Man in the High Castle, The
by Philip K. Dick (1962)
I read this in college when I had yet to begin understanding what good writing was all about. I remember being highly intrigued but also mystified — the I Ching references and metaphysical asides generally lost me at the time. Upon re-reading it I still found it intriguing — one of the most original and fascinating stories I’ve ever read — but the writing interfered with my full enjoyment.
Anyone reading this review will know enough of the premise to preclude me from restating it here. I’ll just say I’ve never read anything like it, not just for its strangeness but also for the impeccable precision with which it was executed. Dick clearly thought through and researched most of the implications of his scenario, and his thoroughness creates a vivid world that horrifies with its proximity; you can’t help but think (and shiver about) how close we might have been to a reality like the one depicted here.
The other factor elevating this to four-star status is the meta-story, for a couple different reasons. There’s the chilling story-within-the-story The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which enthralls both because of its eerie reflection of our actual reality as well as the several ways it failed to predict that reality. This gives it an authenticity that a lesser writer would have lost by having it show the “real” world exactly as it is. I love how it reinforces the theme of our world’s inherent unpredictability.
The other reason is the way, in a brilliant last few pages, that Dick has our reality bleed into this alternate reality via the “Oracle.” It’s beautifully mystifying, and though ambiguous it’s actually one of Dick’s more satisfying conclusions (perhaps faint praise given that one of his hallmarks is not being able to figure out an ending for an otherwise brilliant premise).
That’s a lot to like right there, but there’s plenty to dislike as well, and I have a feeling that how people respond to this book will depend mostly on how heavily they weigh ideas v. writing. First of all, the biggest discrepancy with my memory of reading this over a decade ago was that not much really happens. There’s little plot until about halfway through, and even then most of it revolves around people waiting for something. To be sure, there’s a lot going on just by virtue of having an alternate reality to expound upon, but that doesn’t make for much action.
Secondly, there’s not a real protagonist. Sure Juliana becomes one by the end, but she is present for a quarter of the book at most, and most of that toward the end. Other sympathetic characters like Baynes/Wegener and Frink are essentially shelved after the first act. Those that take their place — Togami and Childan — are interesting in how they reveal pernicious cultural indoctrination, yet unsympathetic and largely unsatisfying as protagonists. The narrative flips back and forth between them all far too frequently for you to develop a relationship with any of them.
Those are the main issues, though there are other minor problems that are mostly symptoms of immature writing — shallow characterization, clumsy dialogue, obscurity masquerading as subtlety, etc. It’s a lot to ask for to have such bold ideas presented in flawless writing, and it’s no surprise that Dick doesn’t fully succeed here.
But he succeeds enough to make this still my second favorite Dick novel after VALIS. He’s a writer I recommend to pretty much everyone just because of how off the wall he got. He definitely went down some rabbit holes in his day, and you should go along with him whenever you get the chance.