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Last time out we discussed Philip K. Dick’s great “alternate history” of World War II, The Man in the High Castle. In this award-winning novel, reality has apparently been turned upside down. President Roosevelt has died by an assassin’s bullet early in his first term, isolationists have come into power, and the country is unready for the war that inevitably comes. Consequently, the good guys lose World War II, the Axis comes to dominate the globe, and even to occupy the former United States.

Oh, sure, there are pockets of resistance. Indeed, an author in the semi-autonomous Rocky Mountain States has even written a piece of resistance literature, a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy in which—great twist here—the Allies have won the war.

Our fictional author and his fictional novel-within-a-novel have apparently taken the upside-down history of this alternate world and set it right side up. Here is precisely where Dick’s genius as a novelist—and as a thinker—becomes manifest, however. The Grasshopper does indeed have the Allies winning the war. But as passages of it appear in the course of the reading, it soon becomes clear that this world of Allied triumph is most assuredly not the world in which we live. The details don’t match up: Roosevelt isn’t killed, but goes on to serve two terms. He then decides to honor tradition and not run again in 1940. The next president, Rexford Tugwell (left), continues Roosevelt’s readiness policies, and the country is ready when the balloon goes up. The British are better prepared, too. They defeat Rommel and drive up through the Caucasus to help the Soviets triumph at Stalingrad. Fascist Italy defects (in a manner significantly different from what actually happened in 1943), and so on. The Allies triumph, yes, not how you expect them to. Indeed, bad blood between the British and Americans is going to lead to future conflict.

Dick, in other words, has concocted multiple histories here. He even inserts a puzzling vignette in the middle of the book when it appears that one of our characters—a Japanese official in San Francisco—has slipped into our own reality. He enters a crowded café, no white patron rises to give him a seat, and when he insists, he is subjected to a mild racial slur (“Watch it, Tojo,” one of them hisses). Dick provides us with a “history,” in other words, with the Nazis and Japanese ruling the world; an “alternate history,” with the Allies winning; and for just a brief moment, “our history” (what we know actually happened).

And then there’s the ending of the book. You’ll have to read it for yourself and decide what to make of it. I’m not even going to go there.

Dick forces me to consider what it means to be a military historian. I’ve already spoken my piece on how far we can take the notion of different “narratives.” What happened, happened, and you can’t just make stuff up. But human beings are a funny lot, they all tend to see things differently, and writing the history of an event—actually a massive and interrelated series of events—like World War II isn’t as easy as it sounds. In the end, we have to settle for the fact that there will be diverging points of view, conflicting accounts, different realities.

Histories, if you will.
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