This is a blog with spoiler free reviews. Most will be Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror, but there will be some books in other genres, including the occasional Non-Fiction review. There is an ongoing series of Cover Reveal Round-Ups, and sometimes I'll write an article on something that interests me.

12 May, 2014

REVIEW: THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE


THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE
BY
PHILIP K. DICK

ISBN: 978-0-57508-205-2*
Pages: 248
Publisher: Gollancz
First published: October 1962
This edition published: [2001]*

On the cover:

(From the publisher's website.)

It is 1962 and the Second World War has been over for seventeen years: people have now had a chance to adjust to the new order. But it's not been easy. The Mediterranean has been drained to make farmland, the population of Africa has virtually been wiped out and America has been divided between the Nazis and the Japanese. In the neutral buffer zone that divides the two superpowers lives the man in the high castle, the author of an underground bestseller, a work of fiction that offers an alternative theory of world history in which the Axis powers didn't win the war. The novel is a rallying cry for all those who dream of overthrowing the occupiers. But could it be more than that?


   To start this review I have to address something that I haven't seen anybody else do, namely the racism of the text. I am not talking about the racism of the story, I am talking about the racism displayed by the author's choices in how he represents the Japanese in the book.

   I first read this book about 15 years ago, and at the time I found some passages of the text annoying. It's actually what stood out for me when I thought about the book later. The passages in question is when the Japanese speak. They do so in halting, stilted, English that is obviously meant to be directly translated from Japanese. I am very familiar with that from doing I-Ching myself, so I just found it annoying because it is totally unnecessary. However when I re-read the book late last year, leading to this review, I was on the lookout for this. I was also reading in a far more analytical manner than I did when I read it for fun the first time I read it.

   Like I said above, I am familiar with the way Japanese speech is presented in the book through I-Ching. If you see a US movie where someone is mimicking an Asian character's speech to poke fun of them you'll have an idea of how it is presented.
   To be honest I tried to come up with a reason for this not to be racist. I loved the book the first time I read it, and didn't really want to deal with it being a racist text. But no matter how I tried to excuse it, I couldn't escape the racism.
   First I tried seeing it as a way of highlighting how different the Japanese are to the occupied USAians**. That falls apart very quickly. The way the Japanese are described is more than enough to paint them as from a culture alien to the US characters, quite a lot of time is spent othering the Japanese. In fact the inclusion of the I-Ching would be over the top if it wasn't so central to the novel. The way they talk adds absolutely nothing to the book's differentiating of Japanese culture (, as different to the default US culture). It just paints the Japanese as being stereotypically incapable of speaking English properly.
   The real nail in the coffin when it comes to the way the Japanese language is presented though is how the Germans are presented. All the Germans are presented as talking in perfect English, even when they talk amongst themselves. Interestingly enough when looking for any mention of racism in connection with this novel I found that Dick read German. So he should be aware of, and capable of, presenting the sentences said by Germans in the way it would be said in German. Dick's proficiency in German also paints his choice of singling out the Japanese for the halting English depiction in a less than flattering light. Having had German at school, I am also aware of how directly translated German sounds, and when reading analytically the lack of it makes the way the Japanese speak stand out even more.

   So, does this mean that I think Philip K. Dick was a racist? Well, the text of this book is certainly racist, so in that sense the answer is yes. I will however assume that if he was a blatant racist that it would be something that the SFF community was aware of, and talked about. So I look at it as a typical USAian attitude of the time that people don't think twice about.
   The book is said to have been written in 1961. That is 16 years after the end of World War II, and eight years after the end of the Korean War. (It's also during the lead-up to the Vietnam War, the US already had military advisers there.) So it is understandable that any USAian would have a less than favourable view of the Japanese. I remember this kind of representation of Japanese being pretty much par for the course in US movies in the 1980s.
   To answer again whether Dick was a racist... He is displaying racism towards the Japanese in this book. (Although as can be seem from my description, it isn't very blatant.) So I can only conclude that he was racist against the Japanese, maybe because of ignorance, when he wrote this novel in 1961. I have not done any research  into whether Dick displayed any racism anywhere else, or if he ever acknowledged the problems with this text, so I can only comment on it in the context of this book. And as I have outlined above, I can't escape the fact that this text is racist.
 
   I could go on a bit about this subject, but I'll go on to the review of the rest of the novel. I will leave any further talk about racism for the summation, but I would be dishonest if I didn't admit it was something that was in the back of my mind as I read the book and that it affected my reading experience.
 
   The first thing to mention is that this is a novel with a base in the Alternate History trope, i.e. that the Germans won World War II. (Although this time along with the Japanese.) The worldbuilding around this is very well done, you really get a good feel for how history turned out in this world. Dick is perhaps at his best when it comes to his way of infodumping. It's not really subtle, but he makes it flow in a way that doesn't set it apart from the rest of the text. You very rarely get to read a novel where the infodumping is this well done.
   I have previously stated that I am a fan of Alternate History, and I can say that this is a very good example of it. It is one of the books in the genre that you should be reading. To say that it is the best work Alternate History, like some do, is however wrong in my opinion. The reason for that is that the Alternate History isn't really the main point of this novel.

   This novel does explore the Alternate History aspect, but it's clear that Dick is more interested in exploring the unreality of the subgenre. It's this aspect that takes over as the novel progresses, and it gets outright metatextual as we come towards the end.
   Putting aside everything that has a deeper meaning, this is still a full novel. Although one that is somewhat disjointed. The characters do connect up, but it doesn't really feel like their stories do. Dick uses the novel-within-a-novel to connect up the disparate parts of this, but it never feel wholly natural. That the character who is furthest removed from the larger part of the narrative in the end is the one given most importance feels like a bit of a cheap trick. And I can't escape the feeling that these different narratives would work a little bit better if they were in separate stories.

   The level of intricacy in the narrative is high throughout, Dick is definitely on the "literary" side of SFF. There is also plenty of interesting events throughout this novel, and an understanding of the deeper levels of this is by no means necessary. But it will of course give you a more complete experience if you can spot the many instances where Dick goes deeper than the story strictly needs.
   We do get an interesting story about living in an occupied USA (, though this is very the objectionable bits mentioned above come into play), and a quite action- filled political bit. Actually, the action is a bit of a problem. It comes out of the blue, so much that it was jarring.
   Jarring could very well be the descriptive word for Dick's writing style. Very little is done smoothly when it comes to changes in PoVs, or indeed in endings. The changes from one thing to another, both in location and plot, often comes of as abrupt. I quite like the way Dick writes, and manage to follow his changes of thought quite easily, but your mileage may vary when it comes to this. I have absolutely no problem understanding those that have problems with Dick's style of writing, and I see no reason why anyone should force themselves through his prose.

   Overall this is a very good Alternate History book, where the focus is more alternate than history. It is dragged down by all the time spent on othering the Japanese. It is hard to see anything redeeming in the author's description of the Japanese here, and if you have trouble with this sort of casual racism you would do best to stay away from this book.
    As a work of Alternate History this is without doubt something that deserves to be read. The worldbuilding isn't so detailed that it doesn't leave a desire to know more of this world, but it is still a very interesting glimpse into a different reality.
   Despite my problems with the racism I still like this book, although realising how the text treats Japanese has lessened my esteem of it considerably.So while I still would advise anyone interested in Philip K. Dick, or Alternate History to read this, I can't really condone it being called essential because of its problems.
___

* My edition of this, with the cover featured, is still in storage in Norway. The ISBN number is from the later hardcover Gollancz SF Masterworks edition (2009) that is still available. The publishing year is from the earlier hardcover Gollancz SF Masterworks edition with a different cover.

** I have made a choice to avoid using the word Americans when I talk of just one country in America. It annoys me as a Norwegian when people say Scandinavian when they mean Swedish, and I'm sure there's lots of Americans who don't want to be lumped in with USAians.
 ___

LINKS: Gollancz   Gollancz Blog  

No comments:

Post a Comment