What's worse than homework?
Nazis are pretty much worse than everything. So if we imagine a world where the Nazis won World War II, it would probably be a pretty bad world, worse in every way, right? (Except for the History Channel—that would pretty much stay the same.)
This is the world that Philip K. Dick invites us into with The Man in the High Castle (1962), a world where the Axis has won World War II and America is split between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. This isn't the history that we know from class—this is an alternate history.
Alternate history is a work that says "what would the world be like if some historical event happened differently?" (If you want to be fancy, you can also call them "uchronias." But "alternate history" works just fine and won't freak out your spellchecker.) Dick didn't invent alternate history; in fact, the earliest alternate history might be from 35 BC, when ancient Roman historian Livy asked "what if Alexander the Great tried to conquer Rome?" (His answer: Romans still would've kicked his keister.) But there've been a lot of alternate histories since then.
Following in Livy's sandaled footsteps, a lot of modern alternate histories focus on big war questions, like "What if the Confederacy won the US Civil War?" or "What if Napoleon had won at Waterloo?" But the most popular question is "What if the Nazis had won World War II?" It's such a popular question that the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has an entire entry on "Hitler Wins" stories. There are so many stories where the Nazis win—but you're reading this one.
What makes it special is, well, Philip K. Dick. Other authors might take a story like this and tell some adventure story about how brave US resistors fought back against Hitler and made everything OK in the world. (This is a pretty common end in alternate histories; history gets "fixed" by some heroes.) But Dick took this topic and made it his own, so it's not just "oh no, Nazis." And he did that in three ways, which help us see how this work fits in with his other stories about Martian colonization, post-apocalyptic America, robot impostors, and alien gods with broken pottery (in other words: his crazier, less realism-based works of science fiction),
First: just regular folks. A lot of PKD's stories are about just regular folks—the underdogs fighting or just trying to survive against a much bigger system. So Man in the High Castle isn't just a fun story about people fighting back against Nazis—although there's totally a spy plot here that's about exactly that. It's also about how regular people survive in very dark times.
Second: arts and crafts and literature. We'll be honest: there are about three big plots running through this book, so it can get a little confusing. While one of the plots is a straight-up spy thriller (including secret information disguised as cigarettes), there are whole big areas here about people making objects, including forging antiques, making jewelry, and writing books. Though the spy plot is very important, Dick spends a lot of time here on the arts and crafts, which is another big interest he has. (Seriously, he has an entire novel where the protagonist's main skill is that he can fix broken pots.)
Third: Philip K. Dick kept returning to themes of perception and fate, of reality and identity. In his books, there might be robots who think they're human (or who want to be human); humans who discover that they are just the playthings of aliens; or robots and humans who realize that reality isn't what they thought it was. There's a lot of paranoia and insecurity in his work. That comes out in this book in a few ways: the antique seller who realizes his antiques are forgeries; the woman who realizes the guy she's with isn't what he appears to be; and the novel inside this novel that might just tell the truth about history. (Warning: Reading Philip K. Dick can be a mind-bending experience.)
Philip K. Dick wrote a lot of other stuff. There are around 44 novels, 120+ stories, several essays, a giant memoir recording this religious experience he had (check out "Brain Snacks"). But Man in the High Castle is one of his most respected novels. It won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1963; frequently pops up on Best Of lists, like '''the 1987 Locus poll for best science fiction of all time; and was one of his novels reprinted in the prestigious Library of America collection. Man in the High Castle was such a critical success for Dick that he even tried to write some sequels to it—but they kept turning into other books, like The Ganymede Takeover (1967) and Radio Free Albemuth (1985).
Lots of movies have been based on PKD's writing. His ideas and themes definitely influenced a lot of other films, including The Matrix and Inception. But there has never been a movie based on The Man in the High Castle, even though it's one of his best and most respected books. But there are now plans to make a mini-series out of it—first for the BBC and now for SyFy. We don't know how to feel about that. Some movies based on his works are awesome, some… eh, not so much.
Lastly, we don't find his name funny at all and couldn't think of any jokes to make about it. (For more on Philip K. Dick, check out "Brain Snacks" and "Best of the Web." There's some amazing stuff out there about this weird, brilliant dude.)
It's highly unlikely that you're going to wake up in a Nazi-controlled world or wind up running from WWII-era Japanese secret police. But the really important question in Man in the High Castle isn't "what if"; it's more like, "What would you do if…?" If you're just one small person facing a giant unfair System (cough, high school, cough), you may not be able to fight and change the System totally. But does that mean you have to go along with what's unfair? Does it mean you should internalize your anger the way Childan does, so you become angry all the time? (Please say no.)
Or let's put it this way: Man in the High Castle was published in 1962, and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March on Washington takes place in 1963. Now, we're not saying that Frank Frink, Childan, or any major character here is as heroic as MLK. But they all face a similar situation: they're just one dude (or dudette, but mostly dude) facing a powerful and dangerous System—and in their own way, each of them finds some way to make the world a better place. And what about Tagomi and Hugo Reiss? Those guys who look like they're powerful, who look like they're inside the system? They're not so powerful after all. This is Dick's great trick: to show us that, compared to the System, most of us are little people.
'This leads to the question we all could ask ourselves: if we're little (compared to the System), is it possible to make the world a better place, and how should we try to do that? (Did this book just get super-heavy?)
Philip K. Dick in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction
For an excellent overview, check out the article on PKD in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
Man in the High Castle at Uchronia
The excellent site Uchronia is dedicated to alternate histories. Check out their entry for The Man in the High Castle. And browse around for other alternate histories. Definitely check out their introduction to alternate histories if you want to know more about this genre.
The Man in the High Castle Timeline?
We don't totally trust the timeline that this person has worked out, but it might be helpful to visualize the different plots.
TV Tropes on Alternate Histories
TV Tropes does its usual excellent job for a page on alternate histories, including a nice list/explanation of several examples.
An Online I Ching
But if you've got other questions to ask about your future, maybe you should try this online I Ching. (No guarantees.)
An Appreciation of The Man in the High Castle
This article from The Guardian focuses on the small-scale drama and the humanity of the characters, which is just what we like.
Focusing on the Everyman
But if you wondered if that "focus on humanity" also could be found in his other work, check out this.
Excellent overview of PK Dick's work
Even the New York Times thinks Dick is important enough to get an overview.
Dick and The Man in the High Castle as Philosophy
Getting back to The Man in the High Castle, the New Statesman is interested in the philosophy in his novels.
What's Up With the Ending? An Alternate View
And what is the philosophy of this book? This long article takes a look at the ending and comes up with the answer: "keep on trucking." (That's actually pretty close to our reading.)
PKD and Movies
An excellent little summary from a big fan, ending on the note that Dick cares about empathy.
BBC Documentary on PKD
This is a long, but interesting, documentary on PKD from 1994.
NPR on PKD Movie Adaptations
NPR gathers a panel for a discussion of PKD and the movie adaptations of his work.
Lethem (Again!) on PKD
Celebrated author Jonathan Lethem discusses PKD and the Library of America collection that reprinted him.
Philip K. Dick Philosophical Podcast
This mostly focuses on the short stories, but this podcast delves into the philosophical issues that are all over Dick's work.
BBC Great Lives: Philip K. Dick
Actor Michael Sheen and others discuss Dick's themes and work.
Young Philip K. Dick
Here's PKD from around the 1960s.
Gray Philip K. Dick
And here's older, wiser PKD.
This nicely captures the Nazi-Imperial Japan split in the US (with no love for the Rocky Mountain States).
Penguin Classics Cover
Arty, but this gets the point across.
SF Masterworks Cover
This is a little subtle, unless you notice the Statue of Liberty's "Nazi Heil" hand gesture.
Library of America Cover
The LOA's prestigious collection's serious (bland) cover.