Tuesday, October 13, 2015

September's Book: The Man in the High Castle

Nominally, I'm behind on these. In more real fashion, my onslaught of bonus books has resulted in the most reading I've done since 2012. This month's September's book may actually be weirder than a book I can probably best describe as being the equivalent of the next A Song of Ice and Fire book starting with Jon Snow waking up in space. That's Philip K. Dick for you, though...


The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Alternate History (1962 - 138 pp.)

Where to begin? A quick summary might help: The Axis has won World War II, which actually lasted until 1947. Germany and Japan have partitioned the world between them, along basically the lines one would envision. A key development is that they have also partitioned the United States, with the East and South going to Germany and the Pacific coast going to Japan. The Mountain West is happily neutral. Somehow, despite the subjugation of the UK, the US and Australia, Canada has remained free. The American situation is the most important to the plot, with almost the entirety of the action taking place within the continental 48 states, and most of that taking place in San Francisco and Denver. The book takes place in 1962.

I'll focus on things that don't seem to surface in many other reviews, based on my slipshod research. The I Ching, for example, is covered pretty effectively. Based on how the book progresses, I'll cover the Americans and the Japanese together, and the Brits and the Germans separately.

Dick's invocation of Gresham's Law in describing the tendency of fakes to flood the Americana market (28) may also presage later economic theory developments. Americans sell kitsch to Japanese businessmen, often including items that would be worthless to us in the real world but have an air to them much like the kitsch real-world North Americans buy overseas. Much like what "Made in Japan" meant during the real-world '60s and '70s, there is a cornucopia of American-made goods available to the Japanese, many of them knockoffs. Gresham's Law - bad money driving out good money - is plainly on display, as Dick notes. This works mainly because of how well disguised the fakes are. If everyone knew there were so many fakes in the marketplace, but not which items they were, George Akerlof's "Market for Lemons" (1970) would come into play. (Extremely short version: the presence of the fakes, but inability to tell between fake and real, would drive down the average price of all goods in the marketplace.) Based on Robert Childan's reaction to discovering a fake, this may have happened in the planned sequel Dick never finished.

Similarly, The Man in the High Castle plays off the brutal culture of stereotyping the Americans and Japanese developed toward each other during the WWII era. (Yes, those are the infamous 1943 "Tokio Jokio" and 1936 "Evil Mickey Attacks Japan" cartoons respectively.) That a Mickey Mouse watch figures so prominently among the American kitsch in The Man in the High Castle adds to the craziness. Childan thinks to himself in a stereotype of how Americans imagine Japanese people sound while trying speak English language. Childan further remarks on the tendency of the Japanese race - not just its car companies - to advance itself through copying other cultures. (94-95) That the Japanese so thoroughly promote the I Ching, a Chinese invention, is testament to this. Meanwhile, the Anglo-American obsession with authenticity* is parodied at length, whether through Japanese admiration of First Nations art (27) or the shock American characters show when called upon to produce anything without any history behind it other than a proud MADE IN AMERICA stamp. (6, 27, 76, 79, 93)

The Brits are mentioned only briefly, but in ways that force the reader to question his or her understanding of Britain's WWII conduct. Atrocities committed by the Germans, Japanese and Soviets are well publicized, especially those of the Axis seeing as they lost the war. This chilling passage demonstrates what might have been thought of the Brits had they become as desperate as the Axis did:

His brothers had been killed in '44, strangled with wire by British commandos, the Long Range Desert Group which had operated behind Axis lines and which had become especially fanatic during the last phases of the war when it was clear that the Allies could not win.

'How do you feel about the British now?' she asked haltingly.

Joe said, 'I'd like to see them do to England what they did in Africa.' His tone was flat.

'But it's been — eighteen years,' Juliana said. 'I know the British especially did terrible things. But — ' 'They talk about the things the Nazis did to the Jews,' Joe said. 'The British have done worse. In the Battle of London.' He became silent. 'Those fire weapons, phosphorus and oil; I saw a few of the German troops, afterward. Boat after boat burned to a cinder. Those pipes under the water — turned the sea to fire. And on civilian populations, by those mass fire-bombing raids that Churchill thought were going to save the war at the last moment. Those terror attacks on Hamburg and Essen and — ' 

'Let's not talk about it,' Juliana said. (45)

That the fanaticism increases as defeat becomes clearer, and that the atrocities mentioned include the real-life bombing of Hamburg, inverts popular Anglo-American notions of good and evil in WWII in ways that make the reader pause... very uncomfortably.

The Germans have developed space travel, including to Mars, yet home television is a rarity. (42) Precisely how there are Mars colonists before there is a TV station in New York City, or even in many European cities, is beyond me. That Dick wrote The Man in the High Castle in a post-I Love Lucy world makes this doubly confusing.

NOTE: Most of the books I read are either easy to read or are highly educational. This should be intuitive; usually, the purpose of reading is either to be swept away in a story, to learn something, or both. The Man in the High Castle has an utterly mind-bending plot, that you can follow here if you like, and technically, because it takes place in a world so different from our own, doesn't teach much about how WWII unfolded. It's not a WWII textbook, though, in case you hadn't noticed. It's an exercise in training our minds to think about human nature, about civilization, and about how fragile the course of history is. It's a page-turner and it's provocative. It doesn't need to be easy to accomplish those.

Ease of Reading: 3
Educational Content: 4

*I quote: "Shaken caffeine-guzzlers told the Guardian that they felt 'duped' and 'upset' because they’d thought it was an 'independent' coffee shop."

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