Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Life is short, he thought.  Art, or something not life, is long, stretching out endless, like concrete worm.  Flat, white, unsmoothed by any passage over or across it.  Here I stand.  But no longer.

It's the Sixties.  What was once the United States of America is now split into several states: In the west, the Pacific States of America, essentially a puppet state of the Japanese.  In the east, the United States and the Confederate States both, allied to Germany.  In the middle, the Rocky Mountains, serving as a sort of buffer between the two victorious powers, which are increasingly suspicious of each other.

As a vision of what America would be like had it lost World War II, The Man in the High Castle is fascinating.  The Germans, unsurprisingly, have moved on to conquering and destroying much of Africa.  Jews have gone into hiding all across the different Americas.  In the Pacific States, Yanks are second-class citizens.  I was especially impressed with the way Dick invents a Japanese-inflected dialect of English, which the American characters use only when speaking to their Japanese social superiors.  Just an example, from an American antiques dealer trying to make a sale to a Japanese businessman:

"Had you wished American traditional ethnic art objects as a gift?" Childan asked.  "Or to decorate perhaps a new apartment for your stay here?"

The story is full of political intrigue: The German Fuhrer has died, and a struggle to replace him as begun among the old Nazi guard, some of whom are in favor of aggressive action--dropping nucelar bombs--as a preemptive strike on their putative Japanese allies.  Much of Dick's story centers around a spy from a rebel German faction and his Japanese contacts in the Pacific States.

But all that is, somehow, really beside the point.  The Man in the High Castle revels in its thought experiment, but it has bigger and stranger topics to dwell on.  A seditious book called Heavy Lies the Grasshopper has become suddenly popular; it imagines a possible word where Japan and Germany did not win the war.  And this is where I think Dick shows how really unique he was among science fiction writers of the 20th century.  I can conceive of another writer coming up with this conceit, but their book-within-a-book would have told the story of our America.  Instead, Dick invents a third history--one in which Britain comes out of a post-war struggle with the United States as the world's sole superpower.

This is really unsettling.  The multiplicity of historical narratives forces us to question our own history in the way that a what-if story really doesn't, and, in a plot development I don't want to give away, Dick suggests that our history is as specious as the one of The Man in the High Castle.  Like VALIS, The Man in the High Castle explores the idea that our notion of reality is hopelessly limited and flawed.

A big portion of the plot centers, strangely, around ugly jewelry.  The jewelry, ineptly made, possesses wu, a Taoist concept that embodies effortless, unconscious doing and being.  I was taken by the idea that something with wu operates outside of history and historicity:

To have no historicity, and also no artistic, esthetic worth, and yet to partake of some ethereal value--that is a marvel.  Just precisely because this is a miserable, small, worthless-looking blob; that, Robert, contributes to it possessing wu.  For it is a fact that wu is customarily found in least imposing places, as in the Christian aphorism, 'stones rejected by the builder.'  One experiences awareness of wu in such trash as an old stick, or a rusty beer can by the side of the road.

I usually feel that I have a handle on even complex books; I feel like I have not understood even a little of what Dick was doing in this novel, and I am not even sure I have described it well.  I am not quite sure that I enjoyed it.  But like all of Dick's books, it has made me ponder quite a bit.

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