I have this nasty habit of bringing up Philip K Dick in any SF conversation with the slightest pretext. Other people like Heinlein or Asimov or Bacigalupi—which I do as well. Don’t get me wrong. But PKD is the SF author I consult when I need to get my head bent. Which happens a fair amount.
PKD’s most famous novel (which some consider to be his best) is The Man in the High Castle. Which is an alternate history where the Nazis and the Japanese won World War II. Sort of. The Japanese and Nazi part is correct. But there’s also a novelist who has written a book in which the Japanese and Nazi’s lost—but not in the way that it happened in our world.
So, when Amazon put together The Man in the High Castle as a television series I was both excited and scared. Excited that someone might actually do it right.
From here on out, there are spoilers for both. Be warned.
There have been a slew of PKD works that have been visualized. With one exception, pretty much every one missed the mark. (For those of you who think Blade Runner is an accurate depiction of PKD’s Do Androids Dream of ElectricSheep, I humbly invite you to read the book.) The single exception is Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly. Linklater realized the novel accurately. However, 1) it’s one of PKD’s weakest novels and 2) Linklater managed to make it boring.
I hadn’t read TMITHC in over forty years. I chose to watch it on Amazon first and then reread the novel to see what I thought.
It’s 1962 in the novel. Hitler is dead. Bormann is Chancellor but he’s on his last legs. Japan occupies most of the western US. Germany occupies most of the east. There’s an independent area between the two. The relationship between Japan and Germany is uneasy and that is expressed in the uneasiness of the Japanese officials and flows down to the populace. The atrocities Germany did during the war have continued into Africa. In contrast, Germany is sending spaceships to Mars. Discovered Jews in Japanese territory are deported to the eastern US.
The novel braids together five stories involving the five main pov characters of the book. And there I’m going to stop talking about the plot. Every site I looked at for guidance on how to discuss the plot in a paragraph or two failed. They all took pages. So I’m referring you to the Wikipedia article here. The rest of this discussion presumes you know the plot.
Like most PKD books, it is convoluted. It is personal. It is adult. PKD rarely talks about good. There are only varying shades of decay interspersed with moments of mercurial joy. Every book PKD ever wrote is personal. By that I mean that though he might discuss things close to his heart, they are of the characters investigation of self. Unlike many of his contemporaries, PKD didn’t pontificate about How Things Ought to Be in his work. If his characters didn’t think it, he didn’t write it.
I have always liked PKD’s characterization of people. He talks about adults. People are worried about jobs. Affairs. Existential crisis. Impending war. They are concerned with each other the way that adults are concerned about other adults: concern mixed with the knowledge the other is not a child and has to take care of themselves. Not that he does not have compassion in his writing. He does. Think of it like two alcoholics in AA: they take care of each other. But they do not dictate to one another.
PKD is limited by his upbringing and the time he wrote: his characterization of women is not as realized as his characterization of men.
I have heard discussions of PKD that suggested his characterization was wooden. I disagree—but this may come from the idea that I’ve met people very much like the people PKD writes about. Mildly neurotic, self-involved people who think about life and death and evil where such concerns are trumped by making a living. People that are on the edge of things. People who are just a few paychecks away from bankruptcy and view their personal travails as judgement.
Since PKD is interested in these things, his books contain people who are similarly interested in such things. Consequently, there is a similarity of character between his novels. I don’t think this is a flaw. John Updike did the same: he wrote about people and lives that interested him. Consequently, there is a similarity between the people in his novels.
In TMITHC these same sort of people have to confront the reality of an evil that is beyond their own everyday lives. The Japanese, for all their faults—and there are many—are considered morally superior to the Germans. The Germans have continued towards the Final Solution, first the Jews in Germany and then the Jews in the US. More recently in the novel, they have taken on Africa. They may well be about to take on Japan.
Threaded through this book is another book: The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. This is a novel that describes the world as if they Allies won the war—but it doesn’t quite get it right. The Nazis think this novel is a threat and ultimately want to assassinate the author but that happens towards the end of the novel.
It is this broken mirror aspect of the novel that is the most interesting. The Allies lost and the USA is occupied—twenty years later the occupation is accepted. There is no overt underground in the novel. This is perhaps the most disheartening part of the novel: the easy way people accept occupation. At least on the Japanese side. The novel extends into the neutral territories between the two areas of occupation but never goes east. It does not confront Nazi occupation directly.
There’s a certain metafictional element to the novel but PKD never breaks the fourth wall. He never nods to the reader. The reader has to pick it up solo.
An mechanism in the book by which people divine their fate is the I Ching, a book of Chinese divination brought to the USA by the Japanese occupation. People continually consult it. Ultimately, it is discovered the book was, in effect, written by the I Ching. The author of Grasshopper consulted it on every plot point. Every character creation. One of the characters in TMITHC, Juliana, wonders why the I Ching would need to write a book. She concludes that Grasshopper is correct: the Allies won. And that the world she’s known is mere illusion.
Amazon’s TV show is considerably different. (It’s plot summary is here.)
This can’t be too surprising. Given the internal nature of TMITHC, how could it be otherwise?
One couple is together where in the book they have divorced. In the TV show there is an actual underground. The Grasshopper novel has become a collection of newsreel photos. The assassin of Grasshopper’s author is looking for whoever is producing the films—no one knows. The I Ching is not mentioned.
One major change is that half the series takes place in Nazi occupied America. PKD was satisfied for people to ruminate on what the Nazis did. The series has to show it—unless you’re Ingmar Bergman, there’s no room on the screen for verbal introspection.
There’s a lovely scene where Joe Blake is driving a truck to the neutral territories. Joe Blake is the equivalent character to the Italian assassin in the novel. He has a flat tire. A state policeman comes by and at first Joe thinks he’s going to have to kill the officer to protect his mission. But the officer just helps him. He was an Allied soldier but now works for the state. When they’re done, it seems to snow. Joe is surprised. The officer looks up and says, “It’s Thursday. They run the incinerator up at the hospital on Thursdays: cripples, old people, the terminally ill.” The officer says it as calmly as if he were discussing the price of eggs.
This is what I liked best about the show and what is most in keeping with the novel. In both cases, the evil is apparent. At no point in the novel does PKD let you forget the evil is there. Every time a character turns there’s more evidence of it. His treatment of it is introspective but that does not make it any less compelling.
The series does the same. Often in books or movies about terrible things, there’s a moment where the camera looks away. Perhaps it’s a point of artistic license (Spielberg’s red little girl amidst the black and white landscape in Schindler’s List, for example.) Or it’s a quip or joke or madness. These are moments for the audience to breathe. To remind themselves for a short second it’s a movie or television. Amazon’s series never looks away. It also doesn’t let the Japanese off the hook like the novel does—the Japanese secret police may not be the Gestapo but you can recognize them from down the block.
And, like the novel, the characters carry the evil. It’s not something extrinsic like Sauron or Lucifer. Each character carries heaven and hell within. It is their act of adult choice that determines which gets expressed.
So: the series has some plot similarities to the novel. Not a lot. But it doesn’t matter. They seem to carry the same spirit.
At least at the moment. It is only the first season. I can’t imagine it going more than one more—it feels like the story is at the half way point. If Amazon tries to push it forward as a cash cow, I’ll just quit watching.