Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Book Review: The Man in the High Castle by Phillip K Dick

Some time ago, I remember seeing the controversy about subway ads depicting Nazi symbols in New York. This was for the upcoming Amazon series The Man in the High Castle, based on the book by Phillip K Dick. This came around the same time as a video game release with similar World War II themes (Hearts of Iron IV, which I bought). I was interested in the TV series premise, an alternate history where the Axis won, and eventually got a chance to watch it and bought the book.

See below for my full review, with some comments on how the book differs from the series.

Overall Impression
Having seen both the TV series and read the book, I can now say that I prefer the TV rendition. The book is not bad on its own, but I felt the plot was a bit too scattered and the characters not as vibrant as what I saw on the series. The world, however, seems richer (and darker) in the book, which gives a better background to the characters actions.

Plot
This is one instance where I feel the TV series was superior to the book. In the TV series there is a clear goal and path to it as it involves the movies produced by the Man in the High Castle with the underlying tension of Japenese-German relations. The book meanders a lot more and although we see and pursue the book The Grasshoper Lies Heavy (written by the aforementioned man), it doesn't feel like a main plot line exists.

Characters
There is a diverse set of characters in the book, though their exact characteristics are somewhat different from that of the TV show. For example, Frank Frink is still working at a factory, but he is divorced from Juliana, whereas in the TV show she is her girlfriend. A lot of the characters are seen to consult the oracle and the I Ching, which seems a bit odd. In the TV show it made sense that some of the Japanese would do so, but it's not clear why Frank, Juliana, and so many others place so much weight on it. Juliana's character is also somewhat upsetting in the book, being far more passive and shallow than in the TV series. Probably my favorite characters in both TV series and book are Robert Childan, the antique seller, and Mr. Tagomi, the Japanese trade minister. Both are quite complex and central to the plot in unique ways.

Setting / World Building
The book is actually superior to the TV show when it comes to the setting. Naturally, you learn about the division of the United States between Germany and Japan. You get to hear a lot of about other parts of the world and realize just how messed up things are in this alternate history. One aspect that stood out for me was the unabashed racism. While you see glimpses of this in the TV show, especially against the Jews, you really see much more of it in the book. There's brief descriptions of the genocides of Africa, with the suggestion being that the "inferior" people there (to German-Nazi eyes) needed to be purged. Comments from some pro-Nazi characters suggest that they would like to see that elsewhere as well. It's also quite surprising how quickly and viciously the conquered Americans have turned on one another, with the notable example being Robert Childan and his disregard for "negro music" and his pandering towards the Japanese. The Japanese, on the other hand, are portrayed much more docile than the Germans in the book.

Political map of the USA in The Man in the High Castle. Wikimedia Commons

This alternate 1960s is far more advanced than our own world. There's frequent mentions of Germany's excursions to the moon and the nearby planets with the implication that they've started work towards colonizing them. Their jets are far faster than most airplanes today with half-hour flights between Berlin and San Francisco. There's also mentions of great works of engineering, like the draining of the Mediterranean. Other technologies are at the same levels as in the 1960s, such as their ground transportation and telecommunications.

Final Thoughts
This was an interesting book, but having read it after watching the TV series makes me feel I did not appreciate it as much. While the setting seemed well crafted, the plot and characters suffered somewhat from my comparisons to the series. There are a few odd quirks (notably the emphasis on the I Ching) and a somewhat weak ending, but other than that it's a decent book.

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