BOOK REVIEWS (2014): Philip K. Dick’s (1962) Man in the High Castle

24 February 2014

Summary (the TLDR Version)

Someone should rewrite this book with more thoughtfulness in order to actually do justice to the claims made about the ideas insufficiently articulated in this book.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this already, you can skip it.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop).  I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To:  Philip K. Dick’s (1962)[2] Man in the High Castle

I do not want to get into useless jeremiads about this novel. I have decided to read some Philip K. Dick, in part because a trusted source recommends him and because of Stanislaw Lem’s qualified praise for Dick as a novelist of ideas. Lem, as a novelist of ideas himself, can single out Dick as a novelist working in science fiction as a novelist of ides primarily because (at the time an previously) almost all science was worthless pulp. And most of the vehicle for Dick’s ideas in this book is similarly ineptly deployed.

I have to not read the gush that some people put out about this book, because (as also with that otherwise awful journalist-turned –author Ernest Hemingway), the sorts of things that people claim have little to no justification. To be more precise, probably at least 95% of any profundity generated out of Dick’s book comes from work done by the reader. So I feel much more inclined to credit the reader with genius, rather than Dick.

One can make unconvincing meta-arguments about the text that this is how it should be, and even less convincing arguments that this is how Dick intends it. On the flip side, I will not dismiss him as a merely sloppy pill-head who wrote too quickly and seems to have declined to edit his own book for errors, even if that is an accurate description. On yet another flip side, I will not give him some kind of a pass for a lower bar as a novelist because of a history of mental illness or drug-abuse. I’m disinterested entirely about any cult of personality surrounding his body of work, especially when it is applied retrospectively.

I have to wonder why this book won a Hugo, and the answer appears to be that it lambastes Nazis, an early edition of something like the opposite of Godwin’s Law. But there is a certain extent that even to take the book seriously already and immediately turn it into something it is not. Insofar as the book describes the book in its own world as written using the I Ching—the first book entirely composed by the I Ching—this of course suggests as much for Dick’s book as well, in which case why is he getting credit for the book? If the book is composed “randomly” to some extent.

But actually, it is disheartening and pointless to go on like this. Ultimately, the primary fault of the book for my reading is an insufficiency of deliberateness, which the randomness of using the I Ching to generate the text could be said to point to, but need not. In a creative venture, it may very often be helpful to impose external constraints on a text—to decide to write a chapter using no more than two-syllable words, &c. The use of the I Ching here seems merely to randomize the quasi-alternative history the book posits (for example: the assassination of FDR). Perhaps it played a role in the generation of the main action of the novel as well. The point would be: using the input from the (random) source, what then are the consequential effects of that input for the novel, besides merely the window-dressing o some alternative history or whatnot.

Where the lack of deliberation comes most to the fore—beside the aimlessly wandering quality of the novel that seems to be wholly clueless about how certain expectations get raised an then ick fails to address them[3]—is in the racism as addressed in the book. To put this in the bluntest terms: while ostensibly decrying the genocide(s) of National Socialism, ick permits himself an alternative future where (1) Blacks are wholly annihilated, (2) Asians—Japanese in particular—are theoretically given some due, but blasted to bits by Childan in a racist tirade, and (3) Mediterraneans (Jewish people and Italians in particular) are treated sympathetically, the former far more than the latter.[4]

To put this another way, the most offensive racial language in the book gets directed at Blacks (the German’s paragraph about pickaninnies), then Asians (Childan’s tirade and his rejection of the advice to mass-market the jewelry), and then Italians (who betrayed the national Socialist cause as cowards). Dick said that a part of his failure to write a sequel to this book involved his unwillingness to get into a National Socialist mind-frame again—apparently that’s necessary for his writing process—but he says nothing about getting into Childan’s anti-Japanese mind-set or the general mindset where the annihilation of everyone living on the continent of Africa is a given.

My point in mentioning this is not to cast aspersions on Dick’s racism or not, but to emphasize the indeliberate quality of racism as he deploys it in his book. National Socialists are simply repugnant trolls, which one “good” German mocks by claiming to be Jewish. The Japanese have all of their cultural stereotypes in place an Childan cannot help but acknowledge what is good about that. Japanese fascism has always seemed a different sort of beat to the US imagination. And, of course, in the US imagination, a world without niggers is a veritable utopia. We might as well remember that Germany does not control all of the United States, so there is no reason not to have people of African descent in the Rocky Mountains of the Japanese-controlled portions. Dick shows us how people of Jewish descent hide out in these areas, and would be subject to deportation if found out, but there’s nothing of the sociology of Black folk, certainly not in any way that constitutes a substantive element in the novel.

Adding to this is the fairly embarrassing or grotesque quasi-transcription of dialect ick provides. To put this indelicate, ick permits himself chink-speech, and he allows the text (perhaps embedded only in Childan’s point of view, to the extent that it is consistent) to use the word chink (almost invariably italicized). Gushing Dick fans would have something of a leg to stand on in making the claim that Childan’s interior monologue has been infected with chink-speech, so that (with a touch of Stockholm syndrome) he reflects the speaking pattern of his overlords, but this begs the question why the Japanese overlords have this broken speech in the first place.

What I mean: I cannot remember a Japanese character who does not speak (or, worse, does not in mid-scene lapse into) chink-speak. I suggest this is much more Dick letting (internalized) stereotypes dictate his compositional process than any sort of deliberate (artistic) choice on his part. Were it a deliberate choice, we would have a Japanese character that the text not only presents as but also deliberately underscores and emphasizes as perfectly flawless in English speech. This same issue surfaces with the would-be Italian assassin as well, although he much more inconsistently lapses into a kind of broken English, and he even at one point in the text complains that he doesn’t speak properly; a point I recall curiously, because his speech didn’t seem that broken then or before or after—not enough, I mean, to warrant his protest. In any case, Juliana assures him that he speaks just fine.

I get the impression Dick simply had more trouble trying to transcribe what an Italian might sound like as opposed to the readily available and offensive chink-speech. The generally mocking or parodying version of Italian we throw around in our culture comes out more in the delivery of the words than the syntax or grammar; if I tell you it’s Rocky Balboa from Avildsen’s (1976)[5] Rocky an type, “Yo, Adrian” or tell you it’s Joey from Friends and type, “Eh,” you can readily hear the tone. Dick did not have the Mario Brother to provide an instantaneously recognizable derogatory parody of Italians, whereas there is one for the Japanese (thanks in part to the history of racism directed toward Chinese people during the railroad era and later and World War II).

In this respect, it seems significant that Dick does not otherize the German speakers, despite all sorts of culturally available examples. In other words, the German folks (and two Jewish principal characters) speak like “white” folk.  And if the text gave me the impression of more care in its construction, then I might suspect that this was meant as a critique of (then current) US fascistic tendencies. Instead, it seems merely like the textual default, in the same way that I seem to be writing like a “white” person right now.


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge.

[2] Dick, P. K. (1992). The man in the high castle. 1st Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books, pp. 1–259.

[3] A principal example: Dick introduces a character and his erstwhile mistress merely to introduce the idea of historicity: that one lighter has historical value (in the mind of those who would buy it) and another does not. This character gets briefly reprised for plot reasons only to plug into the forged hand-gun motif that bugs a more principal character. This narrative focus creates an expectation that something more will come of this character, and that expectation does not pan out. Dogmatic defenders of Dick might offer some kind of pretentious justification for this lapse, even though it becomes simple enough to imagine ways that this idea might have been introduced into the novel without a sloppy an gratuitous and inept invocation of two characters—one simply thrown in as a vagina for a male character. This is simply poor writing, plain and simple. Similarly, the great deal of space devote to a description of the various National Socialist successors in the book has zero narrative interest, however much dick was fascinated at the time by whatever book on Germany’s recent past he’d read.

[4] Of course, two Jewish characters, rather uncomfortably realized, come about as close as the book allows to unqualified heroes, which the would-be assassin of the man in the high castle is Italian, but given considerable back-story—suffering in the war and so forth, though he did allow himself to “become a monster”.

[5] Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer., Avildsen, J. G., Winkler, I., Chartoff, R., Stallone, S., Shire, T., Young, B., Weathers, C., Meredith, B., Conti, B., MGM Home Entertainment Inc., & Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, I. (2006). Rocky. 2-disc collector’s ed. Beverly Hills, Calif.: MGM Home Entertainment.

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