Those of you who know my fondness for science fiction will not be surprised I have read a few alternate histories this summer. The genre runs the gamut from science fiction to literary fiction, from Harry Turtledove’s Southern Victory series to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, from Doris Lessing’s Alfred and Emily to D. J. Taylor’s The Windsor Faction, from Jo Walton’s Farthing to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
Perhaps the most famous alternate history is Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novel, The Man in the High Castle, which won the Hugo Award in 1963. Even if you think you don’t know Dick’s work, you probably do: Blade Runner is based on his superb novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Minority Report on his story, “The Minority Report.”
Ursula K. Le Guin has called Dick the “American Borges,” and the brilliant writer Jonathan Lethem, who won the National Critics Book Circle Award in 1999 for Motherless Brooklyn, has heavily promoted Dick’s work in recent years. He has edited three volumes of Dick’s novels for The Library of America; edited The Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick; and written, with Pamela Jackson, The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.
In The Man in the High Castle, the Nazis and Japanese won World War II. They squabble for power in the U.S., keep Americans down, hunt down Jews, and inflict most people with an inferiority complex about their culture. The Jews must change their names and hide their Jewishness, so as not to be deported to Nazi Germany. Other Americans, too, are high-strung about the fascist government. And the Asian influence is so strong that all the characters consult the I Ching.
There are multiple story lines, and I will not attempt to write about all of them. The novel opens with the owner of an antique Americana shop, Mr. R. Childan, terrified because a Civil War recruiting poster has not arrived promptly for a high-ranking Japanese trade commissioner, Mr. Tagomi.
In another part of San Francisco, Frank Frink, a Jew born with the name Frank Fink, has quit his job at a factory that makes fake antique weapons. Unless he can persuade the boss to rehire him, he will be blacklisted. And so, like all the other characters he pulls down the I Ching and the yarrow sticks.
Aloud he said, ‘How should I approach Wyndam-Matson in order to come to decent terms with him?’ He wrote the question down on a tablet, then began whipping the yarrow stalks from hand to hand until he had the first line, the beginning. An eight. Half the sixty-four hexagrams eliminated already. He divided the stalks and obtained the second line. Soon, being so expert, he had all six lines; the hexagram lay before him, and he did not need to identify it by the chart. He could recognize it as Hexagram Fifteen. Chi’en. Modesty. Ah. The low will be raised up, the high brought down, powerful families humbled; he did not have to refer to the text–he knew it by heart. A good omen. The oracle was giving him favorable counsel.
Frank’s friend, Ed McCarthy, persuades him to go into business with him, designing and making original jewelry. Although it is gorgeous, R. Childan, the shop owner, cannot sell it to rich Japanese customers, who prefer Mickey Mouse watches and old American artefacts. It is not in their interest to encourage Americans to develop their culture.
Frank’s wife, Juliana, has moved to Colorado, where she works as a Judo instructor. After an Italian trucker picks her up and more or less moves in with her, she learns he is obsessed with a banned novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, an alternate history in which the U.S. and the Allies won World War II. Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of this banned book, is said to live in a high castle in Wyoming.
This novel within a novel has a huge influence on the characters. Even the Japanese are reading and commenting on it.
The Man in the High Castle is a masterpiece, and I urge you to try it even if you are not a science fiction reader. The best science fiction ranks up there with classics.