The Man in the High Castle

28 Feb

The Man in the High Castle (1963) is an alternative history novel by American writer Philip K Dick depicting a nightmare world divided by Germany and Japan, winners of the second World War in an alternate timeline from our own. Set in 1962, fifteen years after an alternative ending to World War II, the novel concerns intrigues between the victorious Axis Powers as they rule over the former United States, as well as daily life under the resulting totalitarian rule. The story features a “novel within the novel” comprising an alternate history within this alternate history wherein the Allies defeat the Axis (though in a manner distinct from the actual historical outcome). A hypothetical Axis victory in World War II is a common concept of alternate history, the second World War being one of the two most popular points of divergence for the English language alternative history fiction genre (the other being the American Civil War). As such, The Man in the High Castle (which has recently been adapted into a popular and critically acclaimed series by Amazon) has much in common with other fictional alternative histories, such as Swastika Night, Fatherland and Dominion.

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Dick said he conceived The Man in the High Castle when reading Bring the Jubilee (1953), by Ward Moore, which occurs in an alternate nineteenth-century USA wherein the Confederate States of America won the Civil War. Similarly, in Dick’s novel Franklin Roosevelt was assassinated in 1933, leading to the continuation of the Great Depression and US isolationism. Thus, American military capability was insufficient in stopping the Nazis and by 1947 the USA and the remaining Allies surrendered. By the 1960s, when the novel takes place, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany are the world’s competing superpowers, with Japan establishing the “Pacific States of America” (PSA) from the former Western United States, with the remaining Rocky Mountain States now a neutral buffer zone between the PSA and the Nazi-occupied former Eastern United States. Meanwhile, Adolf Hitler, though alive, is incapacitated from advanced syphilis, and Martin Bormann has become Chancellor of Germany, with Goebbels, Heydrich, Göring, Seyss-Inquart and other Nazi leaders soon vying to take his place. At the same time, the eponymous Man in the High Castle is the author of a widely banned yet extremely popular new novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which depicts an alternative history in which the Allies won World War II, a concept that amazes and intrigues its readers.

Other famous novels have expressed ideas of what the world would be like had the Axis powers won World War II. Swastika Night, by Katherine Burdekin, is the earliest, published in 1937 – at a time before World War II when Nazi Germany still existed. The novel is also unique in being a future history rather than an alternative one, inspired by Hitler’s claim that Nazism would create a Thousand Year Reich. Swastika Night takes place seven hundred years after Nazism achieved power, by which time Hitler is worshipped as a god, Jews have been eliminated, and women are deprived of all rights. In Robert Harris’s Fatherland, meanwhile, the point of divergence is that Reinhard Heydrich survived the assassination attempt by Czech fighters in May 1942 – which in reality killed him – and became head of the SS. The Nazi offensives on the Eastern Front ultimately pushed back the Soviet forces, the secret of the Enigma machine code was uncovered, a massive U-Boat campaign against the UK thereafter succeeded in starving the British into surrender by 1944, while the D-Day invasion by the Allies never occurred. King George VI and Winston Churchill flee into exile in Canada and Edward VIII is installed as a puppet king soon afterwards, with Wallis Simpson as his queen. Although the USA defeated Japan in 1945 using nuclear weapons, the Germans pushed the Soviets east of the Ural Mountains, leaving the USA and Germany as the two superpower opponents in the Cold War of this world.

In the 1967 Star Trek episode The City on the Edge of Forever, Edith Keeler’s death is prevented by Dr Leonard McCoy in 1930 and she goes on to lead a pacifist movement which delays US entry into the war long enough for the Third Reich to win the nuclear arms race and conquer the world. After realizing what has happened (and that Edith — with whom he had fallen in love — must be allowed to die), James T Kirk notes with sadness that, when taking hold at the wrong time in history, the philosophy of peace and unity that has helped turn the Earth of his era into a utopian society has been disastrous for the human race — producer Robert Justman said later that “of course” the story was intended as a tacit condemnation of the anti-Vietnam War agitation of the time. Special mention should be made of the Command & Conquer: Red Alert series franchise, which offers a paradoxical twist to the “Axis Victory” trope. In a history where Nazi Germany was prevented from ever existing, the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin take the place of Germany and Adolf Hitler in several wars against the Allies. What all of this interest in what became the world’s most far-reaching and lethal conflict to date, or its potential aftermath, is difficult to say. Academics, such as Gavriel David Rosenfeld in The World Hitler Never Made: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism (2005), have begun the research of this sub-genre and its various implications. In a fascinating attempt to explain the concept, Rosenfeld suggests that this mass market myth-making and counterfactual history deserve to be taken more seriously as revealing expressions of popular memory, rather than being merely speculative fiction. Whatever the reason, this is one fictional trope which continues to exercise a terrifying hold on authors and their readers today, with C J Sansom’s 2012 novel Dominion recently topping the bestseller lists.

One Response to “The Man in the High Castle”

  1. Kathryn at 1:48 am #

    And? Is there not more? You have left out your personal opinion. Having wandered aimlessly through your blog, completely enjoying reading this and that, what makes your blog so appealing is your own analysis and musings of other’s works.

    This title is something I have wanted to dig my teeth into, but have resisted, based on the meager reviews I have previously read. I was certain your article would be full of your grand analyses. After deciding I would completely trust your opinion, (you are an exceptional writer and theorist), I read every word of this review, but you have disappointed me. Though your review is by far the very best, it is missing one important thing…your own inner mind. Will you not now finish please? I will await your thoughts on the matter.

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