Book Review: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick

Abandon your history notes and embrace some alternate history, as Stephen Balbirnie examines Philip K Dick’s visionary tale

Philip K Dick is one of the most seminal science fiction writers of the twentieth century, his work not only being incredibly immersive but also highly cerebral. Even those who have never read one of his books have probably seen one of the films based on his work, such as the acclaimed Blade Runner (based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) or more recently, Richard Linklater’s animated adaptation of A Scanner Darkly.

Some of Philip K. Dick’s books can be quite daunting, so for those who are unfamiliar with his work I would recommend The Man in the High Castle as a brilliant starting point. A winner of the Hugo Award for best novel in 1962, The Man in the High Castle is a combination of science fiction and alternate history.

The book is set in the United States in an alternate universe where the Axis powers won the second world war, America is split into Japanese and German occupation zones, and the Cold War is between Germany and Japan instead of the Americans and the Soviets.

The premise for the novel is an incredibly chilling one and realising such a world is a very ambitious undertaking, but the depiction of Japanese-occupied San Francisco is one that draws the reader in.

The main action of the novel takes place against the backdrop of Cold War intrigue, as the top Nazi officials scheme against each other for control of the Reich.

The plot follows the intertwining lives of Mr Tagomi, the Japanese trade mission to San Francisco, Robert Childan, an American desperately attempting to emulate his Japanese overlords, Frank Frink, a Jewish man living under a false identity, his ex-wife Juliana, and a Swedish businessman with secret motives called Baynes.

Dick masterfully draws these disparate and complex strands together into an intelligent and compelling narrative that is as times, like much of Dick’s work, mind-bending to say the least.

However, one of the most intriguing aspects of The Man in the High Castle is the book within the book. One of the novel’s characters, Hawthorne Abendsen, writes a book in just the same way that Dick does, exploring an alternate reality to his own, and snippets of the text appear throughout the novel.

Abendsen’s book ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ is about an Allied victory in the second world war, but even this does not match our reality, as it features a Cold War between the United States and Britain, with Churchill as the dictator of a new British Empire.

With so many strands, it can sometimes be tricky to keep track of all that’s going on, but The Man in the High Castle is definitely worth the effort.