The Man in the High Castle

Image of The Man in the High Castle
Release Date: 
October 17, 2016
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Reviewed by: 

“. . . in the early 1930s . . . Many thought that [Hitler] could not be taken at his word when he castigated particular ethnic, religious, and political groups . . . He promised to make Germany great again.”

Reading The Man in the High Castle, a disquieting novel of alternative history, is a reminder that what we do today can affect our lives and our children's lives for decades to come. Set in San Francisco and Colorado after the American defeat by the Axis powers in World War II, this striking work is especially poignant during an election year when the future of the American civic experiment hangs in the balance.

In most modern elections, the choice between candidates is meaningful but not monumental. Both major political parties edge toward the center of the political spectrum, and presidential nominees generally have shared certain fundamental values. That, however, is not the case this year. What then can an alternate history first published more than a half-century ago tell us about our present circumstances?

Philip K. Dick’s story about the aftermath in America of a Nazi and Japanese victory in World War II can be instructive about how much is really at stake this fall. In his narrative, the Nazis control the Eastern United States, while the Japanese rule the West Coast. Most of the Midwest and Mountain States remain neutral territory, although influenced by both of the conquering nations. Dick’s invented account relates the stories of four main characters: a pensive Japanese trade minister, a seller of American antiques in San Francisco, a Jewish craftsman, and the craftsman’s ex-wife who has escaped to Colorado.

Dick’s story describes what happens to a free people when confronted with tyranny. Many of the defeated Americans have become subservient to their foreign masters. In fact, while some attempt to hide in plain sight, others on the Japanese Coast turn sycophantic in an effort to ingratiate themselves with their new shoguns.

Of course, when considered literally Dick’s fictitious tale has nothing to do with our present situation, but there is a threatening truth to his parable. While the United States of America is an exceptional nation, its inhabitants may prove susceptible to transformation. We must remember that the German populous in the last free elections of the Weimar Republic in the early 1930s chose the Nazi Party to guide their destiny. Many thought that their new leader could not be taken at his word when he castigated particular ethnic, religious, and political groups for the perfidy of the Versailles Treaty and the collapse of the great German nation. He promised to make Germany great again.

In Dick’s account, the Japanese rulers come out to be the better rulers mostly because of their introspection and reflection. In his interpretation, the typical Japanese businessman is filled with self-doubt combined with a full dose of mysticism. They make repeated use of the prophetic oracle to proclaim their personal truth. Americans on the West Coast are deferential, finding comfort by following Japanese customs.

The interwoven thread that holds together Dick’s four stories is a book written by the man in the high castle, itself an alternative history portraying an American triumph in the war. His book is banned in German-controlled areas, but widely read on the Japanese Pacific coast. The book’s author, it turns out, has also found direction through Asian mysticism.

It was predictable that the bifurcation of the world between the Nazis and the Japanese would prove to be an unstable arrangement. The Nazis have made plans to use their hydrogen bombs to level the Japanese Home Islands and unify the world under Nazi rule. We are left at the end of Dick’s book to wonder and worry about whether this will occur.

What can all this mean in terms of the choice we face in this year’s election? No presidential candidate professes adherence to Nazi principles, although one nominee does seem totally enamored by authoritarian figures. We cannot possibly believe that our next president would deport more than ten million undesirables who have lived among us for decades. He certainly would not actually fashion barriers to entry based on religion or country of origin.

There is a great relief finishing Dick’s novel, knowing that the cautionary tale he tells could not possibly be predictive of what we, as a people, would face in January 2017 when we inaugurate our next leader.