The View from the High Castle: Philip K. Dick and World War II

By Robert M. Citino
8/22/2011 • Fire for Effect

We’ve been discussing the accepted “narrative” of the war, the ways that we Americans have tended to interpret it. Others have their own “histories” of World War II, and they can vary wildly by era, by place, by perspective. To give just one example: Allied bombers flying over occupied France were “liberating” it; those on the ground being “liberated” might well have seen it in a different fashion.

When I’m trying to get this important point across to my students, I recommend that they read an unusual book. There are thousands of scholarly histories of the war (good research, not always a thrill-a-minute to read), and tens of thousands of more popular works (lacking in original research, but usually of higher literary quality). For this topic, however—the malleability of “the narrative” and, indeed, the malleability of history itself—I recommend a piece of fiction.

Sometimes it takes a novelist to nail down a particular aspect of the human condition. George Orwell once famously skewered the pretensions of the totalitarian leaders by turning them into beasts. A child can read Animal Farm, and get a lot out of it, but no one has ever written a more serious condemnation of Soviet communism. Likewise, graphic novelist Art Spiegelman took the most horrific episode of the 20th century and turned it into a comic book… er… “graphic novel” called Maus. It is a profound work indeed, dealing with both the historical event of the Holocaust and the way that the pain has worked itself out in succeeding generations.

When discussing the “accepted narrative” of World War II, I recommend a novel by the science fiction author Philip K. Dick. A prolific and troubled man, he was the author of numerous works: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (which Hollywood turned into the film Blade Runner), Minority Report, Valis, and many, many more. The book at issue here appeared in 1962, and earned him the Hugo Award for science fiction a year later.

That’s always struck me as a bit odd, because for my money, The Man in the High Castle isn’t really science fiction at all. It explores an “alternate history,” one in which the Axis has won World War II. The United States is occupied by the Germans in the east (a rump U.S., ruled Vichy-style), and the Japanese in the west (the “Pacific States of America, or PSA). In between them is a buffer region, the “Rocky Mountain States.” We hear bits and pieces of what happened to cause the timeline to diverge from our own. The 1933 assassination attempt on FDR in Miami succeeds, the isolationist Republican John W. Bricker is elected president in 1936, and so forth. The U.S. is therefore hopelessly unready for the war that soon breaks out. The Allies lose it, surrendering in 1947.

It is fascinating stuff. All “counterfactuals” like these force you to assess the importance of particular events and people, and see them in new ways. It is what is happening in the Rocky Mountain States that gives the books its oomph, however. Here lives the author “Hawthorne Abendsen”—and he has written a very unusual novel. It has been banned by the German authorities on the east coast and in Europe, but it is already in wide underground circulation among the population of the occupied United States. It’s called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, and it, too, is an alternate history. It tells of a very different reality, one in which the Allies have won World War II.

Suffice it to say, if you haven’t ever read this book… consider it an order!

More next time.

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