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NinthWanderer

NinthWanderer

Have Coffee, Will Travel

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The Man In The High Castle - Philip K. Dick First things first.

Now that I've finally experienced Dick, I find myself with an urge to try Moorcock.

Ba dum bump.

Now that the tawdry pun is out of the way, I can move on with the actual review. The author henceforth shall be referred to as “PKD” lest I be sidetracked into more Beavis and Butthead-style verbal shenanigans. Heh heh. Heh.

*ahem*

So... five stars. Yeah. There's some fantastic metatextual stuff going on here that's really sparking a part of my brain that doesn't come out to play nearly often enough. Maybe there's a bit of good in that, since that part of my brain seems to be decidedly nocturnal, but it's also the part that gets excited about literature and writing and how words become really nifty ideas, so I think I'm okay with having lost a bit of sleep after finishing the book last night.

On the surface, TMITHC is a work of alternate history that ponders what the world might look like had the Axis powers won World War II. Germany and Japan have split the world more or less down the middle (while third, and much weaker, Axis power Italy gets shafted) and then set about on their own form of Cold War that ultimately leads to some nuclear brinksmanship. The Jews have been more or less wiped out, as has the native population of Africa. PKD turns the tables on white Americans by making them second-class citizens in German- and Japanese-occupied chunks of the country, although the narrative centers mostly in Japanese-occupied San Francisco and never actually ventures into the German-occupied East Coast. There's a bit of the United States that remains free (and poor) in the Rocky Mountain States, but even that portion is effectively under Germany's thumb and is free in name only.

The white Americans living in Japanese-occupied territory must bow to their Japanese masters, who consider Americans barbaric and inferior while at the same time gobbling up kitschy pre-war American cultural objects, much the way the British did with artifacts from India and China during their imperial days, or Americans did with Native arts and crafts. It doesn't really matter who the imperial power is – they all behave more or less the same.

There's a dollop of personal and political intrigue that all sort of weaves together at the end, but the two real unifying forces of the book are the I-Ching, which most of the characters use as a form of divination, and a novel written by an American postulating what the world would have been like if the Allied powers had won the war – an alternate history within an alternate history layering surreality on top of surreality.

Ultimately, these two forces – the I-Ching and the novel-within-a-novel – come together in the last few pages when it's revealed the author of the novel-within-a-novel consulted the I-Ching to plot the book, as PKD did himself to write The Man in the High Castle. The character tosses her coins and gets the hexagram “Inner Truth,” which she interprets to mean that the novel-within-a-novel is the real truth and that Germany and Japan really did lose the war. This could be read as a “twist” telling the reader that none of the 200 or so pages that they've just finished ever happened, sort of the literary version of Bobby Ewing waking up in the shower. Or on a more intellectual level calling attention to the fact that it's all just a fiction.

I'm going to argue that's the wrong interpretation.

I've done a bit of study of divination systems, more of the Tarot than I-Ching, but the thing about them all is that they're mirrors of ourselves, and our interpretation of what these systems tell us is always reflective of our own wants, needs and desires. They're entirely subjective. So when early in the book Frank Frink asks the I-Ching whether he should go into business for himself and gets a mixed answer, he rationalizes it and twists it until it tells him what he already wants to hear – that he should go ahead and do it.

We see this again and again with characters posing questions to the I-Ching and getting vague lines of poetry in response, but finding their own meaning in all of that vagueness.

It's the same scenario with Juliana Frink in those final couple of pages. We've already spent several scenes with Juliana and her lover discussing the novel-within-a-novel, and Juliana expressing time and again how it would have been better if Japan and Germany had lost the war. So naturally when she poses that question at the end, she sees exactly what she wants to see, because I think the ultimate, overarching theme of this novel – the actual novel – is that individual reality is subjective and dependent on perception. That's what “Inner Truth” means.

That also means that while PKD, and the author of the novel-within-a-novel, may have used the I-Ching for inspiration, the story still came from within them without interference or guidance from any external force. When Abendsen, the fictional author within The Man in the High Castle, tells Juliana the I-Ching wrote the book, he's lying. Or rather, Juliana is hearing what she wants to hear, because she wants to believe in the external power of divination, just as she wants to believe the world she's living in is all a fiction.

Anyway, The Man in the High Castle is good stuff that made me think. I'm glad I read it.

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Picked up from the library today. Found a white notecard inside. Hand-written in nondescript black lettering:

"Sports religion
Irrational attitudes of submission
to authority"