Thursday, January 24, 2013

World after world unseen

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 plot is difficult to summarize, because Dick pieces his novel together from five subplots involving five main characters. Robert Childan is the owner of American Artistic Handcrafts, a retail outlet for artifacts from the American past; Nobusuke Tagomi heads the Japanese trade mission in San Francisco; Frank Frink ( Fink) is a Jew passing as white, who quits his job with a company that fabricates Americana (for retailers like Childan) to create his own original jewelry; Juliana is his ex-wife, a judo instructor living in the unaligned and nominally independent Rocky Mountain States; and Baynes is a German intelligence officer posing as a Swedish businessman on a sales trip (in reality, a secret mission) to the Pacific coast.

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:It’s actual like cement. . . . It’s an ingredient in us. In the world. Poured over us, filtering into our bodies, minds, hearts, into the pavement itself.The reality of evil disrupts the order of the world, because it is infinite in its varieties. Each of Dick’s characters will have to confront evil in his or her own way, and as much as anything, it is these confrontations with evil, decision after decision to confront it, which organize the narrative.

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:       “Not a mystery,” [the Japanese husband] said. “On contrary, interesting form of fiction possibly within genre of science fiction.”
       “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.”
This passage is Dick’s apology for alternate history, his claim for it as a distinct and recognizable kind of science fiction. Although there were precursors—he liked to cite Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee (1953), a novel that resorts to time travel to “correct” history—Dick formally invented the fictional kind with The Man in the High Castle. Not only did his novel influence other major novelists, including Nabokov and Kingsley Amis, but it was the first self-reflexive work of alternate history, the first to be fully aware of what it was doing and to sort out its logic.

It was, for Dick, the fundamental logic of science fiction:Even if all life on our planet is destroyed, there must be other life somewhere which we know nothing of. It is impossible that ours is the only world; there must be world after world unseen by us, in some region or dimension that we simply do not perceive.Baynes, the German intelligence officer, reflects to himself in these terms as he returns to Berlin after warning the Japanese of the Nazis’ plan to launch “an enormous nuclear attack on the Home Islands, without advance warning of any kind.” Even if the Japanese fail to heed his warning, even if the Germans succeed in bringing about “a final holocaust for everyone,” Baynes consoles himself with the possibility of “world after world unseen.”

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:One must resolutely make the matter known
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.
Juliana hurries to Cheyenne to warn Abendsen. When she arrives, she finds that he is not living in his “high castle,” the fortified compound described on the dust jacket of his novel, but in an ordinary single-story stucco house with a child’s tricycle in the drive. The high castle is a ruse to fool would-be assassins into thinking that great precautions have been taken against them. In reality, there is no reason to take precautions. Juliana is puzzled by his fatalism and resignation until she is suddenly struck: “The oracle [the I Ching] wrote your book. Didn’t it?” she asks Absendsen.

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’s Chung Fu,” Juliana said. “Inner Truth. . . . And I know what it means. . . .”
       “It means, does it, that my book is true?”
       “Yes,” she said.
       With anger he said, “Germany and Japan lost the war.”
The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is not alternate history, after all. It is the true history no one is willing to face. The United States won the war, and yet capitulated to the Axis, acquiesced to partition and foreign occupation, nevertheless.

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?       On some other world, possibly it is different. Better. There are clear good and evil alternatives. Not these obscure admixtures, these blends, with no proper tool by which to untangle the components.
       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.
Perhaps what one can do, then, is to devise those other worlds, where possibility is different—and if for no other reason than to show that none is ideal, that moral admixtures are the rule everywhere, that the oracle speaks directly nowhere. Although a man might fly from world to world unseen, he will only find the same moral problem of “making a choice at each step.” The only real alternative is not to choose at all, but if not choosing is a real possibility then it too creates a possible world, where too the ideal world can only be dreamed of. An alternate history within an alternate history within an alternate history, The Man in the High Castle retreats farther and farther from the ultimate ideal of easy morality. The only impossible world is a world without moral ambiguity.


Andrew Fox said...

David, thank you so much for this exceptionally thought-provoking essay. It has been many years since I've read The Man in the High Castle. Reading your essay has made it essential for me to return to that book and reread it, more carefully this time.

Unknown said...

Why do you suppose PKD does not get more attention? Does that S/F label repulse readers? In truth, I am surprised that you have spotlighted him. I did not think he was "your cup of tea."

Jenny said...

This confirms my suspicion that Philip K. Dick was a curiously extraordinary thinker, worthy of more of my attention, and not a one-hit wonder for Blade Runner. Possibly I've been an S/F snob? But I absolutely love Left Hand of Darkness -

Jenny said...

Oops, that would be Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, not Blade Runner. In joining the discussion, I should probably get the titles straight. If my credibility isn't shot, now, can I make two more recommendations: The Martian Chronicles, and A Canticle for Leibowitz.

Anonymous said...

2 uncanny things about this book:1. in The Man in the High Castle, world war III is narrowly averted. soon after the books release the cuban missile crisis occurs. is PKD clairvoyant?
2. PKD describes the actions of an assassin. he wishes to be untraceable. he does not fly into california because he does not want his name on a manifest. he changes travelling companions and disguises himself. is PKD alluding to the Kennedy assassin? is PKD clairvoyant?

Aonghus Fallon said...

Is it just me, or is all Dick's work predicated on the gnostic vision of things - ie, that reality is not what it appears to be, but something else entirely? Your sense of your own identity and the world you inhabit: both are either unreliable, could be entirely wrong, or provide only a partial picture at best.

It might explain why his work has dated so well. Unlike a lot of science fiction from that era, it's rooted primarily in the spirit of philisophical enquiry, and the big questions - what is reality? Who am I? - are still as valid now as they were then.

Peter Gelman said...

Dear DG Meyers, I enjoyed reading your review.

My I respectfully suggest a different opinion about a key part of the book? You wrote,

The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is not alternate history, after all. It is the true history no one is willing to face. The United States won the war, and yet capitulated to the Axis, acquiesced to partition and foreign occupation, nevertheless.

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!

I think this navigates the wrong slice of understanding (and misses some magic of the book offers). My opinion is that The Grasshopper Lies Heavy isn't telling the characters that the US really won the alternate history war. The fictional US didn't win the war, then capitulate. The fictional US lost the fictional war in the most straightforward sense.

No, the fictional novel Grasshopper Lies Heavy is telling the characters that the alternate history is fiction, that the reader's USA really won WWII in the true reality of the reader's world. That is what is so wonderfully shocking--not just telling the fictional characters, but the writer's respect it shows to the fictional character's reality. The book gives further clues to this interpretation.

Examine the middle part of chapter 14. There, after viewing "the imperishable seeds. Of Beauty" of Mr. Childan's silver work, Mr. Tagami shudders into crisis and epiphany. Among several pages of wonderful probing upon the artifact, he willfully staggers through a different reality ("The veil of maya will fall more if I--" The light disappeared.) Here a Yank policeman breaks his reverie, but a page later Mr. Tagami realizes he already crossed the barrier. The barrier to what? "God, what is that? He stopped, gaped at hideous misshapen thing on skyline, like nightmare of roller coaster suspected..." A man tells him, "Awful ain't it? That's the Embarcadero Freeway. A lot of people think it stinks up the view." Further wonderful prose follows concerning Mr. T's return to the book's reality.

The Embarcadero Freeway exists in PK Dick's the reader's world, not the character's. I'm thinking it was an emotional issue at the time for people who lived in the area (and still is). Throughout US cities, such highway monstrosities have brutal effect on their neighborhoods. (Maybe it is its own symbol of brutality, helping Mr. Tagami confront the Germans later that chapter.)

Powered by the sublime talisman of Childan's silver work, Mr. Tagami has painfully traveled across realities. This is similar to the way fictional novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, powered by the oracle Iching, connects the fiction to the reader's real world. Side note, I think PKD uses some of the same language of permeability between worlds in UBIK.

I do think there is another meaning to The Grasshopper Lies Heavy conclusion about the war. Childan's silver artifact with its beauty/truth sublime power, and artifacts like it that Childan sells, conveys some hyper sense of the "real" reality to the fictional world. And that has some kind of impact to the sense of sensitive people in the fictional novel that there is some kind of way in which the USA has won in that world too. I think it is, roughly, a mystical, poetic, philosophic or aesthetic victory, though, something invisible and in its way unstoppable. It gives the fictional world a change to stop the nuclear war. --What magic helps stop our world from falling into nuclear war?

Thanks for posting your review, and thanks for listening. Did you know that PKD wrote part of a sequel to this novel?