The Man in the High Castle - Novel
Updated: Mar 10
Philip K. Dick. One of the most imaginative sci-fi writers who ever lived, his stories of scientific development and their impact on human civilization astounded many people for ages thanks to his creative scenarios, the disturbing allegories found within, and the mark they left on literature itself.
Then, in 1962, he decided to make a more interesting look concerning allegorical narratives: the alternate history theme. And his breakthrough was The Man in the High Castle. It stuck with tons of people over the ages thanks to its simple yet nonetheless attention-grabbing premise: what would've happened if Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan WON World War II?
Much like George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, this book explored the possibilities to be found in this alternate universe by focusing on the lifestyles of several different people living there, including a struggling American shopowner named Robert Childan, a Jew-in-hiding named Frank Frink (formerly Frank Fink), Japanese businessman Nobusuke Tagomi, Frank's friend Ed McCarthy, Mr. Baynes, Frank's ex-wife Julianna Frink, her friend Joe Cinnadella, Wyndam Matson, and, at one point, even Freiherr Hugo Reiss (stationed in San Francisco). In this world, the USA was completely conquered by Germany and Japan to the point that the country was divided into three sections: the western half, renamed the Pacific States of America and occupied by Imperial Japan, the eastern half, which remained the United States of America, except under Nazi leadership, and the middle section, a neutral area simply named the Rocky Mountain States. The novel simply explored the customs that went on during the reshaped continent in 1962, over 15 years after WWII. Among the changes were that Jews - at least, the surviving few - had to either remain in hiding or change their identities to stay active in society. And, primarily in the PSA, there was a rise in one of the Classic Chinese texts, the I Ching. And on the whole, there happened to be some mutual contentment between the Japanese and the Nazis in what used to be the United States of America, and yet, there lied some hidden underhandedness that was subject to suspicion, the intentions of which may have tied back even to WWII. While that's going on, the markets were on fire with a new edition of a classic book that was formerly condemned by the Nazi Party and banned across the nation for quite some time called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, written by a mysterious man named Hawthorne Abendsen. In that book, it presented an alternate history of its own where Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan lost World War II, and the Allies won. It caught the interest of many people, including those of most of our main characters, and the reputation it aroused became heated, to the point where the Nazis in the area were tempted to reinvestigate the whereabouts and intentions of Abendsen before some other major catastrophe could have befallen them.
If you may recall from my review of For All Mankind's first season, II was fascinated by the alternate history genre for little other reason than the potential it had in showing what life may have been like had things gone differently, and whether we would have been better off or worse off than the people in this story did. And because World War II was a famously dark period in our world's history, a story presenting a different chain of events spewed about from Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had they won was automatically addictive as a premise.
I can say this for certain: it introduced so many interesting facts of what life was like in this universe, and how different or similar to our world it may have been. And yet, it wouldn't have been the mind-bending dip that it was without the aid of some interesting characters to take us along for the ride.
Frank Frink, a Jewish manufacturer (and con artist), tried to adjust himself into the social circle by founding a shop where he and his friend and former co-worker, Ed McCarthy, crafted jewelry out of scrap metal. More often than not, he expressed self-doubt about his potential, but his persistence in trying to make a name for himself, while also trying to hide what society as he knew it would've despised about him, was admirable but also a twinge suspenseful.
His ex-wife, Julianna, living in Canon City, Colorado, was more uncertain about how things went on around her, starting with the unpredictably self-loathing and optimistic guy named Joe Cinnadella, an Italian veteran who fought against Britain in WWII and lost his brothers along the way. It was also said that Julianna left Frank because he dismissed her for being too out of control with other people. Julianna's curiosity over the social uneasiness was heightened and her side-story made more interesting when she and Joe were talking about the famous author, Abensden, starting with his controversial book, and because his last known location was Cheyenne, they both decided to take a risky trip up to Cheyenne in the hopes of tracking him down and meeting him.
Robert Childan, the owner of American Artistic Handcrafts, Inc., was a pretty sleazy - if not bitter - salesman who expressed some long-term gripes about the readjustment of his home country, especially by Imperial Japan. Things only got even more complicated for him when he was approached by Frank Frink, who pretended to be a Japanese ex-soldier, and told him that his Colt .44, the one used in Civil War, was actually a fake, and not the real deal, and it left Childan completely rattled. It made him question whether or not all the artifacts he had in his store, which were all authentic American items, were fakes themselves. Further complicating matters was his eventual visits with his customers, the Kasouras, and his encounter with Ed McCarthy, as he consigned a good portion of his and Frank's best jewelry and passed them off as his own, in a sense.
Nobusuke Tagomi, working in the Nippon Times Building in San Francisco, was just doing his day-to-day thing when he got acquainted with Mr. Baynes, an allegedly Swedish man, and just as they both got to enjoy each other's company and started to reach out to more of their superior officers, they started to converge on a political discovery amongst themselves that may have uncovered the ultimate deciding factor of the mutual respect between Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. Things only got more heated when Baynes, at just the right moment, exposed himself as a spy fleeing from Nazi Germany named Rudolf Wegner, who wanted to alert Tagomi and his associates of a potential nuclear plan by Nazi Germany that could've spelled catastrophe - human catastrophe - as they knew it.
At one point, we even got to see some small goings-on concerning Nazi officer Freiherr Hugo Reiss, who just did his day-to-day business, just like Tagomi, only a few things were shown about him that showed some slightly human qualities. For one, he was completely hooked on The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, trembling both from astonishment and anger at the large scale possibilities aroused by the book's mere convictions, despite its fictional shell. And, when he was visited by the Sicherheitsdienst Chief of PSA, Kreuz vom Merre, he showed some slight content for his propositions from the Nazi party to search for Abendsen and exterminate him for proposing what they considered vulgar ideals.
Each side story being told within the confinements of this novel introduced a variety of characters who shared plenty of likenesses to how we as Americans would've lived our lives, yet the distinctions they expressed that pertained to their surroundings made them feel more unique and interesting. And to see them attempt to either make something out of themselves or engage in existential questioning due to the circumstances they witnessed, it continued to propel the story further into its social and political depths, to the point that it ultimately asked us,
They may have won the battle, but did they win the war?
One of the other factors that propelled the story into that realm of ethical ponderance was the death of Chancellor Martin Bormann. Both the Nazi party in Germany and many people who heard of the news instantly reacted to it with shock, as they pondered over not only who would have assumed the title of Chancellor next, but what that would've meant for Nazi Germany and its sociopolitical ties with Imperial Japan.
From what little was discussed about The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, it introduced a stylized outlook of how things may have shaped up if the Allied forces won WWII. And I say 'stylized' because the history presented in the book was quite different from how our actual history played out. For starters, Adolf Hitler not only lived by the end of World War II, but he was put on trial and possibly executed for his crimes against humanity. And, the USA was fortunate enough to have resolved racial issues in 1950...a lot sooner than how long it took us to settle those issues. What I found fascinating about it was how The Grasshopper Lies Heavy was to the main characters in their world what this story is to us in our world, but making it more enticing was how seriously the characters took its popularity and creative intentions as if the book was heavily classified information that was broken loose and out in the open. And, it was rumored that Abendsen wrote the book when he was in a heavily guarded fortress during his time serving in the war, and the fortress, for that reason, came to be nicknamed 'the High Castle'. With that in mind, take one guess as to who 'The Man in the High Castle' in question might be!
Another thing I found interesting was that half of the time, when the main characters were under stress, or uncertain about their actions or of the present dilemmas, they relied on the 'oracle', or the I Ching, to help guide them through their problems. I never heard of or was acquainted with the I Ching before reading this book, and the way the text worked, how it allowed the users to try to consult with it and see what fateful answers they would've received from it were very fascinating, and dare I say it, it probably compelled me to consider giving it a try the first chance I get.
There was only one thing I wish was dived into more with this story, and that would be the lifestyles in the Nazi-occupied USA. Many of the main characters I spoke of, except for Julianna, lived in San Francisco, and because of that, much of the story was told from that perspective. And because Julianna lived in Canon City, CO, a part of the Rocky Mountain States, we as the readers were given a taste of life in that region through her eyes. But the closest things we got to exposition on Nazi-occupied America were the stories of Hugo Reiss, and the goings-on - the political goings-on - from their end, such as the ambitious goal of inventing rocket ships to travel across the galaxy with, starting with on the Moon, then to Mars, and even Venus. The story introduced so many interesting angles that it could have explored, but because this was one novel, it felt like it only dug halfway through the barrel of creative possibilities.
Ah, well. For all its shortcomings, however obvious or ineffectual it may be, The Man in the High Castle stood out as the epitome of 'what-if' circumstances that may have occurred had we lost World War II to the Axis powers. This was an intriguing, haunting, and compelling read that should arouse questions about the pratfalls and hidden capabilities of mankind in the face of ubiquitous disaster. And I couldn't have read this at a more perfect time; at the time of this writing, America and the rest of the world are suffering from multiple cases concerning COVID-19, a multitude of uprisings against racism in America, social unrest, and political chaos. Originally, I wanted to read The Man in the High Castle just for its alternate history themes concerning the outcomes of World War II, out of interest for the highly-regarded show on Amazon Prime, and to see how it might make us happy to be living in the present we live in now. But the circumstances we had to deal with in our reality only spiced up the reading experience I got from this novel and dashed it not only with serendipity but, arguably, with necessity.
Human ideologies, inner turmoil, and what can be done to reshape what was already reshaped. Not unlike The Grasshopper Lies Heavy's reportedly skillful feeding of the main characters' inner psyches, The Man in the High Castle gave me a much-needed taste of them all for my sake.
My Rating: B+