The Man in the High Castle. Philip K. Dick. 1962. Mariner Books, 2011. 278pp. ★★★★☆ (4/5)
Ars Technica was less than impressed by it, but I recently got hooked on Amazon’s television adaptation of The Man in the High Castle. Frustrated by its not concluding in a single season, I grabbed the book, which won the Hugo for best novel in 1963, to find out how it ended.
After winning World War II, the Germans and Japanese have partitioned the United States between them. The Nazis got the East Coast, the Japs the West. A banned alternate history (in the book, a book; in the show, a series of newsreels) circulates clandestinely. In the book, everyone is talking about it; in the show, the East Coast Nazis will want you dead if you’ve been anywhere near it.
This is a short book, and more happens in the show, so I didn’t get the feeling of closure I was expecting from it after reaching the end. In fact, the show differs greatly from the book in a way that adaptations rarely do: one could look at the book as merely source material.
In the show, the setting is the star: it was the scenes of Japanese-signed San Francisco and swastika-draped New York that drew me in. Others who read the book second, and are encountering Dick’s work for the first time, as I was, may be surprised at the focus on the characters’ interior lives, which are drawn sharply. The antique dealer Childan has an especially distinct flavor: he flips between sycophantic Japanophilia and an equally powerful resentment of the colonists, which is driven by the impossibility of his fitting into their society and the perceived contempt he endures from them. Tagomi, too, is a pleasure to read, and both these characters’ storylines have memorable resolutions.
I say I was surprised by the book’s psychological depth, but I shouldn’t have been. I’ve remarked before how different the Game of Thrones series is from the Song of Ice and Fire books, which show the point-of-view characters from the inside while the series shows them from the outside. We see the same kind of difference as intensely here. Does any television show do interiority as well as books do?
The book, like the first season of its adaptation, leaves the most crucial thing unresolved: just how is the alternate reality of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy related to the primary reality of the story’s world? The show makes us wonder if the newsreels have come from our world, which remains the real one—where things went right. In the book, there appears to be a similar hole between the story’s world and our own. At the end, when Juliana meets the Man in the High Castle at last, we might wonder if she’s fallen through, but an apparent episode of mental illness not long before makes us doubt what she’s experiencing.
Unlike the show, the book gives readers no hope of an answer to the question of how the two worlds are connected. But it’s recommended nevertheless, and in its own right, particularly for viewers who feel inspired to read Dick for the first time. If you only know him from screen adaptations, you’re missing out on a lot of character depth, and on high-quality writing.