Review by Jason Koornick: The Man In The High Castle (1962)


In The Man In The High Castle, Philip K. Dick demonstrates his genius by creating a world where Germany and Japan won World War Two and America is occupied by the Axis forces. While this story creates an alternate reality, the fact that it takes place in 1962 (when Dick wrote the book) serves to blur the distinction between science fiction and the present reality. The story revolves a few central characters who are in different situations. Mr. Tagomi, the novel’s main character works for a trade company and faces moral dilemmas throughout the book that involve his sense of what’s right and wrong. A separated married couple are also the focus of TMITHC. Juliana Frink lives in Colorado, the buffer zone between the Germans on the east coast and the Japanese on the west. She becomes increasingly fascinated with an underground novel entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy which paints a picture of an America that won WWII. It is a fascinating dichomoty that makes readers think twice about what is real and what is not. Her husband Frank Frink is a craftsman who makes cheap imitations of old American artifacts in a Japanese occupied California that demand high market value. Frank also faces moral choices in the book that challenge his artistic values.

The series of events takes place in a world where Japanese are the most respected members of American society. The cultural landscape that Dick creates in TMITHC is intense. It is a culture where the ancient Chinese oracle, the I Ching is consulted for moral decisions. Religion, social customs, art, aesthetics and racism are portrayed in a shockingly real manner. Dick himself used the I Ching to help him write the book, giving the story a spontaneous, open-ended quality. TMITHC won the Science Fiction Hugo Award for best novel in 1962. A great Dick novel that employs many classic Dick themes and writing techniques but might be different than what you’d expect.



Warning: Reading the review below may give away the story if you haven’t read it.

The Man in the High Castle certainly poses many probing questions. It seems that the heart of this story revolves around the ethical decisions of the main characters. Like many readers I was left wondering about the meaning of the ending of TMITHC. While many events unfold in this novel, by the end there are still lots of unresolved pieces of the story. Although I found TMITHC difficult to get into, by the end I was taken by Dick’s portrait of a Japanese occupied California. More than the story I thought that one of the most intriguing elements of this book was the atmosphere of the country in this alternate reality. The tone of Dick’s writing and the gloomy mood he creates serve to place the characters in settings which are uncanny and ghostly realistic.

Dick’s work has been criticized on it’s lack of character development. In my humble opinion TMITHC creates some of the most heartfelt characters and situations I’ve reads in any of his books to date. He refutes this criticism by looking deep into the minds of Mr. Tagomi and Juliana & Frank Frink. It seems that the events which unfold for each of the characters are unrelated however they are all connected by their obsession with The Grasshopper Lies Heavy and the intense moral choices they all must face. As is explained in the excellent essay The Meaning of the Man in the High Castle, each of the characters undergoes a profound change. Tagomi as he realizes that evil is real and comes to terms with his actions, Bob Childan’s decision not to sell out his new artistic wares and Juliana’s encounter with Hawthorne Abendsen all represent the moral decisions made by those characters.

This is a very mature novel by Dick that is very different from his futuristic anything-can happen science fiction stories. It uses many realistic cultural themes. Dick’s portrait of a Japanese culture obsessed with American artifacts rings truer than ever in the present time. More than many of his books, TMITHC sums up Dick’s fixation with World War II. In typical Dick fashion this novel incorporates many real-world elements that make his work so much more than science fiction. The whole concept of an alternate universe is expanded upon in the chapters Dick wrote for a proposed sequel to TMITHC. Told from a Nazi perspective, these chapters examine the existence of the Nebenwelt, the alternate reality wherein the Allies won the war. Just in these chapters, it becomes clear that the science fiction element is much stronger in his unfinished sequel. It’s been said that Dick was unable to finish this novel due to his inability to deal and write about the Nazi mentality. For a look at these chapters and a revealing essay by Dick entitled “Nazism and The Man In The High Castle” take a look at The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick – Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings (published posthumously).

I felt that the open-ended quality of TMITHC left me hanging. Although the Japanese are warned of the impending German invasion, we never know the outcome. Dick’s use of the I Ching is very unique and contributes to the cultural mood of the novel . The way the characters use the I Ching for key decisions reflects a much different morality than American virtue. It allows for many varied interpretations that are not blatantly obvious. Trying to imagine an America governed by such strong oriental philosophy is quite challenging. Modern ideas of American patriotism are dramatically altered as the main American characters in TMITHC have accepted this way of thinking. They are reluctant to challenge the status quo and continue to live as second class citizens.

The Americans desire for cultural autonomy is reflected in their obsession with The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. In a U.S. where independence is just a dream, an underground novel represents their only expression of distinctly American values. This is why Juliana is so disenchanted when she meets Hawthorne Abendsen and fins him and his situation different from his expectations.

The reality of an America occupied by Axis forces is reflected not as much in the history that would create those circumstances but rather through the eyes and actions of Dick’s characters in TMITHC. With all it’s dialogue and character interaction, it seems that this story would translate into an excellent screenplay and film that could accurately portray the aesthetics and mood of this Hugo Award winning novel. It wouldn’t be true to Dick’s vision if it didn’t leave the audience guessing.

Agree or disagree? Add a comment below.

7 thoughts on “Review by Jason Koornick: The Man In The High Castle (1962)

  1. Good review. Thanks. Glad to read that I’m not the only one who felt like I was hanging out on a ledge at the end of the book. What a mind Dick has. Wow. Like going on a roller coaster ride.

  2. Mr. Koornick,

    I agree with Ms. Davis, above, that your review is accurate. Also, just finishing the book today, I was also out on the ledge at the end. However, upon reflection, I am now at peace with the ending. Like the book, so is the ending he picked. It is consistent; in harmony with the upsetting nature of the book, Mr. Dick uses the ending as wrapper for the metaphysics of uncertainty used throughout the book, as each character grows through wrestling with their thoughts and doubts, the reader grows through wrestling with the unresolved ending, to find harmony again. Mr. Dick is forced to not give a settling or fairy tale or Hollywood ending in order to not let the reader down and thus forget the tone and feeling of the situation painted on the previous pages. Unsettling but correct, the ending is honest and the book does not pander to anyone or anything.

    My personal reaction was that Mr Dick did an incredible amount of homework to understand the Japanese culture and portray its nature very accurately for Americans. To Americans the Japanese are truly aliens, as if from another planet. He worked hard to get the cultural nuances correct, I admire his craftsmanship and that probably made this novel far darker and more touching to me than those not sensitized to Japanese culture. Dick scared me.

    As an aside, I dislike tyranny and found his Radio Free Albemuth very much predicts America today. Also, the book title The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is an allusion to Ecclesiastes 12:5, the Old Testament “all is vanity” is next in verse 8, and my favorite biblical quote in college was verse 12 “of the making of books there is no end”.

    This book is a top flight read, it won the Hugo because of that!

    Mark Swanson

  3. I too was impressed with the nightmarish atmosphere of this book. I’ve seen a review of TMITHC which described it as representing the possibility that history is “a nightmare from which it might be possible to awaken.” And certainly at points in the book Dick makes his alternate world as scary and oppressive, as cruel and grotesque, as an Axis victory would have been. And there’s something UNREAL about all of it which makes Juliana’s eventual perception that it’s an illusion almost predictable. Dick, for once, had the leisure to bring his full powers to the task, and what powers they were; the stifling and nightmarish–can’t find a better word–atmosphere is a great achievement.

    Dave Orr

  4. Great reviews and comments all. I have recommended this book to so many (with many gratifying discussions to follow) and all seem to experience the same troubling sense, through Dick’s subtle crafting of a nightmare which could have been, and who knows, could reoccur, in some form and some other time . . .

  5. Your review is couldn’t be better. I only saw the Amazon production and I was caught up immediately with the characters and the fascinating portraits of the axis occupations. Like so many fascination was not great understanding of the end. You helped me considerably with that. I could even live with the not knowing I was left with.

  6. Good review, interesting reread after seeing Amazon. Have just seen episode ten, I assume it will be renewed. It will be interesting to see how they end it. So far, for me, the screenplay, despite character changes from the book, has added to to my picture of the world, though the book reveals cultural and philosophical aspects that would be tough to present to a mass market audience IMO.

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