RAD Book Club review: The Man in the High Castle

21 Mar 2019

RAD Book Club’s sixth read was The Man in the High Castle by American writer Philip K. Dick.

Best known for his science fiction writings, Dick explores in his books political and philosophical topics and wonders about authoritarianism and alternative realities. His writings, many of which have been adapted into major films (Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report) and series (The Man in the High Castle) often reflect his interests in theology and metaphysics and his experiences with drugs, mental health, and altered states of consciousness. Ten of us contributed to this discussion.

The Man in the High Castle (1962) is a science fiction novel which depicts an alternate version of history. In this version of history, set fifteen years after the end of World War II, the Axis Powers have won the war. Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, among other powers, impose totalitarian rules over most of the world. Japan has established the Pacific States of America while Germany occupies the Eastern States of America. The Rocky Mountain States constitutes a buffer between the two competing superpowers. Two texts are used within the novel to convey its topic: one is The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a book within the book, which presents an alternate version of history in which the Allies have defeated the Axis powers, which is still a different version of history than the one we the readers have experienced; the Chinese classic I Ching (Book of changes), which many of the characters in the book made use of, including Abendsen, author of Grasshoper, is a text on meditation and divination used to inform morality and the best course of action for its users. Therefore it can be argued that the book is an exploration on human agency and how events in history might be the result of fate, fortune and chance.

Our appreciation of this novel varied greatly, but one thing we all agreed on was the brilliancy of the idea behind the book: the suggestive, evocative and intriguing power of the alternate history presented as the context for the novel and its capacity to make us wonder about how different the world could have been had some past events brought about different outcomes. This also helped some of us realise that little details in a narrative can carry a lot of weight. For some, narrating alternate histories added several layers of both doubt and interest to the story, which made us question whether history ever moves forward in a continuous, straight line. The presentation of the characters was also one of the main reasons many of us felt attracted to this books. The novel mentions big names in history although it focuses on the mundanity and everyday lives of those who have lived under totalitarian states or under their shadow for seventeen years, many of whom go against the grain. The open-ended, perhaps anti-climatic, conclusion of the novel participated in a subversion and reversal of narrative convention and we found that it worked very well within the general structure of the book.

However, these very stylistics traits are what many of us felt were quite unsatisfactory. Several of us found the book difficult to get through: characters felt soulless and underdeveloped; despite its brave experimental form, the plot, which many found muddy, lacked direction and clarity. Since a lot of very essential components of the narrative were left unexplained in the book (e.g. I Ching), some of us felt that a lot of the content and message of the book required complementary explanation not included in the novel. As a result, many of us felt defeated and discouraged to further explore the intricacies of the novel. Those passionate about the book conceded that it might be intentionally difficult to read and easily misunderstood, but they said they have grown to love it. Despite this, for many the book failed to meet its promises and as a consequence it felt flat.

As a group we gave it a score of 6 out of 10.