Books, Publishing, Uncategorized, World War 2

What if the Axis Powers Controlled the World? THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE by Philip K. Dick

History is full of “what ifs.” How many individual decisions and seemingly minor incidents have shaped the world we live in today?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been looking at books that blend speculative fiction and World War II in preparation for a new story I’m releasing. The first ones, Connie Willis’s Blackout and Alexa Kang’s Eternal Flame both dealt with time travel. Last week’s offering, Robert Harris’s Fatherland, asked what life in Germany and Europe might be like if the Allies had lost.

Today’s entry, Philip K. Dicks’ The Man in the High Castle has a similar premise to Fatherland, but was an entirely different read.

What’s the Premise?

The story opens in 1962 San Francisco at the shop of Robert Childan. Childan sells “American traditional ethnic art objects,” from antique pistols to butter churns, to posters. Since their total victory, the Japanese elite are eager to purchase pieces of an America that no longer exists.

It moves across town to Frank Frink, fired the day before for saying the wrong thing to his boss. Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1941, he’d been on the West Coast when the war ended. As he struggles to decide what he’ll do, he knows one thing for certain: he can’t go East, toward the Reich. After all, he’s a Jew.

The next chapter introduces readers to Mr. Tagomi, a client of Childan’s, who is awaiting an important visitor. This visitor, Mr. Baynes, is supposedly a Swedish businessman, though readers will soon suspect that he’s not who he says he is, and that his mission is vitally important.

Finally, the story moves across to Colorado, to the unoccupied Rocky Mountain States where Frank’s estranged wife, Juliana, teaches judo and tries to figure out what the next steps of her life should be.

The story follows these characters and others through a post-war world. Though it never visits the Nazi-controlled East Coast, it drops hits about what life is like there. About the death camp in New York. About the propaganda showing the weak Americans next to their stronger German conquerors. And about the situation in the rest of the world. While the story only touches lightly on what happened after the Nazi conquest of Africa, the little it reveals makes the characters shudder.

There are a few things that tie the different threads of the story together. One is the I Ching, an ancient Chinese text that several characters use for divination, trying to discover their destiny. The other is a more recent publication (in universe,) a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy written by Hawthorne Abendsen, whose bio says that he lives in a secluded safe house named “The High Castle.” Banned in the Reich, but tolerated in the Japanese controlled territories, the novel details an alternate history in which the Allies won the war.

Is It Similar to the Show?

Amazon Prime released a four season series titled “The Man in the High Castle” from 2015-2019. I’ve been interested in watching it for a while, but to be honest, I get a little curmudgeonly about paying monthly for streaming services. I’ve kept waiting for it to be released on DVD…and maybe make its way to my local library. That hasn’t happened yet.

Just out of curiosity as I was preparing this write-up, I made my way to that great vault of knowledge that is Wikipedia to see what the episode summaries looked like.

**Potential spoilers here, though I’ll try to be somewhat vague.**

Assuming that the summaries are accurate, the show and the book deviate pretty drastically. (This isn’t really surprising, considering the type of book it is. More on that in the “My Thoughts” section.) While the characters I mentioned above are listed in the credits, they don’t seem to have more than surface similarities to their literary counterparts. The story itself appears to be much more plot-driven, with an American Resistance being a major factor and quite a bit of action happening in the Nazi-occupied territories. Also, rather than a forbidden novel being circulated, film footage of different universes is being spread around by the Resistance. (Wikipedia didn’t give away exactly how people were getting these, so I can’t spoil that bit. :))

Overall, (and again, this is based on second-hand information) if I get a chance to view the show I’ll go into it without expecting the same ‘feel’ of the book. Rather, I’ll expect a different story starting off from the same premise.

My Thoughts

The Man in the High Castle isn’t the easiest book to describe. It doesn’t have a particular hero, nor really a particular villain (though there are certainly some nasty characters that make appearances.) I told my husband that it felt like the sorts of books I read in college—the ones that definitely wanted to “say something,” but you felt like you’d better wait for the prof to confirm just want they were supposed to say. (Even if you didn’t agree with his analysis. Gotta have the right answers for the test at the end!)

Also, it’s worth being aware that the language in the book reflects a universe ruled by the Axis powers. “The Final Solution” has been applied in Europe, Africa, and other locations. There’s a big gap in social status between conquerors and conquered. Because of all of this, racial slurs are frequently used for various groups throughout the story.

All that being said, I…enjoyed isn’t quite the right word. I found myself drawn into the stories of The Man in the High Castle, wanting to find out how the world might look after this twist of history. The author’s take on how history might have played out differently was fascinating. I found myself less interested in the characters than in the pieces of information they dropped through their stories, creating a (quite frightening) picture of the Axis-ruled world.

I also was intrigued by the events that the author indicated caused the Axis victory. (Just a few hints: Pearl Harbor, FDR, the Russian front, and Malta were all involved.) However, in the fictional novel-within-a-novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the author offers another alternate history. Yes, the Allies win, but the events that some of the characters mention don’t match up with the real events in history.

The different story threads of this 1962 Hugo Award winner give readers a lot to chew on.

So, Readers, what do you think? Have any of you read the novel or watched the show? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Next week’s book also has a show to go with it, but I’ve actually watched this one! I’ll take a look at SS-GB which asks the question, “What if the Battle of Britain Had Been Lost?”

The release of Swords and Maidens, an anthology in which I have my own piece of World War II speculative fiction featured, is only a month away! It’s currently up for Kindle pre-order. Click below to check it out.

20 thoughts on “What if the Axis Powers Controlled the World? THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE by Philip K. Dick”

  1. It strikes me that the line between “historical fiction” and “counter-factual” or “speculative fiction” may be exceedingly thin. As soon as you slap the fiction label onto history you’re dealing with things that didn’t quite happen that way. So not really history. Well maybe if you follow the Jeff Shaara model, where the only fiction of it is getting inside the heads of historic figures, but otherwise its all speculative.
    I don’t say that just to be a curmudgeon (I may, or may not, resemble that remark!). But it seems to me the only difference in the labels is if we’re including outcomes or just characters. In theory, I love exploring different possibilities. But I find I often get prickly when writers show casual disregard for historic realities. Harry Turtledove did an alternate Pearl Harbor that included an invasion of the Hawaiian Islands… involving Japanese Army units and naval transport forces that didn’t come close to existing. It still made for an exciting story, but I might classify it more as “High Fantasy”! Seriously, I think his Civil War book involving time traveling South Africans might have been more plausible.
    The other place I get squeamish is in seeing great historic events and deeds undone; like say, the Battle of Britain…
    Ultimately I think the highest value in such exercises is in looking at HOW IMPORTANT the actual historic outcome is. Or a close parallel to that is the durability or inevitability of historic events. That is, so many important events happened because of a multitude of reasons. Singular decisions and events may effect timing, but usually not outcomes. [“What if Christopher Columbus never found the Americas?!” Seriously, with advances in navigation and ship design, plus a bustling European culture and economy; if Chris didn’t make the trip in 1492 his second cousin Bob was coming in 1493…]. Is that called “Durable History” or something like that?
    I’ve read a few such books that look at alternates from a military historian perspective. In most cases the plausible range of outcomes was actually pretty small. Like if several early Pacific Battles had gone worse than they did, it would have meant more US resources deployed to the Pacific in 1942, and the invasion of North Africa might have been delayed for a few months.

    Of course in today’s World we see such staggering ignorance about the importance of real World events, the alternate as illustration is valid.
    I also did not see “The Man in the High Castle”. But hopefully its a good cautionary tale of what the world could be, and what we truly owe to those who made sure that never actually happened. Even better if it encourages someone to learn more about what really did happen.

    Sorry for rambling, you bring up an interesting topic, that I have a lot of conflicted feelings over.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good point, Dave- some of the historical fiction gets so far away from history that ‘speculative’ might fit quite well! The ones that irk me are the ‘based on a true story stories’ that just take the name of a historical figure and run with it. At least if it’s labeled ‘speculative fiction’ readers know that it’s not meant to be factual.
      The idea of ‘durable history’ is really interesting-
      I feel like you need to tell the tale of Bob Columbus, though 😁


      1. I suppose for a reader how “speculative” the history is might depend on how well you know the actual facts!
        “Durable History” is not mine, I just don’t quite recall where I read the idea.
        I can imagine a lot of Bobs!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. After reading your review of the book, I think I’ll skip it. The TV series did a good job of portraying the consequences of an Axis victory in the USA. The resistance movement and the alternate film clips add tension to the scenario.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It really looked like an interesting show- and honestly I wasn’t shocked that they deviated from the book. Usually I dislike book to movie adaptations because they change too much. This book is more a series of interconnected events- as a show it would probably be a bit of a clunker. Did the show have a real story resolution? (The book…not so much.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s been a while since we watched the final season, but there was a satisfying resolution involving the main characters. How their early decisions had consequences they could not foresee made the unfolding story interesting and unpredictable.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve enjoyed Dick’s work in the past (I haven’t read him recently), because he’s always just a bit different than other sci-fi and historical fiction writers. I’ll have to put this on my list. Thanks for the heads-up about the anthology, Anne. I wish it all the success I know it deserves.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Just heard that my copy of The Man in the High Castle should be delivered by Thursday. Looking forward to it. Thanks for the recommendation, Anne.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting stories and premise. Honestly Anne, with the political instability and ultra right movements, this premise makes me very uneasy. I am not sure that I can read this one. But, I am awaiting more from you. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sometimes the darker ficiton just isn’t the ticket.
      For lighter fare (and if you ever read YA fiction) my eldest started me on a series during a snow day last week (when I really SHOULD have been cleaning) called “Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians.” I haven’t laughed that much in a while. 😉


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