At the beginning of this year, I was completely hooked on the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick. I’d never read the novel, so I decided that it would be a good thing to do as I’m eagerly awaiting season 3 of the series.
Both the Amazon series and the novel are set in a version of 1962 in which the United States and its allies lost World War II. The U.S. is now split into three areas, the Pacific States, governed by Japan; the Nazi Reich, covering most of the eastern U.S.; and the neutral zone, running along the Rockies.
It’s a creative premise, and Dick deserves full credit for that. But Frank Spotnitz, creator of the series, took that amazing concept and created an exciting story with compelling characters that the novel lacks. Several characters from the novel—Frank, Ed, Juliana, Tagomi, Childan—appear in the series, but they’re more fully fleshed out. In the novel, they’re all kind of bland, and I had little reason to care for them. What caring I did have usually came from my interest in the TV version of these characters. They just don’t come alive on the page at all.
And the story doesn’t offer much either. There are three parallel plots that barely touch. One follows Trade Minister Tagomi as he manages a visit from a Swedish businessman who turns out to be a German defector, a particularly tricky situation when the German chancellor, Martin Bormann, dies. Then there’s the plot involving Frank and Ed’s attempt to start a business designing and crafting jewelry, which they offer to Childan for sale along with the Americana he offers in his antique store. There’s moderate tension here, because Frank is secretly a Jew and he risks getting caught by the Japanese and turned over to the Germans. In the neutral zone, Juliana, Frank’s ex-wife, teaches Judo and eventually hooks up with a man named Joe who promises to take her to meet the author of a popular novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.
The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is an alternate history in which Japan and Germany lost the war, although it’s not our history. Still, it captures Juliana’s imagination, and the novel’s existence brings out a couple of pleasingly ambiguous moments toward the end of the book. The I Ching also figures heavily in the plot, as characters use it to guide their decisions.
I think, in offering such a bland plot, Dick might be showing how even tremendous horrors can start to feel ordinary in time. The Americans of this world have gotten used to being governed by the Japanese. There’s no sign of a resistance, and the Americans’ English has even become slightly broken. The reinstitution of slavery and extermination of the Jews are facts of life, not even remarked on. In that sense, this book is a horror in a way that the TV series is not. But a bland plot that makes a point is still bland.