Last night I decided to binge-watch season 2 of Amazon's The Man in the High Castle. If you're unfamiliar with the show, it's based on a 1962 novel by Philip K. DIck premised on the idea that the United States lost the Second World War. With its defeat the U.S. is a divided and occupied land, with the Japanese in charge of the West Coast and the Germans ruling everything east of the Great Plains. The novel itself is one of my all time favorites and so far I'm enjoying the show (with a caveat regarding the direction they're taking it regarding the central twist). But watching it has highlighted something that has long bugged me about alternate histories of the war written by Americans.
Simply put, it's the conceit is that the Germany couldn't be defeated without the United States. It's inherent in the majority of U.S.-centric alternate history stories, including Dick's: without America's involvement in the war, the Nazis roll over Europe and become the racist empire everybody not associated with our current administration loves to hate. There are two things I find annoying about this, the first being that it's bogus to anyone with more than a passing history of the war. As much as Americans may hate to admit it, but the Second World War was decided on the Eastern Front: it was the Soviets who were key to destroying the Nazis' empire, not the Americans. From the summer of 1941 onward the bulk of the German war machine was engaged in the Soviets, who ground it down over the course of four years; three out of every four German soldiers killed during the war died on the Eastern Front. While the U.S. aided in this, both through their Lend-Lease program and their assaults on Germany from the west, absent these the Soviet victory was still the probable outcome.
This would be a pedantic complaint were it not for how this reflects our devaluing of the costs involved in this. We don't know exactly how many Soviet soldiers died fighting the Nazis, but the conservative estimate is 8.7 million people. By contrast, the United States lost 139,380 soldiers fighting against the Germans in Europe, which makes for a ratio of 80 Soviet soldiers killed for every American who died in combat. And that Soviet figure is just for the men and women killed in combat: the official total of war dead is 26.6 million, and that's regarded as a conservative estimate as well.
Now, I get why American writers do this, as they're writing for their audience. But it's dangerous in that it perpetuates a conceit that is deeply offensive to lots of people in the world, both the ones who sacrificed and the descendants of those who did. The thing of it is, it doesn't take a huge stretch of the imagination to gin up a scenario that isn't premised on the belief that our participation in the war was indispensable to Germany's defeat. Instead, though, we bask in the conceit that our novice soldiers were the ones who knocked down the Nazis — and then we wonder why the world despises us for it.
“The Man in the High Castle” is my second favourite PKD novel, after “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”. I read both novels in the same year, back in the day, along with “Ubik”, “VALIS” and “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”, and most of PKD's short fiction. Without doubt the most mind-bending year of reading I've ever had, and the one that hooked me on SF more than any other. The thing I love about his stories more than anything else is their mastery of chaos and illogicality. Reality in a PKD story is held together by the desperate hopes of his characters, and its always falling apart beneath their feet. Love it!
As for PKD's prose not keeping up with his ideas and co... I agree... and also agree it's often part of the fun. Although here, as noted, I found his writing mainly quite elegant.
I've been hunting around for speculation as to why PKD called Hawthorne Abendsen's book “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy”. Dick says in the book that the title is a quote from The Bible, but if so it is not in a common translation. You can find some speculation elsewhere; being speculative about a Dick novel means we'll be wandering into some fairly strange territory... I've also asked the question on my own blog, so there may be enlightening comments there.
If you're into SF, read on.
“Huh?” That was pretty much my reaction at the end of this book. The first and only other book I’ve read by Philip K. Dick was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. I thought that book had a weird ending, but I think The Man in the High Castle out-weirded that one.
The general setting is in an alternate reality in which the Axis powers won World War II instead of the Allied powers. Japanese culture is dominant in the U.S. Nearly everybody speaks and thinks in broken English and uses the I Ching to make decisions and answer questions, while Germans are apparently all obsessed with the Nazi ideal. In other words, I thought the depiction of other cultures in this book seemed stereotyped, and the choppy English quickly became tiresome to read.
I think this book may have been intended more as a vehicle to express ideas than to tell a story. There are interesting ideas here, and some clever plot elements, but the story itself felt pretty thin to me. There are several plot threads, one or two of which could be considered the “main plot”, but there weren’t really any tangible results of the events in the book.
The main characters weren’t very likeable. Juliana was just plain loco. I hated Childan, to the point that I may have told him I hated him out loud a couple of times while reading. I warmed up to a couple of the others later in the book after I understood them better, but I didn’t get attached to any of them or care much what happened to them.
Of the two PKD books I’ve now read, I definitely preferred Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Its story interested me more, whereas I was occasionally bored by this one. I did enjoy some aspects of it, but not consistently. As a side note, this book has several German phrases that aren’t translated within the book, so it was nice to be able to highlight the phrases on my Kindle and instantly get a translation.