Thursday, 15 May 2014

Book Review - The man in the high castle by Philip K. Dick

The man in the high castle by Philip K. Dick

(Read in Four novels of the 1960s, New York :  Library of America, 2007 ISBN 9781598530094)

I saw this book listed in the Book Depository's list of "Best books ever", and given the subject and the fact that I'd never read any Philip K. Dick, thought I'd give it a go.

Philip K. Dick is a well known Science Fiction writer, but unusually perhaps better known for the film adaptations of his works than the works themselves - the most famous being the Ridley Scott film Blade Runner, which is an adaptation of Dick's novel Do androids dream of electric sheep?.

This book is one of his earliest, and runs on the premise of a huge counterfactual; that is, that the Axis were victorious in World War II. Counterfactual history has had something of a vogue lately, and is something that I normally loathe when presented as scholarly work, but, as fiction can quite often produce something worth reading. In this case, I'm not so sure.

The book follows a few characters who live in the USA, which has been divided into three by the conflict - a Nazi dominated East Coast, an ambiguous Centre and the Japanese dominated West Coast. The Nazi's insane racist ideology has led them to destroy Africa with nuclear weapons, but at the same time develop the technology to travel to Mars. The Japanese have not become as technically advanced, but the belief of their superiority over their White subjects is no less than the Nazi's over their Slav, Black and Jewish ones.

The story revolves around Tagomi, a ministerial attache who is the unwitting host to a meeting between German and Japanese intelligence operatives, Frink, who has lost his wife and is trying to start again, Childan, a high-end dealer in "authentic American antiques", and Frink's wife, who has moved to the Central Zone from the West Coast.

There are two other "characters" in the book - the I Ching, the ancient Chinese astrological text, and the novel The Grasshopper, which is a semi-secret (banned in the Nazi zones) counterfactual book that posits that the Allies won the war.

These various strands entwine around each other - Tagomi likes to buy "authentic American antiques" (mostly faked) from Childan, Frink worked in a factory that faked the antiques and then striikes out to produce something new and authentic, and Frink's wife thwarts a Nazi attempt on the life of the author of The grasshopper, who is rumoured to live in a very highly fortified house in Colorado (i.e. the man in the high castle).

The book tackles themes of authenticity, collaboration and art, and uses the I Ching quite heavily, to the extent that readers who aren't familiar with it (i.e. me) can get a bit lost. Much of the counterfactual material in the book is intriguing, but not well-developed.

There is a curious dis-jointedness in the style of this book: it is very episodic and the episodes are not necessarily well connected to each other. The language is very artificial, I think to convey that the characters were not necessarily speaking in their native tongues. The result adds to the disjointedness of the writing and becomes distracting after a while. The ending has a feel of being rushed.

Overall the sum of this book is less than the collection of its parts. Certainly not one of the "Best books ever".

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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