Brief synopsis (Goodreads): It’s America in 1962. Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In San Francisco, the I Ching is as common as the Yellow Pages. All because some twenty years earlier the United States lost a war—and is now occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan.
This harrowing, Hugo Award-winning novel is the work that established Philip K. Dick as an innovator in science fiction while breaking the barrier between science fiction and the serious novel of ideas. In it Dick offers a haunting vision of history as a nightmare from which it may just be possible to wake.
Rating: Travel companion
Long story short (no spoilers): Last week my brother persuaded me to watch the Amazon original series The Man in the High Castle. I didn’t know until about five episodes in that the show is based on a book by Philip K. Dick (who has had other film adaptations of his books, most notably Blade Runner, Minority Report, and Total Recall), and then obviously I had to read it.
The book and the show differ a bit when it comes to characters and plot, but the main premise is that the story takes place in an alternate reality in which the U.S. lost World War 2 and has been taken over by the Germans and the Japanese, who are in a sort of arms/technology race with each other. In this different reality there is a book (film reels in the show) written by “the man in the high castle” which offers a glimpse into a world in which the U.S. won the war (i.e., our current reality).
The web series adaptation didn’t mirror the book 100% (I didn’t expect it to), yet both were fascinating in their own ways. I liked the novel for its insights into characters’ psyches, and the way it laid the social and cultural foundations for this different reality; I liked the show for its exciting plot, character development, and satisfying ending.
My thoughts on the novel:
#1 The political and cultural tensions between the Germans, Japanese, Americans, and other ethnicities, are more complex and nuanced in the novel.
For example, there’s a scene in the book where an American antique dealer is preparing to visit his Japanese client and spends the entire cab ride over practicing the social etiquette that is required of him:
“Was he absolutely properly dressed to enter the Nippon Times Building?..The various modes of address…he knew them. Whom to treat politely, whom rudely. Be brusque with the doorman, elevator operator, receptionist, guide, any janitorial person. Bow to any Japanese, of course, even if it obliged him to bow hundreds of times. But the pinocs. Nebulous area. Bow, but look straight through them as if they did not exist. Did that cover every situation, then? What about a visiting foreigner?…And then, too, he might see a slave” (22).
It’s moments like these that created an immersive environment that ultimately drew me into this world.
#2 In the show you often only see the results of a character’s thought process, chiefly by the actions they carry out, but in the novel you get to read the inner dialogue and are better able to understand a character’s desires and motivations because you have the opportunity to be in their head. This leads to a greater intimacy between the reader and the character, knowing why they did something in addition to what they did. Not that the series lacks this; only it’s harder to infer.
#3 Several themes that pervade the novel include the making and changing of one’s destiny and the line between good and evil. These topics are more philosophical and theoretical in the novel than they are in the show, which undoubtedly make for interesting book club discussions, but have no immediate consequences with respect to the plot…kinda disappointing.
#4 Speaking of plot…there aren’t very many actions that propel the story forward. The book shares one climax with the show, however apart from that there’s no place for the narration to go. Nothing is really resolved in the end, and you’re left with more unanswered questions.
My thoughts on the web series:
#1 The world building in the show is amazing. In the pilot you observe Times Square in New York, and downtown San Francisco completely transformed under German and Japanese occupations. It gave me such goosebumps to see the familiar look foreign and exotic; it was definitely unsettling…
#2 The novel follows the story of three groups of people who never interact with one another. However in the show the characters are interconnected, and the actions of one oftentimes affect other people. In this instance I prefer the show to the book because I liked the relationships that developed when strangers met in unusual circumstances. At times the links felt forced, but ultimately still worked to move the plot along.
#3 The role of science-fiction in the show is a lot stronger than in the novel, which I found gratifying. I was drawn to the series because the plot alluded to there being more alternate realities out there, and a way to “fix” the one the show portrays, and it delivered.
#4 It’s particularly interesting to read about politics between Germany and Japan post-WW2. There’s more to it in the show, but both the series and the book highlight differences between the two ruling countries, namely that Germany is the more technologically progressive country and is leaving Japan behind when it comes to advancements in transportation (Germany uses rockets for air travel–they can go from Berlin to San Francisco in about 45 minutes–while Japan continues to rely on ships) and space exploration (Germany has colonized Mars and Venus).
Have you seen and/or read The Man in the High Castle? What did you think?