Book Review: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick (Mariner Books, 2011)

While I found Philip K. Dick’s work of post-war speculative fiction interesting, I can’t quite say that I enjoyed it. Set in 1962 (also its year of publication), the book examines a possible world and life in America if the Axis powers had won World War Two. In this alternate universe the United States has been divided by the new ruling powers of Germany and Japan. The action takes place primarily in San Francisco, which is under Japanese control, and Denver, largely under control of the Reich. We see the second-class status of the whites under the ruling Japanese and the far-reaching control of the Reich around the world, even as they demolish it physically. (In this universe the Mediterranean Sea has been drained and Africa is essentially a waste land. These seem to have surprisingly small affect on the larger world environmental systems.)

The book has a few characters that we follow. Robert Childan, an antiques collector, specializing in Americana, which the Japanese to love to collect. Frank Fink, secretly Jewish, who quits his job and begins manufacturing jewellery. And Frank’s ex-wife, Juliana, a judo instructor in Denver who gets caught up with a mysterious truck driver and begins a journey toward an elusive author, the man in the high castle. There’s also a Swedish business man who is more than he appears and a Japanese business man caught in the middle.

This author is the writer of a novel within a novel, a book banned by the Third Reich, which depicts a world where the Allies won the war. Not quite our world as we know it but yet another option. This is where some knowledge of early 20th century history and World War Two comes in handy. I thought I knew a decent amount but I did find myself googling names to find out who was real and who was fictional.

The book has a plot but it really felt secondary to Dick’s desire to expound on his theories of fate and control, of class and warfare. Much of it is thought-provoking but it also ends up feeling more like an essay than a novel. The characters are not deeply drawn and I didn’t really find myself caring about any of them. None of them seem to have real agency which, admittedly, is perhaps Dick’s point, but it also doesn’t make for gripping reading.

In the end, I’m glad to have crossed this book off my TBR and to have read a work I’ve heard referenced for years. If you’re interested in philosophy and the idea of how small actions can cause big changes, you might enjoy this one, but if you’re looking for action, this isn’t it.

21 thoughts on “Book Review: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick”

  1. You definitely took more from this book than I did back when I read it. I was so frustrated by the way the novel seemed to go nowhere, and my lack of WWII knowledge was a real hang up. I read High Castle for a book club I was in back then, and some of the older members were really excited because they remembered this history. How they remembered, I don’t know, as none of them were old enough to be alive during WWII.

    1. I wonder if the war felt closer for a slightly older generation because their parents were involved? My grandmother always had lots of stories about her experience during World War Two. I think I found the premise interesting enough here that I was able to look past the lack of action, plus the other book I read by Dick was kind of the same. That said, I don’t feel the need to read anything else by him!

    2. I imagine it depends a lot on their experience. My other grandparents never talked about the war but they were older and I think it was a very difficult, scary time. They also had more of the immigrant mentality of, Don’t talk about the past, everything is fine. Whereas my one grandmother was just out of her teens and her “war stories” were all dances with soldiers and writing letters to handsome young men. Her dad didn’t have to serve and her brothers were too young and she didn’t meet my grandfather until after the war. None of my grandparents are alive now but I wish I could ask them all more about it.

    3. She was pretty awesome! She always said she never would have married a man who couldn’t dance! I wish I could have known her in her 20s.

  2. This is one I’d like to give a shot at some point too. It’s a shame the plot and characters aren’t as engaging as its ideas, but it’s good to have more realistic expectations of what I should expect. Great review!

    1. Thanks! Have you read any PKD before? I’ve only read one other but I remember it being like this too. Very imaginative but weak on character development.

    2. I haven’t. A shame that seems to be a characteristic of his work. He’s one of those authors I’d like to try at least once, but I’m glad to know I shouldn’t rush to it!

  3. Hmmm, interesting! Now that Philip K. Dick is on my radar I feel like I should read at least one of his works, but I can’t decide whether this should be it! While I don’t mind reading sci-fi primarily for the ideas it presents, it is disappointing that characterization and plot aren’t stronger here. That can make it hard to stay invested from the start. The novel within a novel appeals, but not much else. In any case, I appreciated reading your thoughtful review!

    1. This isn’t great praise but the book isn’t long and it isn’t hard to read. I’m guessing that people who love PKD’s work love the ideas he sparks and are readers who are less bothered by the lack of character building. I’m glad to have crossed him off my list but I don’t feel like I need to read any more!

    2. I recommend reading “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” or “A Scanner Darkly” by Philip K. Dick, if you have not read these books already. I consider both to be just brilliant (though dark) sci-fi books and, though many thought-provoking ideas are there and the novel relies on brainy encounters, some absurd situations and general Philip K. Dick action, I would never say that the characterisations in these novels are “thin”. The plot and emotions are well-covered in both books too.

    3. Thanks for the recommendations, Diana! I KEEP forgetting that Do Androids Dream… is one of PKD’s books! That one does appeal to me more and sounds like a good place to start. I’ll make note of A Scanner Darkly as well! It definitely bodes well that both impressed you. 🙂

  4. I tried listening to this on audio a few years ago and ended up abandoning it, although at the time I felt I’d probably have enjoyed reading it more. But I’ve since read a couple of his other things and am not sure his style works for me. Plus it always annoys me in this kind of book if I don’t know which characters were real people – and I never do!

    1. I definitely googled a few names! Peter happens to be quite a history buff so I found myself asking him quite a few questions too. The style here doesn’t really work for me either and I think I can say that confidently now. The premise is great but the way he follows through on it just wasn’t as interesting as I’d hoped it would be.

  5. Great review. It is funny but even though I consider myself to be a fan and big admirer of Philip K. Dick, I never wanted to read this book in particular and never will. The plot does not appeal to me at all (any mention of the World War Two in my sci-fi and it is a “no-no” for me), even though I love PKD ideas and his fast-paced plot. I would not necessarily drop the author because of this book. I really enjoyed “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, “A Scanner Darkly” and “Ubik”- and consider these three books to be the strongest books the author ever produced – mind-blowing books.

    1. I have read “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” and I liked it better than this but still recall being overall kind of disappointed. I’m not much of a science fiction reader overall so it was the history aspect that drew me to this one.

  6. Gosh where have I been, I’ve never even heard of this book! Too bad it missed the mark. I feel like that’s a common mistake that some authors make-they want to expand upon an idea or theory so they build a weak story around it to make it more interesting, when really, it could have been an essay, or a book of essays around that one topic. Sigh.

    1. Yeah, cool idea, not great follow through. Philip K. Dick came on my radar when I worked in a used bookstore; there were definitely people who loved his stuff but this one was not for me.

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