The Man in the High Castle

Over the weekend, I continued my quixotic exploration of Philip K. Dick’s work by reading The Man in the High Castle (1962). It seemed like a fitting read on a weekend when most of our minds were on protests and the threats to American democracy. The book is pretty well-known, if only through the recent Amazon-produced that used it as an inspiration. Dick sets his story in a world where the Nazis and the Japanese won World War II and divided the U.S. into three parts. The novel is set in the Japanese controlled Pacific States of America and the Rocky Mountain States, a neutral buffer between the P.S.A. and the German controlled Eastern States of America. 

Like so many of Dick’s novels, the plot centers on issues of authenticity and the role that objects play in constructing our relationship with real world. One of the main characters, for example, Frank Frink is a jewelry maker and another, Robert Childan, is a seller of American antiques. Childan is a particular unappealing character who is alternately terrified of the various elite Japanese customers who he encounters and scornful of individuals of lower status than his own. He invariably despairs when he discovers that some of this stock of antiques are forgeries, and later in the novel agrees to sell some of Frank Frink’s jewelry on consignment and he and some of his Japanese clients become enamored with their authenticity. In one of the key sequences in the story, a Japanese functionary who is also one of Childan’s clients, kills two German agents with what may well be a forged 19th-century Colt .44 pistol when they tried to arrest a Nazi defector who had come to the P.S.A. to disclose plans of a German attack on the Japanese home islands. In his anguish after this traumatic event, he staggers around San Francisco clutching a piece of Frink’s jewelry. In his despondency, the alternative history of the book falls away for a moment and he enters the historical reality of the reader. As quickly as this glimpse of our own world appears, it vanishes.

The man in the high castle is a novelist who in Dick’s story wrote a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy which describes a world where the U.S. and British defeat the Nazi’s and Japanese. The book attained popularity in post-war P.S.A. and E.S.A. and one of the characters in Dick’s novel travels to meet the author who was rumored to live in a highly protected “castle” in the neutral Rocky Mountain States.

Without disclosing more of the plot, the book proves particularly intriguing for an archaeologist and a historian because it compels us – in an entertaining way – to recognize how the present (even a fictional alternative present) shapes the past. Dick shares the conceit of archaeologists and the historians that our situation in the present creates value in the past (and past objects). At the same time, his fascination with authenticity and the human engagement with craft (whether it be throwing pots, fixing pots, or making jewelry) offers Dick a location to play with ideas of transcendence. Dick often looks to characters who make things to break through the plots of his novels (I’m sure there is a technical literary term for that!) and to evoke what he sees as the fundamentally human experience of making. For archaeologists increasingly interested in the interaction between individuals and objects, this emphasis on authentic experiences rings particular clearly in our digital age.

Moreover, the palpable anxiety of Dick’s novels especially when confronted with worlds warped by (what we now know to be) “alternate facts” resonates strongly these days. The world of The Man in the High Castle and the constantly fear and stress on the various characters in the book is not without hope, of course. The man in the high castle, himself, for example, is at ease recognizing that despite being surrounded by injustice, true peace comes from recognizing the limits of the alternate reality rather than attempting to navigate and engage it.

(For the record, I’m not suggesting that I find it acceptable to ignore injustice, even present in a world constructed on the flimsy foundation of “alternate facts.”)  

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