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Literature / The Man in the High Castle

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An electrifying novel of our world as it might have been.

"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."
Captain Rudolf Wegener, on how the Grass Is Greener

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. After the assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, the USA did not embargo Imperial Japan over her occupation of China and so stayed out of World War II. Free China fell and, invaded in two theatres, the USSR was eventually defeated. With all of Eurasia's resources at their disposal Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan went on to defeat the Commonwealth and, many years down the track, occupy the Americas. By the time the novel begins Imperial Japan has occupied the west coast of the USA, Nazi Germany has made a puppet state out of the east, and both superpowers have fallen into a Space Cold War paralleling the Real Life one between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

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 omniscient 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.

A Live-Action Adaptation premiered on Amazon Prime in 2015. Please put tropes associated with the series on that page.

This book provides examples of:

  • Alternate History: Both the book itself and the book-within-a-book The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. This eventually verges into Alternate Universe.
  • Alternate History Wank:
    • By modern standards of alternate-history storytelling, the Nazis and Japanese conquering the USA by 1947 is extremely unrealistic (even Hitler himself, who was notoriously idealistic to the point of delusion, thought conquering the USA would not be possible for the Germans until The '80s). This is because 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 '60s 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 a 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.
  • 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. The implication seems to be that the events of the novel take place in one of the awfuller worlds of The Multiverse.
  • America Won World War II: 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 help.note 
  • The Anti-Nihilist: After a book's worth of uncertainty and a brush with death Frank decides to live his life and make his art. Doesn't matter if it all ends tomorrow.
  • Artistic License – Geography: Project Farmland, the draining of the Mediterranean by the Nazis, would have produced anything but. The sea basin would have become a salt desert and essentially an extension of the Sahara, while Europe would be drier and colder as a result of changes in the local climate. Meanwhile, all that water would have to go somewhere and would be deposited in the rest of the world's oceans, raising global sea levels by several meters.
    • It's worth noting that this idea was likely based on Herman Sörgel's idea for Atlantropa, which would have involved draining the Mediterranean to open up new land for colonization. However, he only wanted to lower it by a few hundred meters, not dry it out completely.
  • Author Appeal:
    • Philip K. Dick likes Japanese culture. A lot. He also appears to know a lot about metalworking, or at least did a lot of research into it.
    • 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.
  • Bittersweet Ending: While the protagonists do prevail, the resolutions of their plots aren't necessarily happy or certain.
    • Tagomi successfully passes on the information about the Nazi plans for a nuclear strike and saves Frank from execution. However, he suffers a heart attack and it is left uncertain whether he survives or not.
    • Baynes succeeds in warning the Japanese about the Nazi plans for a nuclear strike, but returns to Germany uncertain of whether Heydrich's antiwar faction will prevail or not.
    • Frank is saved from execution by Tagomi and returns to work making jewelry. However, he's still living under a totalitarian government.
    • Julianna finally meets Abendsen, the Man in the High Castle himself. She then consults the I Ching about the true purpose of the The Grasshopper Lies Heavy and only receives the cryptic answer that it conveys an "Inner Truth". Still unsure of what to do, Julianna wanders off into the night.
  • Black-and-Grey Morality: Life under Japanese occupation is pretty bad. Life under German occupation is hell on earth. Unless you are German.
  • 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.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The "authentic" Colt replica.
  • Les Collaborateurs: Robert Childan. He is intimidated by and subservient to the Japanese ruling class, while privately hating them and being contemptuous of them.
  • Colonized Solar System: The Nazis are vastly outpacing the Japanese in space technology. Frank speculates that Germany will have the entire solar system under their thumb by the time the Japan gets their first spaceship off the ground.
  • Covers Always Lie: Some editions of the book have gone with.. interesting cover decisions. One paperback reprint sports a cover by the prolific artist Richard Powers which does at least feature a castle of sorts, a surrealistic blob looming in the middle of a red alien sea, while one Penguin edition has half-naked men knifing each other. The various international editions go in all sorts of crazy directions. Though since this is PKD we're talking about here, it all almost becomes appropriate.
  • Crapsack World: 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.
  • Cultural Posturing: Childan quietly relents living as a second-class citizen under Japanese rule, seeing their appropriation of American customs, and watches developments in Germany with envy.
  • Dated History: It's now known that intercontinental invasion of the United States by the Axis Powers would've required so many different factors to favor the Axis that it might as well have been physically impossible.
  • 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.
  • Depopulation Bomb: According to a comment by Frank, the world population is around two billion in 1962, compared to the 3 billion it reached by 1960 in our world. Considering who's in charge now, this shouldn't be surprising.
  • Divided States of America: Following the Axis victory in World War II, the former United States is divided into three pieces. The name "United States of America" is reused for the Nazi-occupied east coast, while the Japanese-occupied west coast is now the Pacific States of America with its capital in Sacramento. Between the two lie the Rocky Mountain States, a buffer zone that neither power claims.
    • It's also possible, though never made explicitly clear, that the South has separated as well, most likely as a Nazi puppet state.
  • Double-Blind What-If: The Book Within a Book The Grasshopper Lies Heavy postulates a world where the Allies won the war, and predicts a Cold War occurring between the US and a dictatorial UK, instead of the USSR. This is likely the Trope Maker.
  • Enemy Mine: The SS, who are opposed to Goebbels becoming chancellor and nuking Japan and stage a coup against him.
  • Final Solution: The Holocaust was completed in Europe. American 'Useless Mouths' (the disabled and elderly) are also disposed of. By 1962, the Nazis have extended their campaign to Africa.
  • 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.
  • Foreign Culture Fetish: The Japanese occupiers take a patronizing interest in American kitsch, as part of the book's inversion of 20th-century colonialism.
  • Foreign Ruling Class: America is split between the Japanese-controlled West Coast, the Nazi-occupied East Coast, and the Neutral Zone along the Rock Mountains. In both occupied areas, Japanese and Germans call the shots. Naturally, most all of the administration is done by sympathetic or indoctrinated Americans, but the attitudes held by German and Japanese in their mutual colonies is just that: like the imperialist colonizers of the past two centuries, who regard the "natives" as lower class (often subhuman, in the Nazis' case).
  • Foreshadowing: The way the U.S.A was divided between Germany and Japan (each invading country receiving one side, with a neutral area in the middle ruled by German security forces) is reminiscent of the way Poland was divided between Germany and Russia before Germany decided to betray them. This, combined with the name of Germany's plan (see Theme Naming below) serves as a massive hint to what the Nazi's true plans are.
    • A Reich consulate to the Pacific States, frustrated after reading The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, contemplates having someone assassinate its writer, but decides it's not worth the trouble with the book already in print and him held up in a fortress. He relents, deciding someone higher up should take care of it. Turns out someone already has, which is why Joe is in the Rocky Mountain states.
  • Four Lines, All Waiting: The book is composed of separate simultaneous subplots, with occasional crossover.
  • Gainax Ending: Par for the course with Philip K. Dick.
  • Genre Deconstruction: The novel is held up as one of the quintessential examples of the Alternate History genre of SF, but it also examines alternate histories as a concept - especially what drives people to create them. The Book Within A Book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, is an example of how Dick uses the setting to explore the idea of alternate history, as well as Mr. Tagomi accidentally travelling to a parallel universe at the book's climax. It should be noted that Dick was inspired to write the book after reading Ward Moore's 1953 book Bring the Jubilee, about a world in which the Confederacy won the American Civil War.
  • Grass Is Greener: Captain Wegener, caught in a power struggle among the Nazi leadership, laments the lack of a clear-cut Black-and-White Morality and longs for a world where good and evil are easy to recognize.
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: Many Jews that escaped extermination have undergone procedures to look more Aryan and continue to live among Nazi society undetected.
  • 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. Chinese-Americans, though, are little more than slaves.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Nazi Germany, with their victory in the war, are able to achieve new levels of evil they were never able to reach in history — including the genocide of the African continent's entire population and using the corpses as Human Resources.
  • 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 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 thought 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.
  • Interchangeable Asian Cultures: Dick was lambasted by his Japanese translator for confusing "inferior" Chinese culture (Taoism, Confucianism, the I-Ching) with Japanese culture. The I-Ching at least gets lampshaded by Chidan during one of his internal monologues, where he notes that the book the Japanese have imposed on America isn't even a Japanese one.
  • 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.
  • It Will Never Catch On: Many of the characters criticize the ideas depicted in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, considering it ridiculous that what they see as the plutocratic and morally decadent empires of America and Britain could ever have beaten the "superior" Axis nations and then made the world a better place. They're certain allied victory would've really lead to communism taking over. Of course, it's hard to blame them, given the kind of world they live in.
  • Japan Takes Over the World: Not set in the future, but in an alternate 1960s in which Japan has defeated USA.
  • 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.
  • A Lighter Shade of Black: Imperial Japan keeps its old ways, but their distant colonial rule is at least fairly negligent and it's nothing compared to what the Nazis are doing in their empire.
  • 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...
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Mr. Tagomi's moment of defiance involves telling the Nazi official exactly what he thinks of him and his entire culture.
  • Regional Redecoration: The Nazis performed a version of this with the Mediterranean. See Terraform below.
  • The Remnant: The only survivors of Europe's Slavic population now exist in reservations in Siberia, where they're living in a Scavenger World.
  • Sanity Slippage: Juliana has a severe psychotic breakdown once she learns that Joe is actually a Nazi assassin sent to kill Abendson., culminating in her inadvertently slitting his throat with a razor and leaving him to die.
  • 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.
  • Show Within a Show: The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.
  • Shown Their Work: Dick did a lot of research for this novel. Reading so much about Nazi and Japanese atrocities made him so depressed that it very nearly cost him his sanity. It is thought by some scholars that Dick's drug abuse problems were partially spurred by the research he did for the novel.
  • Slavery Is a Special Kind of Evil: The Nazis have reinstated the enslavement of Africans in both Europe and the United States.
  • Snub by Omission: Italy gets this treatment much of the time by the characters. While they control a small empire in the Middle east, the Italians don't have anywhere near the prominence that the Germans and Japanese have, and they're looked down on in Nazi-controlled territories due to their tanner skin. Joe often gushes about how great Italian culture and Mussolini's original brand of fascism are...only to turn around and write it off as a two-bit empire with a clown for a leader. Although considering he's actually Swiss, it makes sense.
  • Straw Character: Childan is the only one shown to have disdain for the I Ching and is presented as a Jerkass as such.
  • 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.
  • Take That!: As you might expect, quite a few shots are taken at Nazis and their ideology. The characters calling them everything from cynics who blindly march to their orders without faith, to incestuous fairies so obsessed with purity that they're lusting after their own mothers, and delusional psychopaths with massively-inflated egos who would rather bring about their own destruction than let history decide it for them.
  • 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).
  • Theme Naming: "Operation Dandelion", which is a nuclear attack on Japan, evokes the name of "Operation Sealion", the planned Nazi invasion of Britain which really happened in this history. In real life, the Nazis were notorious for using overly obvious code names.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Not many of them appear in the story, but they're always lurking in the background.
  • Title Drop: The High Castle was the fortified home of Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of the book within a book The Grasshopper Lies Heavy
  • Unbuilt Trope:
    • Most Alternate-History Nazi Victory 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.
    • Many alternate history tales portray a victorious Nazi Germany as the world's economic and technological superpower. In The Man in the High Castle, while many note that they've accomplished some impressive feats such as turning the Mediterranean into farmland and sending manned missions to Mars and Venus, the genocides, eradication of intellectuals, and mass slavery have been an economic catastrophe for Germany. Atomic power and their advanced tech has only barely been keeping them afloat, and the space missions are just Bread and Circuses as those in power try to sort out what to do.
  • The Unreveal: We never find out exactly what the Nazis did to Africa, as none of the characters like to think about it too hard. Whatever it was, the implication is that it makes genocide look like a serious understatement.
  • Up the Real Rabbit Hole: Tagomi becomes unglued from his reality and travels into what appears to be ours for awhile before drifting back into the setting of the book. Additionally, Abendsen and Juliana find out from the I Ching in the final scene of the book that The Grasshopper is actually true and Germany and Japan really lost the war.
  • Wham Line:
    • "The basic purpose of Operation Dandelion is an enormous nuclear attack on the Home Islands, without advance warning of any kind."
    • And also:
    "Juliana said, ''The Oracle wrote your book, didn't it?'" Which is a double wham, as PKD himself consulted The I Ching at major decision points in the novel.
  • 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.