Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle is science fiction that “deals with alternate present,” as a character in the book phrases it. Since Capitulation Day in 1947, the Imperial Japanese and the German Nazis have divided the United States between them. Behind a “puppet white government at Sacramento,” the Japanese rule the Pacific States of America, where most of the novel’s action takes place. They may not have “killed Jews, in the war or after,” they may not have “built ovens,” but they “have the skin thing there, too.” Blacks are slaves, who perform the chores not even whites will perform, for fear they “would never have place of any sort again.” The Chinese, one small social notch above the slaves, are chinks who operate “pedecabs,” enabling whites “to have, if even for a moment, higher place.” But there is an ethnic slur for whites as well: they are yanks.
The characters go about their daily lives, but at their backs is the constant threat of the Nazis. Martin Bormann, who had succeeded a syphilitic Hitler as Reichskanzler, dies unexpectedly. Summoned to the Japanese embassy for a briefing on the “contending factions in German political life,” Tagomi fears he will go mad. He scrambles to his feet and flees in panic. Meditating upon the “order of the world,” the “finite, finite world,” does not calm him. “There is evil!” he thinks:
What really holds The Man in the High Castle together, though, is not its narrative, but the books that the characters carry around with them—the books within the book. The characters are connected to one another by the I Ching, the ancient Taoist divination text which they anxiously consult as an oracle, and The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, an underground novel banned by the Nazis but passed eagerly from hand to hand. Even Nazi officials can’t put it down. An alternate history which is the photographic negative of Dick’s novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is the story of how the Axis powers lost the Second World War. Dick’s own title gives it pride of place: the man in the high castle turns out to be the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. It also gives Dick the chance to spell out his argument. On a sales visit to the apartment of Japanese customers, Childan notices a copy of the book. “I hear it on many lips,” he says, asking if it is a mystery:
“Oh no,” [his wife] disagreed. “No science in it. Nor set in future. Science fiction deals with future, in particular future where science has advanced over now. Book fits neither premise.
“But,” [the husband] said, “it deals with alternate present. Many well-known science fiction novels of that sort.”
It was, for Dick, the fundamental logic of science fiction:
In Dick’s novel, these worlds are represented by the I Ching and The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Each book tells of an “alternate present.” What is an oracle, after all, but a report of might be? Telling of a different world is the beginning of its realization. When Frank Frink receives the message that the “hour of doom is at hand,” for example, he worries that he has set in motion, simply by throwing the I Ching, a sequence of events that will lead to World War III, “[h]ydrogen bombs falling like hail,” two billion killed, the end of human civilization.
That’s not quite what happens, but what does happen is influenced by the I Ching. Attracted to an Italian truck driver, Frank’s ex-wife Juliana heads north to Cheyenne to meet Hawthorne Absendsen, the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Stopping over in Denver, she learns the Italian truck driver is actually a German Sicherheitsdienst operative, sent by the Nazis to murder Abendsen, the chronicler of their defeat. Juliana attacks the SD man with a razor and gets away. Afraid that he will come after her, she consults the I Ching:
At the court of the king.
It must be announced truthfully. Danger.
It is necessary to notify one’s own city.
It does not further to resort to arms.
It furthers one to undertake something.
When he admits the truth, Juliana wonders why the I Ching would write a novel. And an alternate history at that! “What is there it can’t tell us directly,” she cries, “like it always has before?” But none of the oracle’s messages has been direct; everything told by it requires interpretation, a further undertaking to realize its truth. It is, in short, a fictional text, for which truths are conditional. Naturally, then, Juliana asks the I Ching why it wrote The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. “What are we supposed to learn?” she demands, and tosses coins six times to determine which of the book’s sixty-four hexagrams is the answer to her question. “Do you know what hexagram that is?” she asks Absendsen when she finds it:
“It means, does it, that my book is true?”
“Yes,” she said.
With anger he said, “Germany and Japan lost the war.”
Dick’s political message has become something of a thematic commonplace in alternate history: even if the events had been different, the outcome would have been the same. War may decide the occupier, but not the sequel of occupation. If the U.S. had not developed the atomic bomb, another country would have—and would still have threatened Japan with it!
Less tiresome is the moral vision which informs Dick’s conception of fiction. The German intelligence officer who warns Japan of the Nazis’ exterminationist ambition—his real name is Wegener, although he travels under the alias of Baynes—returns to Nazi Germany, to the heart of evil, when his mission is complete. “Whatever happens,” he reflects, “it is evil beyond compare.” If the outcome is the same no matter what we do to alter the course of events, why choose to act at all?
We do not have the ideal world, such as we would like, where morality is easy because cognition is easy. Where one can do right with no effect because he can detect the obvious.