"On some other world, possibly it is different. Better. There are clear good and evil alternatives. Not these obscure admixtures, these blends, with no proper tool by which to untangle the components. We do not have the ideal world, such as we would like, where morality is easy because cognition is easy. Where one can do right with no effort because he can detect the obvious."
The Man in the High Castle, published in 1962, is not only one of the defining works of Philip K. Dick's career, but also one of the seminal Alternate History novels. The novel, which won the Hugo Award, goes through the looking glass into a then-contemporary United States which, after the assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, stayed out of World War II, thus allowing the Nazis and Imperial Japan to steamroll the globe and carve up continental America. By the time the novel begins, the Empire of Japan, occupying the west coast, and Nazi Germany, which has made a racist puppet state out of the east, have fallen into a Cold War, paralleling the real one between the United States and the USSR.As is standard for Dick's stories, there are no true heroes, just an ensemble of ordinary schlubs trying to make a living for themselves: Frank Frink, a metalworker who makes fake American kitsch popular with the Japanese; Robert Childan, a prominent seller of the aforementioned Americana; Mr. Tagomi, a ranking Japanese official and regular customer of Childan's; Juliana Frink, Frank's ex-wife in the Rocky Mountain States (a neutral buffer-zone between east and west) who becomes engrossed in a mysterious book depicting an alternate universe where the Axis forces lost; and Mr. Baynes, allegedly a Swedish businessman, who is coming to meet Mr. Tagomi with a dire warning.But you come for the fascist dystopia, and you end up staying for the Taoism. This book was one of Dick's first to explore eastern mysticism, and marked a turning point away from his earlier, mostly secular anti-fascist novels. In this alternate world the I-Ching is as common as the phone book, and most of the characters rely on sampling the winds of destiny to determine their every move. And to the reader's omnipotent eye, the more they cross paths, searching for something truthful in a world of fake kitsch and fake identities, the more the connections between them and their actions becomes apparent.
Alternate Universe: Aside from the book itself and the fictional book inside the book, near the end Tagomi concentrates on a piece of folk art so hard he literally dislodges himself from time and space. In a haze, he wanders into another universe where the whites treat him as a minor inconvenience and the Embarcadero Freeway has been built, heavily implying it's our own.
By modern AH standards, the Nazis and Japanese conquering the USA by 1947 is rather unrealistic (even Hitler himself, in his long-term plans, thought conquering the USA would not be possible for the Germans until The Eighties). In fairness, though, Dick did not have access to much of the data about WW2 that has become common knowledge since then but was still classified in The Sixties when he wrote the novel.
Interestingly, this trope is also used by the book-within-a-book The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. The aftermath of World War 2 in that story has Britain and America splitting the world instead, with the USSR being a nonentity. And the British empire, thanks to the authoritarian leadership of Churchill, would eventually beat the Americans. It could be that Dick realized the certain futility of what he was doing with the book itself, and so lampshaded it by introducing the book-within-a-book. It's also played for a certain amount of irony as well; notice how, aside from the Allies winning the war, almost the exact opposite of what Amendsen proposes as happening in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy happened in the actual world. It was the Soviet Union, not Britain, that became America's post-war Cold War opponent. Far from ruling Britain like an warlord, Churchill was kicked out of office barely two months after Germany's defeat. Far from the British Empire getting stronger and stronger, his replacements began the process of dismantling it. And so on.
America Wins the War: Inverted and Played Straight at the same time. Obviously, America doesn't win the war in this timeline, but the timeline's main point of divergence is Franklin Roosevelt's assassination, which meant that America stayed isolationist and didn't get involved in World War II, implying that the Allies never could have won the war without America's helpnote Which is most likely true, or at least the British and Soviets would have been way worse off. American production was the driving force behind the Allied war effort; Stalin himself toasted it after the Nazis had surrendered, saying "without [American production], this war would have been lost."
Artistic License - History: Dick was lambasted by his Japanese translator for confusing "inferior" Chinese culture (Taoism, Confusianism, the I-Ching) with Japanese culture.
Subverted with the research he did into World War II and Nazi Germany, which — not entirely surprisingly — he found profoundly depressing and soul-draining. To the point where he decided not to write a sequel he'd been toying with purely because he couldn't bring himself to go back to that particular quagmire.
Black and Grey Morality: Life under Japanese occupation is pretty bad. Life under German occupation is hell on earth.
Boomerang Bigot: Robert Childan, a white man with inferior social status who is racist towards the Japanese. While at the same time constantly emulating them, ingratiating himself with them, and even, according to the Foreword to some editions of the book, thinking like them.
Crapsack World: An extremely hellish and oppressive one. Not just for the actual characters, but also applies for the book-within-a-book The Grasshopper Lies Heavy — an incredibly racist United Kingdom ends up winning the Cold War and conquering the world. Of course, compared to the one they live in, the characters view the one in the novel as paradise. Similarly, the divide between Nazi-occupied territories and Japanese-occupied territories reflect this divide; while the Japanese are certainly not nice to their subjects, they are on the whole far more humane, rational and sane than the Nazis are, who practically become Omnicidal Maniacs in their endless war to attain racial purity.
Deal with the Devil: Mr. Tagomi and the other Japanese have to do this when they learn about the impending nuclear destruction of Japan at the hands of the German Army.
Deliberate Values Dissonance: With all the characters, but especially Robert Childan. Deliberate, as they live in a world where the Nazis / Imperial Japanese won World War II and divided up the entire world between them, which would no doubt result in a drastic shifting in the dominant attitudes and cultural mores. This is done particularly cleverly with how The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, an AH-within-AH in which the Allies win WW2, is different from our own history. It's informed by the sensibilities of the author Abendsen, influenced by the Nazi-dominated world in which he lives, so it assumes that after the defeat of Germany the Cold War will be between the USA and the British Empire, as those subhuman Slavs in the USSR will never amount to anything. And in the end Britain wins the Cold War, because it is more racially pure than the USA and therefore superior.
Enemy Mine: The SS, who are opposed to Goebbels becoming chancellor and nuking Japan and stage a coup against him.
Fluffy the Terrible: The secret German operation to destroy Japan with nuclear weapons is codenamed "Operation Dandelion". This is a reference to the planned Nazi operation in Real Life to invade the British Isles, which was Operation Sealion.
Historical-Domain Character: Reinhard Heydrich, Josef Goebbels, Hermann Göring, Martin Bormann. None of the Nazi leaders appear in person (apart from a phone conversation with Goebbels), but they're constantly a looming presence.
Historical Hero Upgrade: Imperial Japan. It's still an oppressive dystopia, but definitely not as bad as Nazi Germany; the Japanese characters (Mr Tagomi, the Kasoura couple, General Tedeki) are also treated much more sympathetically than the German characters. Much of Imperial Japan's racism against non-Japanese is downplayed well below historical levels as well. However, it's possible that this is mainly a local thing. After twenty years of living in their newly conquered territories, it is quite likely that the Japanese living in America would have picked up aspects of their new location and wards, as the British did in India.
History Marches On: Dick was in an inferior position compared to modern Alternate History authors because many important factors in WW2, such as the breaking of the Enigma code, had not yet been declassified.
Human Resources: Most of the African population is used for this. There's descriptions of African tribes being turned into "thousands of chemical heaps". And a disquieting reference to (from memory) lighters made from human bone.
Inscrutable Oriental: A few of the Japanese characters, especially Mr. Tagomi, are described this way by white characters. Scenes written from the point of view of Japanese characters, particularly Mr. Tagomi are written in a fragmented yet hyper-theoretical and erudite language, making the train of though seem both unnatural and rather difficult to follow. Anything written from a German or American point of view (except the Japan-ified Childan) is written in straight prose.
Invaded States of America: What has become of the United States. Only a nominally neutral buffer state in the Rocky Mountains remains, which exists only on the sufferance of Germany and Japan.
Les Collaborateurs: Robert Childan. He is intimidated by and subservient to the Japanese ruling class, while privately hating them and being contemptuous of them.
Lesser of Two Evils: At least some factions of the Nazi Party are depicted as more reasonable than the leadership, and oppose its genocidal plans such as wiping out the Japanese. And that reasonable faction is Heydrich and the SS, who already are genocidal maniacs in their own right. Faced with the Sadistic Choice of either supporting the SS rise to power or watching his homeland be exterminated, Mr. Tagomi has a bit of a Heroic BSOD moment.
Mind Screw: Well... it's a Philip K. Dick novel. Philip K. Dick liked Mind Screwiness and playing games with the nature of reality. So yeah.
The ending where Juliana walks away from Abendsen's house, which seems to take place in "our" universe.
The novel suggests that the characters are living in an illusion they can't break out from. However, it also suggests that the "real" world that the characters can't see is the world of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy — which would mean that the world the reader is living in is also an illusion the reader can't break out from...
Pass Fail: Frank Frink is actually Jewish, with the birth name "Frank Fink". Baynes a.k.a. Rudolf Wegener, a Nazi agent is also Jewish, and has undergone plastic surgery to make himself look more "Aryan". An ever-present theme in the book is, at which point do you become what you're pretending to be? Although Baynes may have been lying about that, to mess with Lotze. Or was he?
Precision F-Strike: The reserved Japanese Tagomi saying "Chicken shit" in the middle of an intense political discussion.
Scavenger World: Russia has been reduced to this by the Nazis. There are descriptions of the Slavs being rolled back to the Stone Age, now riding yaks and hunting with bow and arrow.
Stupid Jetpack Hitler: The Lufthansa rocket ships, which have mostly replaced airliners. Before those rockets, the Germans had already developed jet planes and nuclear bombs, and they're already far into space.
Terraform: The Nazis have drained much of the Mediterranean Sea and turned it into arable farmland. There's also mention of them launching space exploration and establishing colonies on Mars and Venus (but bear in mind that in 1962, when the book was written, it was not yet known that those planets were as inhospitable as they are).
Most Nazi victory Alternate History scenarios assume Adolf Hitler would always be the revered founding father of the Third Reich. The Man in the High Castle, on the other hand, deconstructs it—in 1962, aged 73, Hitler is still alive, but in a lunatic asylum, as even the Nazis have realised he's insane and rotten inside. This is part of the crapsackiness of the scenario—the entire modern world is built upon Hitler's dream, and no-one wants to admit that it was a mad nightmare.
Although this was one of the first modern Alternate History stories, the actual alternate history aspects are often sidelined in favor of the author's exploration of Taoism and the nature of artifice, and it eschews directly portraying the high ranking Axis leadership and their political intrigue in favor of man on the street-style vignettes.
Up to Eleven: The setting is arguably based on the OTL 1960s turned Up to Eleven - space travel, megaprojects, supersonic passenger liners etc - but given a dark alternate-universe twist.
"The basic purpose of Operation Dandelion is an enormous nuclear attack on the Home Islands, without advance warning of any kind."
"Juliana said, ''The Oracle wrote your book, didn't it?'"
A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing: Joe Cinnadella claims to be an Italian truck driver, but is actually a Swiss agent intending to kill Hawthorne Abendsen.
You ALL Share My Story: All the characters are connected on a surface level, crossing paths with one another, but they're also connected in surprising ways that hint at a greater design to the events of the story. Frank Frink, for instance, designs a piece of folk jewelry. Through Robert Childan, it ends up in Tagomi's hands. He studies it and has a spiritual awakening, which results in him rudely defying the German consul's request for extradition and execution of a Jewish prisoner, who unbeknownst to Tagomi is the man who created the folk jewelry: Frank Frink himself.