A story of subtle nuances containing picturesque fables that compound reality in philosophic deep strokes.
This story is told from seven different points of view which include the unlikely characters of: a judo instructor; an antique dealer; a publisher; and a craftsman. Not what you would expect from a story about an alternate history where the axis powers (Japan and Germany) win World War II and divide up pieces of the world.
Most refreshing, was PKD’s choice of setting the story in a timeline after World War II. He establishes a plot just far enough along that the main historical players are still walking around in the background, which roots the story into the reader’s subconscious. Yet, the world has moved on from active conflict. The tale centers around a society that is getting on with things. A drawback for this is that he’s not giving you much action like you might normally get in an alternate history centered around World War II.
That said, there is always some violence lurking in the background (on the other side of reality or the other side of a door). The story is full of gamesmanship, surreptitious politics and cultural conflicts. However, as noted by other reviewers, this is mostly in the inner monologues of the Point-of-View, characters, which proves fascinating as the characters continually strategize and second guess their ways through the surrounding clash of cultures.
This book felt very different when compared to some of the other works by PKD I have read (not many). The prose felt the tightest and most polished I’ve seen from him. That said, PKD seemed to make a purposeful, stylistic choice when building out the voice for the individual characters and he wrote many of them in a staccato, broken-type of prose when monologuing their internal thoughts. This gave the sentences an “alien-like” feel and threw off the reading a bit, but was not too distracting. The distinction between thoughts and dialog also served as a continual reminder to the reader that the current reality is not the same reality that they themselves inhabit.
In typical PKD fashion there is a never-ending stripping away of reality’s onion skin layers. Behind everything going on, someone or some thing is driving the currents of life in different directions. The characters, at times, all feel lost and flailing among the forces around them—but then again—don’t we all have these moments?
To find order and meaning, many of the characters turn to an ancient Chinese divination book that acts as an oracle. The randomizing patterns in this tome make reference to philosophical expositions which can put a certain “lens” on current events or things to come. Yet, as with most fortunetelling, interpretation is everything. PKD does manage to find a way to use this device in a masterful and unconventional way and tie many of the plot points together. The denouement is simply bursting with all the existential genius which this author is famous for. Just a great picture of how much, seemingly unrelated things can affect other things.
So much of this story is focused on the individual. So readers looking for Nazi showdowns against Imperial Japan might be a bit disappointed. There is action in this book and it is powerful and pointed when it happens, but as I said previously, it is used sparingly. Instead, PKD uses the historical and cultural ques of the Axis powers to build his world in a framework that echoes the existential struggles facing his characters.
As each of the individuals struggles to find their place in the world, so too do the new nations ebb and flow in living reality (or unreality), finding their new place on the changed landscape.
This is well worth a read and probably a re-read. PKD’s prose is not intimidating, though it may put off some at first, it always compliments the heavier philosophies running beneath the surfaces of his works. The Man in the High Castle is no different. However, it feels much tighter. The ending though, is probably typical of a PKD work. A great read for a clear mind, but not necessarily a casual get away.
Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on iTunes, Tune-In Radio, Stitcher, Google Play Music, YouTube or our website.