites live as second class citizens, generally adopting Japanese mannerism and customs, some in hopes of ingratiating themselves into Japanese society, others simply to try and keep a low profile.
Instead of the action-adventure theme that such a set-up suggests, Dick chose to write a psychological exploration of this alternate future. Though punctuated by moments of suspense, the story focuses largely on the kind of world that the Japanese and Germans have created in the areas they control. For the Japanese, victory appears to have quelled the aggression that led them to war, and they have concentrated on imposing their cultural and social mores on the American living under their occupation. The Germans, on the other hand, have turned victory into justification to double-down on their concepts of militarism and Aryan superiority, and they have accelerated their scientific and technological development to those ends.
Through four intersecting plot lines, Dick creates a world in which the former Japanese and German allies have transformed into cold war opponents, struggling for influence and control at the borders of their respective empires. Americans, for their part, have lost the momentum and swagger of a century of manifest destiny, and either cower before the ruling elites in the occupied zones, or live quiet lives in a center of the country that has become a cultural backwater, with the uncertain threat of Japanese or German expansion ever present.
Dick convincingly conveys the extent of the white population’s mental subjugation to the ruling Japanese through the tone and language he uses in the story, both in the words and thoughts of the characters, and in his descriptions. Rather than a story about the overthrow of the occupying regimes, the dramatic moments in the story involve sudden, brief recognitions by several of the characters that things could be different, that perhaps Americans have given in too readily to the new world order the outcome of the war created, and must push back --- moments when the seeds of future rebellion are planted.
Possibly because I began this novel having just finished reading W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1903 collection of essays The Souls of Black Folk, I found parallels in the lives of Dick’s white American characters to Du Bois’ concept of black Americans living “with a veil … [a] double-consciousness, [a] sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring ones’ soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” (My review here.) How similar this to the thoughts of one of the white Americans in Dick’s story as he tries not to lose face during a conversation with a Japanese man:
Damn them, I can’t free myself of their influence, can’t give in to impulse ….
[The Japanese man] scrutinized him, needing to say nothing; [his] very presence enough. Got my conscience snared…. Guess I’ve lived around them too long. Too late now to flee, to get back among whites and white ways. (193)
In another example of the influence exerted by Japanese cultural traditions, most of the characters in the novel --- American as well as Japanese --- turn often to the I Ching, a Chinese divination text. Through their Japanese conquerors, many Americans have developed the practice of consulting the historic text for interpretation of present events and understanding of future possibilities, no doubt in part in response to the shock and upheaval of the loss of the war, and the resulting sudden loss of the American self-confidence and superiority that had held sway for so long. In dramatic contrast to German practicality, however, the Japanese too look to the text for guidance in an uncertain world --- somehow recognizing the tenuousness of their victory and present dominance.
And it is in fact through a reading of the I Ching that the novel’s reality becomes ambiguous, in a scene toward the end that threatens to warp everything that we thought we knew, to turn a novel of alternative history into Science Fiction. In the years after the book was published, Dick acknowledged the ambiguity of the ending, and hinted at a sequel that unfortunately never materialized (discussed for example here). Thus we are left as readers to construct our own interpretation of the physical reality that Dick created in the story.
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