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

This was one of my books of shame that I needed to get round to finishing. It probably stands out amongst the others as it is generally regarded as a very good book, one of Dick’s best. Yet on my first reading, I found it incredibly difficult to get into and lost interest in the characters. I think this was partly because the premise (an alternative reality where the Nazis won the 2nd world war) brings so much to my mind, I had already gone some way to writing the book, only to have the image conjured up completely at odds with what Dick actually wrote. This cognitive dissonance meant that I just didn’t get it, so went in search of something where I felt more at home.

So, on my 2nd attempt at reading it, what did I discover? Well, the characters were still as uninteresting as before. This is my one bug-bear about much of Dick’s other writings, of which I read much when I was in my late teens and early 20s, though which have not been reviewed on this blog. His true mastery is in sci-fi philosophy. The premise and how he has worked it out is what ultimately drew me in. The true stroke of genius was a plot device whereby a book becomes the subject of the novel. The book in question, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, gives a ‘fictional’ account of an alternative history whereby the Allies won the 2nd World War and the Axis powers lost.

The book has a fairly small cast of characters, many of whom never meet. I read the book with the expectation that they would all be brought together at the conclusion, but they never are. Most of the plotlines peter out, but not all. One of the other recurrent themes is a second book, the I Ching (or book of changes) which is a book of superstition, whereby its users throw some sticks in the air and the pattern in which they fall determines the decisions they ought to make. Dick uses this as a mechanism to demonstrate the fatalistic mindset that becomes prevalent in the wake of war.

It is worth noting that the book was first published in 1962, when memories of the Second World War were much fresher. Dick noticeably draws on the American spirit of optimism in the early 60s with relation to space exploration, but twists it by portraying the space race as being dominated by the Germans ahead of the Japanese.

Though the characters are uninteresting, the same could not be said about the premise. For that alone, it is worth reading. For me, it falls into a similar class of book as Catch 22, a brilliant idea which has been poorly executed. It is not as good as The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch but is still a lot better than much run-of-the-mill science fiction which was turned out around the same time.

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2 responses to “Book Review: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick

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