Over the second half of 2016 the title The Man In The High Castle and (to a lesser extent) the name of its author, Philip K. Dick, came into the mainstream possibly more than ever thanks to an Amazon TV series adaptation of the novel. With that in mind I thought I’d take my first step into the written world of the man who inspired films such as the classic Blade Runner (based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?).
Thankfully going in I knew the basics and little more. The Man In The High Castle takes place in a United States of America (predominantly San Francisco) in an alternate reality where it wasn’t ‘The Allies’ but ‘The Axis’ who, for want of a better word, won the Second World War and divided the globe between themselves. Most obviously here the USA being split in three with the Nazis running the East Coast, the Japanese on the West Coast and a buffer zone in between remaining relatively neutral.
Within this geographical, political framework, the book follows three loosely connected stories that, for the most part, deal with a trio of protagonists simply trying to live their lives, though the political and social intrigue of a paranoid world constantly on the verge of another, seemingly more final, world war, soon sets bigger wheels in motion for all three. To say much more would spoil what is a true feat of intricate and effective storytelling.
Other than an astonishing level of readability – I’ll admit I thought it might be a bit of a slog being ‘hard sci-fi’ but it flew by – what really stood out in The Man In The High Castle is the ‘alternate reality’ setting, with ‘reality’ being the keyword.
Throughout I got the impression that Dick was extrapolating the events, set in the early 1960s, based on genuine history and what was known at the time of Axis plans had things gone the other way, combined with a few crucial but plausible ‘what ifs’ and just enough fanciful thinking.
This makes for a richly textured world that, while set in a relatively small region, paints a picture of an oppressed planet with hints and stories of the situation in Europe, Africa, Asia, and even off planet, that combine to be genuinely haunting.
Laced throughout the linear side of the story is a clever method of adding a more philosophical nature, initially starting with the inclusion of Chinese and Japanese religion but culminating in some bigger thoughts and questions being asked, but crucially, never directly answered.
Having not seen the TV series of the same name I was left wondering how The Man In The High Castle could ever be transferred to screen in any kind of mainstream way, but that is a strong part of what makes it such a great book.
It deals with issues and asks questions in a way more mainstream media rarely can and combines that with a great, intrigue driven, story that was hard to put down and left my mind feeling challenged in just the right ways.