Posted in Book review, Books, Reading

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 Books, Reading

Banned Books Week 2015

Banned Books 2015 BannerI suppose there are some individuals out there who are NOT aware of the American Library Association’s annual celebration of the freedom to read. If you, dear reader, are among them — or if you’re not and want more information anyway — click the badge to the left to be taken to the ALA’s webpages and learn everything you ever wanted to know about the subject.

I was lucky. My mother read to me all the time, probably from the moment I was born. I honestly don’t remember when I learned to read myself. I know I was already reading by the time I entered kindergarten at age 4, although it must have escaped the notice of my kindergarten teacher. Mom told me once that my first grade teacher called her shortly after the start of school and asked her if she knew I could read. Mom said, “Of course.” Teacher said, “No, I mean really read, not in a halting one-word-at-a-time fashion, but easily? In flowing sentences?” Mom said, “Of course, why wouldn’t I know that? I taught her.”

My mom rocks.

This was the library when I was a kid. Now it's the home of the Paso Robles Historical Society.
This was the library when I was a kid. Now it’s the home of the Paso Robles Historical Society.

Every Saturday in the summer, when Mom went into town to do the grocery shopping, she dropped my sister and me off at the public library. I still remember running up the big stone steps and then down another set of stairs that led into the basement where the children’s section lived. Sissy and I would spend a couple of hours reading and picking out new books to take home. We always checked out as many books as we were allowed, devoured them through the week, and brought them back the following Saturday. During the school year, we had access to the school library and didn’t visit the public library all that often.

My folks never questioned the appropriateness of any book we brought home from the school or the public library. We were reading and that’s all that mattered. And I read everything as I grew up: Walter Farley‘s horse books, abandoned children books (such as Island of the Blue Dolphins and Green Mansions), Mother West Wind stories, science fiction, biographies, horror, fables, fairy tales, books about science and rocks and dinosaurs and geology. I read the books my parents had read: mysteries and crime fiction, mostly, with the occasional steamy romance tossed in for good measure. I was forbidden to read a book only once. When I was 12 years old, The Exorcist was the hottest title on the bestseller lists. Mom bought it for herself. When she finished reading it, she told me, “You may not read this book until you are older.” “Okay, Mom,” I said, and never gave it a second thought. With the wide open freedom I had to choose my own reading material, being barred from one book in which I had only a vague interest was not a big deal.

So how is my being barred at age 12 from reading The Exorcist not censorship? Simple. My mother exercised her parental prerogative to control the reading material of her minor child within our family unit. And then she stopped. She didn’t try to prevent other people’s children from reading it. She didn’t mount a protest with the school or public library to have that book removed from their shelves. She and Daddy didn’t write letters to the editor of the local newspaper proclaiming that devil worshippers and Satanists were trying to indoctrinate the youngsters of San Luis Obispo, so stop them, stop them, stop them now!

Parenting. Yeah, they did it right.

That’s where the line gets drawn, you see. At the edge of the family unit. No one, I repeat, no one, other than my husband and me, has the right to restrict what our children (if we had any) will read. I applaud those librarians who tell the naysayers and it’s-for-your-own-good-niks to stuff it. I weep for the school boards who cave under the pressure of a very loud and vocal minority. I want to buy a copy of every book removed from a middle school or high school reading list for every student in that school. I want to tell every single one of those parents who object to any book their child brings home to leave their objections at the door of their house. They have no right beyond that. My goodness, if they’re that afraid of what their children might be reading in school, why are they sending them to school in the first place? Home schooling is an option in every state of the Union, you know.

Books are the best weapons

Books open minds, point in new directions, reveal different viewpoints, question received wisdom. Books encourage thought. Books are powerful. This power threatens certain individuals. I get that. But be afraid in your own house, and stay out of my library.

By the way, some 40-plus years later, I still have not read The Exorcist. Not because my mother still forbids it. In fact, when relaying this story at a family gathering several years ago, Mom said, “Well, you’re allowed to read it now if you want to.”

Thanks, Mom.

(NOTE: This piece was originally written for 2012 Banned Books Week, but I liked it so much that it’s now become an annual essay.

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