Truth, terrible as death

aber tower

Philip K Dick The Man In The High Castle
Gollancz 2009 (1962)

Alternate history | given alternate history; | what’s true? What isn’t?

Authentic. Genuine. How often are these words used, and abused. Clothing stamped with ‘authentic’, meaning imitation US sports wear. Sweatshop items I remember seeing in the 60s labelled ‘genuine imitation leather’. Beguiling items sold right now for their ‘cosy faux fur’, as though faux was a kind of animal.

Authenticity is one of the big ideas residing at the heart of this haunting novel, one of Dick’s earliest and one for which he won a Hugo Award. Does authenticity reside in objects purporting to be historic relics or in the minds of humans who trade and purchase and use and treasure them? Who really won the last global conflict? What is the significance of the alternate history of the world written by the Man in the High Castle? Is there really a High Castle in the medieval sense? Indeed, are the characters we meet really who or what they say they are? Moreover, can writings such as the I Ching truly predict the future, or do they merely offer solace to the humans who use them?

Dick explores his theme through the medium of the characters who people his novel; we observe them through their thoughts and actions, sympathising or empathising or cringeing at their response to events and situations. There is a wonderful cast, from high-ranking Japanese officials to subversive German agents, from Europeans operating in middle-America to US Jews, from strong-willed women to weak ineffective men. It’s hard not to be moved by these often vacillating individuals as they struggle weakly to determine whether they are pawns or players in a universal game.

As to the final appearance of the work’s leitmotif, is the conclusion of the novel really the end? Dick apparently planned different sequels to The Man in the High Castle but never completed them; there is a sense that the reader has to either be satisfied with the ending they’re presented with or project their own solutions onto the enigmas they’re left with. I myself am content with final musings of Juliana, who reveals herself as more proactive than most: Truth, she thought. As terrible as death. But harder to find.

There must be a dissertation waiting, if it doesn’t already exist, for those searching out the meaning of names in Dick’s novels. For example, the ‘Swedish’ businessman Baynes must surely take his pseudonym from the writer who englished the original German translation of The Book of Changes (as the I Ching is often translated). Frank Frink becomes the ‘contemptible person’ that his original surname, Fink, suggests to an American reader. Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of the fictitious The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, seems to take his forename from the Hawthorne Effect, the now largely discredited theory that some people tend to work harder and perform better to meet the expectations of the observer when they are participants in an experiment where they’re aware their behaviour is being observed; this theory, which Dick must surely have been aware of, may transmute into the notion that a work of fiction may have an effect on the world it is describing. Did Dick hope that his fiction would change things? Or didn’t he care?

Dick rarely writes novels that are easy to dissect: I’ve already tried a couple of times, unsuccessfully, to complete reviews of both Ubik and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. But The Man in the High Castle is more or less linear in plot, utilises the now popular genre of Alternate History, mostly dispenses with the author’s usually risible attempts at predicting future technological achievements (with its accompanying technobabble) and even creates some sympathetic and believable characters. And there’s a satisfying philosophical undertow to the novel too: with an alternate history written by a character in an alternate history novel, itself written by an author who habitually questioned our perception of reality, who’s to say what’s real and what isn’t, what’s authentic and what one huge big lie?

This is a revised review of a post which first appeared 6th August 2012

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6 thoughts on “Truth, terrible as death

    1. You’re a novelist and I bet you don’t stick a pin into a telephone directory for your characters’ names; I’m equally sure most writers attach as much significance to names as most parents do to choosing handles for their offspring!

  1. Philip K. Dick is another of those writers I keep meaning to read but somehow never manage. I love his book titles and have always enjoyed film adaptations – at least those that don’t strip out the underlying ideas.
    I can only speak for myself and character names, in that I try to choose those with meaning but sometimes they are chosen because they feel right.
    PS I had no idea the Hawthorne effect was discredited. It was still being taught as fact when I last took further study six or seven years ago.

    1. The Hawthorne effect: it depends on what you read, I probably relied heavily on that august organ, Wikipedia…

      The Man in the High Castle is one of the few titles of his that I would willingly re-read for pleasure, even though it’s not that easy. Perhaps it’s because it’s more obviously Alternate History as opposed to Science Fiction that I can take his playing around with the facts. His future scenarios in Ubik or Flow My Tears for example are so wide of the mark: set within our own lifetimes, they mix alternate realities with what seems to me random made-up terminology to go with unrealistic technology. Very much of its time, I wonder how much current SF will stand up to future head-shaking (I’m sure yours will however!).

      Film adaptations: Blade Runner works well in its own right, and answers different questions to the original and Minority Report keeps quite close to the original premise and plot. Can’t speak for other film adaptations such as A Scanner Darkly, which I’ve watched but not read, to say how close they are.

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