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Book review: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High CastleThe Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s 1962. Having lost World War II, the United States is now under the control of The Third Reich in the East and Imperial Japan in the West, with a no-man’s land/neutral territory — the Rocky Mountain States, governance unspecified — in between. Naturally, the Germans continue their extermination of Jews and other undesirables in their own territory and, due to the treaty between Japan and Germany, those found within Japanese territory, as well.

In San Francisco, Mr. Childan, a dealer in American antiquities, vintage handicrafts, and Hollywood memorabilia, is mortified to discover he has a forgery in his inventory, putting at risk his reputation and his entire livelihood of catering to the Japanese obsession with Americana. He consults the I Ching to enable him to choose a correct selection for his client, Mr. Tagomi.

High in his office in the Nippon Tower, Mr. Tagomi despairs he will find an appropriate gift for a client flying in from the Reich. He consults the I Ching to determine if Mr. Childan will provide any useful items from which to choose.

Elsewhere in the City, Frank Frink and his partner Ed set themselves up as creators of handcrafted metal jewelry, hoping against hope to find a market within a dominant culture with no interest in contemporary American work, only in the leavings of the past. Frank consults the I Ching for guidance in this new endeavor.

In the Rocky Mountain States, Juliana Frink — Frank’s ex-wife — takes up with a truck driver named Joe, an Italian who fought on the Axis side of the war. She consults the I Ching about everything.

And in both the Japanese Territory and the Rocky Mountain States, an underground novel titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy makes the rounds of society. Said book, banned in the Reich, describes an alternate history: one in which Germany and Japan were defeated and the United States became the most powerful nation on the planet.

This novel appears in each our characters’ daily routines, eventually becoming an obsession with Juliana, who determines she must seek out its author. And when she does, his answers to her curiosity will make the reader question everything previously read.

One of the gifts of a great writer is the ability to leach in backstory and build a world without grand expository passages. Philip K. Dick is a great writer. He assumes the reader already knows this information and drops in nuggets of world-building data as ordinary bits of thought or conversation. We glean an extraordinary amount of knowledge about the Japanese-German controlled world in this way: Japan controls all of the Pacific, including Australia and New Zealand; the African continent is a wasteland due to Nazi policies; black slavery is commonplace; the American South is a hellhole…in fact, anywhere the Nazis are in control is a hellhole by contemporary standards, although if one is of Aryan heritage and/or appearance, life can be fairly pleasant. By comparison, life in Japanese territory, while rigidly governed by protocol, honor, and maintaining “face”, is nearly halcyon and idyllic. The Japanese will punish lawbreakers harshly, of course, but they’re not interested in punishing people for their heritage or ethnicity on their own inclination, only as part of their agreements with the Reich.

The Man in the High Castle is a marvelous story, simply written in elegant prose, full of depth and meaning and questions without answers. First published in 1962, it’s a subtle piece of metafiction from before the word was even coined.

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2016SFFChallengeThis review was written as part of the 2016 Award-Winning SFF Challenge. This challenge is now over, but you can find the sign-up for the 2017 Challenge right here.

Posted in Book review

Book review: The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

Two of five stars

In the 14th Century CE, the Black Death wiped out roughly 1/3 of the world population — and up to 60% of all people in Western Europe — and changed world history. But what might have happened to the world had the Plague been more severe? In The Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson posits a world in which some 90% or more of the population is dead, Europe is utterly depopulated, and the survivors are concentrated in Eastern Asia.

It’s an ingenious and startling premise. Seriously, think about it. Christianity and Judaism, gone as practiced religions, and scarcely even mentioned except as footnotes in a history book. No Shakespeare, no Queen Elizabeth, no daVinci, no Van Gogh, no Mozart, Columbus, Magellan, Rembrandt, Dumas, Jefferson, Franklin, Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler…. the list of never-to-exist Eurocentric artists, authors, explorers, and other world shapers is virtually endless.

Instead, Robinson introduces us to a world gradually explored and settled by Asian peoples. In keeping with a common theme of Eastern religions, he uses the plot device of reincarnation to tell his story. From a primitive village on the steppes of Mongolia to a 100-story highrise in Burma, centuries later, each character returns in the next cycle, to learn more, to grow more, to be reunited with each other time and again, and to gradually learn to recognize each other, at least a little.

It’s a fabulous premise. I wish I had liked its execution more.

Robinson’s style is bone-dry and stultifying. Even his romance and battle scenes are presented at an objective distance, lacking all blood and passion. I plodded through this book, one sere paragraph after another, and only finished it out of sheer stubbornness, as in: “By God, I’ve spent three weeks reading this thing, I’ll be damned if I give up on it now.”) In the end, what kept me going was drawing parallels between the book’s characters and our world’s key historical figures. (“Okay, this woman would be Marie Curie in our world,” and so forth.)

This isn’t to say it’s badly written. It isn’t. It’s beautifully written; it had to be to make me stick with it for nearly 700 pages. Deserts are beautiful, too. I’m still awfully glad when I leave the desert and am free to travel somewhere else.