Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is a dystopian alternative history look at the world in 1962, imagining that the Allied forces had lost the Second World War. The book, published in 1962, is the inspiration behind Amazon’s current running show by the same title (which, by the way, is amazing if you haven’t watched it yet).
A brief summary
We are dropped into San Francisco, fifteen years after the Second World War where Robert Childan, owner of American Artistic Handcrafts Inc., is trying to find his place in the Japanese-run Pacific States. His store caters to mostly Japanese customers, and that’s how he likes it — as an outsider to what Childan views to be a superior culture, he grossly desires to accepted by his superiors.
Childan’s customer Mr. Tagomi, a representative of the Ministry of Trade, is waiting impatiently for a gift he ordered to give to a visiting Sweedish industrialist Baynes. He needs the meeting to go well because their German counterparts are cornering the plastics market, making it hard for the Japanese to compete in production. But something feels off about the meeting with Mr. Baynes, which is confirmed when Baynes arrives and refuses to officially meet with Mr. Tagomi until a former Japanese businessman is in attendance.
Also in the Pacific States, Frank Frink (formerly Fink) an American-Jewish man, who due to the current state of affairs is masking himself as an average American (hence adding the “r” in Frink), decides to go into business with co-worker Ed McCarthy hand-crafting jewellery. Their jewellery is eventually sold at Mr. Childan’s shop.
Juliana Frink, Frank’s estranged wife, is living in Cannon City, Colorado, in the Rocky Mountain States. It’s territory controlled by neither the Germans or the Japanese. She meets an Italian truck driver and foreign soldier Joe Cinnadella and begins a relationship with him.
The Man in the High Castle follows these characters as they navigate the world around them — Mr. Tagomi tries to assist with a secret cooperation between factions within the Nazi and Japanese governments; Frank and Ed try to make a living while Frank is discovered to be Jewish; Mr. Childan is figuring out how he fits in with the Japanese culture as a lower classed citizen; and Juliana and Joe try to track down Hawthorne Abendsen, the writer of a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy that depicts an alternative world where the Allied forces have, in fact, won the Second World War.
The actual review
I find classic novels to be hard to read because while the storylines are exceptional, much (though not all) of the writing ends up being dry and stagnant. Unfortunately, The Man in the High Castle is no exception. While the overall concept for the book is an exceptional and unimaginable thought experiment and a harrowing exploration through intercultural relationships, managing political conflict and the threat that knowledge brings to power, I found the actual action of the story to be quite dry.
What I found to be more interesting than the lack of action, is the fact that only one storyline (that of Juliana and Joe) has to actually do with the Man in the High Castle (Abendsen), and theirs is arguably the most unimportant of all of the characters. I would have rather taken a deep dive into the world of Mr. Taigomi and Mr. Bayer (actually a high-ranking Nazi official called Rudolph Wegener) as they try to save relations between the two ruling empires. Part of me feels like I was robbed of a genuinely compelling story to make way for a storyline that’s never really played out to its fullest extent.
Some of my other scrawled notes include the fact that the book depicts painfully traditional and dated character roles (which, considering the context I suppose makes sense), every piece of action seems to be either happenstance or forced instead of genuinely part of the action and none of the characters are likable.
In no circumstance have I ever recommended watching instead of reading, but in this case, Amazon’s series takes the cake. Not to mention the fact that you get to experience the exceptional performing prowess of English actor Rufus Sewell as high ranking Nazi official Obergruppenführer John Smith, a character who doesn’t exist in the book.
A note for fans of the television show
Philip K. Dick’s novel was used as the loose inspiration for Amazon’s television show. And by loose, I mean loose. With the exception of Robert Childan (portrayed by the formidable Brennan Brown) almost all of the characters have had a serious personality makeover, and several of your favorite characters like Chief Inspector Takeshi Kido (Joel de la Fuente), Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell) and anyone from seasons two and beyond are not present in the book.
Final Note: Dick intended to write a sequel to the book, but it ended up turning into an unrelated piece. No such sequel was ever written, but you can find two additional chapters as part of his essay collection, The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick.
Writing in the Fast Lane thanks Tae Haahr for writing and sharing her review of The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. If you’re on Twitter, be sure to give her account, @taehaahr a follow!