The Man in the High Castle, like much of Philip K. Dick’s work, is both fascinating and frustrating. Usually described as an alternative history of the United States in a world in which Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan defeated the Allies in World War II, this short novel is fascinating because it is, instead, a diagnosis of the actual world that emerged from that conflict. That accounts for the most frustrating attribute of this book, at least for me: its all-too-brief length. I have never cared for alternative histories, whether in novelistic or other form; the only things they ever seem to reveal are their respective author’s hang-ups and hobby horses. And so my frustration in this case lies not with the lack of more “history,” but with the sense that there is far more I wish to learn about Dick’s characters.
Dick, however, didn’t need to develop those characters any further because, when the book ends, he has accomplished his goal. Juliana Frink, the chief female protagonist, has met the titular Man in the High Castle, Hawthorne Abendsen, himself the author of a novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which presents an alternative history (to the narrative of The Man in the High Castle), in which the Allies won World War II. Abendsen’s book itself diverges from history as we know it, but as he and Julia discover through the use of the I Ching, it expresses the “Inner Truth” of history.
And that is Dick’s point: A true novelist is a truth-teller; and in The Man in the High Castle Dick himself is revealing the truth about the United States in 1962 (and beyond). Our culture is characterized by abstraction, symbolized by the Japanese, and a confusion of efficiency with morality, symbolized by the Nazis. The two breakthroughs in the book—Juliana’s revelation about the Inner Truth of The Grasshopper, and Trade Minister Tagomi’s trip (through a glass, darkly, as it were) to the world of The Grasshopper—occur through the engagement of their imaginations with works of art. A revival of the imagination, Dick shows, can revitalize culture and break the stranglehold of abstract ideology and pragmatic morality on American life.
Frank Spotnitz has created a television adaptation of The Man in the High Castle for Amazon that does justice to Dick’s characters, while changing the narrative of the story. In his version, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is not a book but a film, one of many newsreels presenting a history closer to our own. Hawthorne Abend sen is no longer an artist but a consumer of these newsreels—a sign, perhaps, that Spotnitz, understanding Dick’s point about the artist as truth-teller, is revealing a truth about America today.
First published in the April 2017 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.