The Slightly Alternate History of The Man in the High Castle (1963) by Philip K. Dick

thmnnthhgh1982Throughout all my writing (including TMITHC especially) there is a preoccupation with fakes and the fake: fake worlds, fake humans, fake objects, fake time, etc… Again and again I attempt to formulate critieria for what is fake and what is not fake. (21:22, Part Two, The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick)

TMITHC is a fascinating adjunct to all this, i.e., to the Gestalt. Fakes are discussed. Alternate universes exist. Fascism is the topic, and a book is reality, which seems to have some connection with Tears. TMITHC seems to be a subtle, even delicate questioning of, what is real? As if only the 2 books in it, Grasshopper and the I Ching, are really the only actual reality. Strange. (19:35, Part Two, The Exegesis…)

Juliana’s bra size is thirty-eight, signaling the 38th hexagram in the I Ching, ‘opposition is a prerequisite for union.’ The ongoing bra references are a metaphor for our own irreality, an effort to lift-and-separate the converging realities, the borders of which we cannot otherwise perceive.” (Archer Maytree, controversial PKD scholar and author of The Grasshopper Lies: The Philip K. Dick of the I Ching, p. 38)


This year’s Exegesis with a side of fiction PKD challenge hosted by BookPunks means that I have officially overdosed on Philip K. Dick and it’s a lot worse than just seeing a pink light while an AI satellite channels God or something into my brain. I’ve temporarily postponed The Three Stigmata of Timothy Archer because I simply could not do with more quasi-religious psychedelics, and moved ahead to his politically-charged alt-history The Man in the High Castle. This was a good decision.

‘But this book,’ Reiss thought, ‘is dangerous.’ (134)

Subgenre: Incendiary, my favorite subgenre, but The Man in the High Castle is PKD in coherent form, making sense out of discord, discord out of comfort, but, unlike his other works, it’s based on a fictional logic that, for once, is traceable to the end. As a novel based on the alt-world of victorious WWII Axis powers, utilized in a way to reflect the lifestyle of hypocrisy in our own Allied victory reality, as PKD is no loyal servant to any big government host. TMITHC highlights the fascist, racist, and neo-imperialistic reality of our US/British-conquered world via a fictional alt-history overlay, a semi-fictional alt-history novel published within this fictional alt-history world. Sounds confusing, but it’s just a potent slap in the face, especially in these here times.

Of all the PKD works I’ve read so far, TMITHC is the most directly preoccupied on every level with the authentic versus inauthentic, threading the idea through from top to bottom, suggesting that he perhaps put more time and thought into this novel compared to his others. Strangely, as others have commented, this feeling of cohesiveness makes TMITHC feel less sublimely discombobulating and more like basic cookie-cutter genre (though I’m not entirely convinced his other books are oh, so, different from this). And yet, that in itself fits the overall motif of TMITHC, the real versus the irreal, in which genuine pieces of amorphous jewelry are imbued with the Chinese concept of “wu,” while their identical, mass-manufactured fakes lack the same quality. In a book that is about a book about a possibly more genuine reality than either the fictional reality of TMITHC or our own, then really, to be true to the motif, TMITHC should feel artificial and lacking “wu” (Maytree, 38). And it does this very well.

Of course, another argument explaining the very un-PKDness of the novel could be that Dick didn’t actually write TMITHC. Friends state that PKD claimed to have used the I Ching for the plotting of this novel, thereby requiring PKD to actually plot his novel. It is the belief of some that the I Ching actually wrote TMITHC (Maytree, 43). This makes even more sense, frankly.

Be warned. The potential for readerly discomfort is present here: characters often rely on offensive epithets and stereotypes directed toward each other, modified in ways to fit this alt-worldview, but that part of their reality isn’t far from our own. In other words, this book is full of unsympathetic, racist characters, who, despite living in a different reality, aren’t very different from the unsympathetic, racists of the real world. And let’s also admit that his direct portrayals racism, while effective when taken from the perspective of the entire text, feel disingenuous on a case-by-case basis. He just can’t quite nail it, and perhaps due to reading other PKD novels where his handling of women and POCs is even more clumsy, I just can’t give him credit here.

In addition, one thing he overlooks, as always, is his own sexism, even though he plays it up in his characters. That’s default mode for PKD and one he is completely blind to, sacrificing character consistency to feminine whims when the plot calls for it. His audacious female protagonist Juliana, who knows Judo, intimidates men, and eventually murders an evil Nazi, doesn’t hesitate to spend a strange man’s small fortune on designer dresses, disintegrates into bumbling hysteria when confronted with male reticence, and ends the story with serious thoughts of returning to her loser ex-husband. She is also really concerned with her bra, which is clearly another PKD “what her breasts are doing” moment, though it’s true that underclothes do sometimes take up more mental space than one would expect.

51naeanvr6lIt’s at this point in my PKD readings that I’ve finally turned to the critics in my growing library SF nonfiction to see what they have to say and I’ve yet to find someone who doesn’t in some way mythologize PKD as a writer, attributing his haste, his vagueries, his disconnect to some sort of deeper insight into reality, or at least the craft of writing– a diviner of genre, if you will. Sure, Archer Maytree characterizes Dick as some sort of divine vessel of enlightenment, claiming his own frequent encounters with an Axis-dominated irreality after reading TMITHC (The Grasshopper Lies, 51) (stories which resulted in that famous drunken punch-out and long-time feud with Tim Powers), but even Joanna Russ, who stops just short of calling Dick a bourgeois slob who fetishizes marginalized groups and the lower classes, sees his work as “best in its digressions and at its periphery and weakest at the center (F&SF, 1973, as printed in The Country You Have Never Seen, pp. 106-107). (The “bourgeois” comment being not a precise paraphrase, and I may be projecting, and I also totally agree). For me, viewing his work for the first time in early mid-life, post-new millennium lassitude, and not as someone who grew up under his underdog influence, nothing about his messy convolutions blow my mind or inspire deeper thoughts about reality, but TMITHC is the convergence of two fictional experiences: good, politically-damning SF, if a bit stilted and artificial.

19 thoughts on “The Slightly Alternate History of The Man in the High Castle (1963) by Philip K. Dick

  1. This is just for starters:a sympathetic Japanese buisnessman,with no imperial ambitions.That is hardly a stereotype.Dick was trying to say that evil had nothing to do with nationalism.Whatever you think about Juliana Fink,she is a strong leading character,in a genre which back then tended to give women minor roles to fill in the background..He was exponential.

    Quite unstereotyped drama.Didn’t respond to cliches.I think your revew is excellent though.


    • I’m saying that the characters are racist and stereotype each other, just as people do in our reality, not that Dick drew stereotypes… which, it could be argued, that he did to some extent, but it’s apparent Dick was aiming for well-rounded, realistic characters who carry around a lot of cultural ignorance and paranoia.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s okay,these were just tidbits to arouse a discussion,before attempting to make a full,constructive comment.I was just responding to what I thought you might think were cultural and gender stereotypes,rather than slam your thoughtful critique.

        The novel’s strength lies largely in the diversity of it’s multi-cultralism.The Japanese absorb Americana.They are welcoming to the people who are their subjects.Sane morality actually wins over nationalism.Mr Tagomi feels for the oppressed.

        Dick was bourgeois?His heroes were pratical handymen and craftspeople.Was this to show he had contempt for those who sat beneath the ones in power,who oppress them?Is this marginalising minorities?

        Memory is misleading.History is a bad compass.Even the oppressors are it seems deceived.Only authentic artifacts imbued with reason,can bring them the full truth of absolute reality.The external world is a false map that is deceiving.Morality though is concrete.It is the only solution through the maze.


  2. Mmh, I read this in July and I couldn’t bring myself to review it. I didn’t enjoy it at all because all the characters were completely unlikeable and I couldn’t stanf how he portrayed women. The book has some interesting themes and ideas,I’m sure PKD was a smart guy but I just don’t tend to enjoy his writing. I’ll be giving some of his other works a try in the future, just not right now.
    Great review though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Philip K. Dick is not an easy author to read.He can be an acquired taste.His best novels require some stamina.”The Man in the High Castle” is probably not a good one to start with.It might be best to begin with a short story collection.

      I’m not sure what you and others mean by not liking the way he portrayed women.I’ve already said,that Juliana Fink was one of the strongest characters in the novel,in a genre at the time,that gave women minor roles,that were often only convienient for the plot.She is a judo instructress,independent,and pivitol to unraveling the final mystery of the book.I think this was radical during the period TMITHC appeared.


      • The critic Archer Maytree said a lot of the same things you’re saying, but he also dived into a Honduran sinkhole in order to escape (what he believed were) the encroaching Nazi irreality of PKD’s (I Ching’s) visions, so his judgment seemed skewed.

        Yes, Juliana Fink is definitely one of the strongest characters in the novel. Which isn’t saying much.


        • Well,it was you who said he was aiming for well rounded characters.Mr Tagomi is probably the best character.He begins as a benign tradesman,and goes through all that human and existential angst,to emerge as an even better person for his experiences.He even has to suffer in his final apperance,that he accepts with as much dignity as he can.


      • Archer Maytree had stamina and thought PKD was a difficult to read author and look where that got him. (And to suggest these things to other readers is very patronizing.)

        “I’m not sure what you and others mean by not liking the way he portrayed women.”

        It would be too exhausting to explain at this late hour, other than to point out that she manages to be sexy (when it’s convenient), a badass fighter (when it’s convenient), and a histrionic basketcase (when it’s convenient) along with a whole lot of other things, but basically a Dickian fantasy of what an interesting woman should be. In other words, trust the womynz. We know what we are talking about and Juliana Fink is a weak wisp of a fake human being.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Well,she is divorved.Without patronising,how many science fiction authors portrayed female characters in that situation at the time?The’d more likely have been put-upon housewives or subordinates in a galactic federation,or something like that.That’s not bad for somebody who’s supposed to be a “bimbo”,as you’ve pointed-out.Otherwise it was a sign of the times.

          She can be admired for her quest for knowledge.Who else would have upset peoples’ comfortable assumptions?


    • Hi Maryam! You basically nailed every PKD book I’ve ever read: “interesting themes and ideas” BUT “unlikable characters and can’t stand how he portrayed women.” I can appreciate unlikeable characters, but his unlikeable characters get old real fast, especially when it’s the same listless white guy with the same paranoid outlook starring in every single book.


  3. Widdershins says:

    ‘…nothing about his messy convolutions blow my mind…’ … heh, heh, heh. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. […] I enjoyed TMITHC. It wasn’t quite the “Masterwork” I had expected it to be, but it was a fascinating story, one which I feel I need to read again to fully appreciate. For a more in-depth analysis, please check out this review by fromcouchtomoon. […]


  5. Kate says:

    I was absolutely bewildered by TMITHC, and really didn’t like it. But it’s useful for some research I’m doing on alt and spec historical fiction, so I have to keep plugging away at the damn thing. I did think Juliana was a strong and interesting character, but PKD did nothing interesting with her, she shrivelled into a caricature moll as soon as she picked up the trucker/spy. I also feel that I’m not expected to understand or appreciate the book adequately without knowing what the I Ching is about. And that’s a step too far for research. Helpful review and comments, will give me new directions to think about.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well,she does kill the Gestapo agent,at least when she knows what he is.I think that shows a very strong feminine character,at least for the time when it was written.I don’t think you need to know what the “I Ching” is about,so much as you understand it forecasts coming events,and unravels the final mystery of the book.Chance and determinism are the keys here.

      As I’ve said before though,this is probably not a good book to start with.


    • I think you’re exactly right that he did nothing interesting with Juliana.

      The I Ching component reminds me of this gag that South Park did about The Family Guy, basically saying that the writers of the Family Guy relied on dolphins selecting plot points on beach balls to determine their plots. I can see PKD doing something random like that and then trying to make sense of it later.


    • I also think it says a lot that you, a lecturer in English Literature at Ghent University, and who probably knows quite a bit about strong female characters and the history of speculative fiction, find TMITHC bewildering and the depiction of Juliana disappointing.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I don’t think you’re entirely wrong Megan,and I know you’re well informed and perceptive in your critiques,but can you really cite any better examples from the same period TMITHC was published?From an historical perspective,considering the obvious sexism in the genre then,the inclusion of women as leading characters in his novels,was radical I think.

        Perhaps when you come to “Dr Bloodmoney” and “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”,that feature quite strong female roles,you’re comments will be more positive,I don’t know.


  6. […] Man in the High Castle (1962) by Philip K. Dick- my review here (I completely made up a guy in my review. He exists in an alternate universe of PKD […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s