The Man in the High Castle
The Man in the High Castle

A year ago I reviewed the first season of the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle. Now, with the premiere of season two, I’d like to look at the source material. While I enjoyed Amazon’s version of Philip K. Dick’s Hugo-winning alternative history, the novel The Man in the High Castle is contemplative and tentative in ways that few TV series are equipped to handle. The two versions are complimentary, but not truly comparable.

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Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle was both published and set in 1962, and supposes a diametrically different outcome to World War II than we know.  In this world the United States fell in 1947, and was carved up between imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. The Reich is a grasping power, and its relationship with Japan is strained and distrustful. Europe and Africa are ravaged by huge environmental and humanitarian deprivations. There is space travel, and nuclear weapons. There is also a haunting sense of instability. The world order is unsustainable.

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Unlike its television interpretation, the novel The Man in the High Castle does not need bold action to move it along. Although many things do happen, they are small more often than dramatic. The novel relies largely on character development for its propulsion. Dick’s characters are more circumspect versions of their series alter-egos, and to varying degrees uncertain of their paths.

What is to me most striking about The Man In The High Castle is the finely-tuned tension running through it because of the characters’ uncertainties. The entire novel takes place in the through between sweeping political events, and is told from the points of view of people who are not aware that they can have any influence on the course of history–yet. That possible future influence fills the novel with potential energy as characters come to terms with the circumstances of their lives, and finally make the decisions to steer them rather than merely drift.

A map of PKD's alternate world
A map of PKD’s alternate world

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Also altered in translation are the importance of two books that form the thematic backbone of Dick’s original work.

The first book is a novel within a novel, titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy—an alternate history to the alternate history it exists in. While Germany has reason to dislike the future envisioned in the subversive book, their banning of it does nothing to stop its popularity, or its influence on German citizens and subjects: “What upset him was this. This death of Adolf Hitler, the defeat and destruction of Hitler, the Partei, and Germany itself, as depicted in Abendsen’s book…it was all somehow grander, more in the old spirit than the actual world. The world of German hegemony” (133).

The second book is the philosophical guide The I Ching, which most of the characters use to decide the potential outcomes of their actions. It is an exercise in ambiguity and delicate moral complexity, of what may be and what might have been. Everything is open to interpretation, each throw of the sticks leads to a subtly different reading of the associated lines. Nothing is certain until action is taken, nothing is clear until it is in hindsight.

Under the influence of either or both of the two books, the characters decide their paths and reinvent both their places in this world and their ability to change them. Few of those changes are on a grand scale. Like so much else, they are incremental until the balance tips.

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The man behind The Man in the High Castle
The man behind The Man in the High Castle

I recall a shrine in Hiroshima wherein a shinbone of some medieval saint could be examined. However, this is an artifact and that was a relic. This is alive in the now, whereas that merely remained. (185)

Unlike its serial adaptation, Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle is a story of transitions both personal and cultural. It is the story of characters coming to an understanding of where their lives have taken them so far, and what possibilities are open to them now. It is not merely an alternative version of the history we know. It is also an examination of how history is made, of the tiny components and the commonplace characters that are as much a part of its making as the men in power.

Lest we forget.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

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The Man in the High Castle, Amazon’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel, is an intriguing, well-plotted spy drama set in an incompletely subjugated America after the Axis victory in World War II. Germany and Japan share control of the continent, with continued mutual mistrust. A resistance exists under each government’s rule, one that hinges on the transportation of secret films that fuel the rebellion.

Between the Reich’s holdings on the East Coast and the Japanese Empire’s on the West is the Neutral Zone. It is effectively a no-man’s land that provides some safety for Blacks, homosexuals, and other social outcasts. Despite the pressure of the Reich and the Empire, it is apparently quite easy to travel to the neutral zone and back by a regular bus route.

America in The Man in the High Castle
America in The Man in the High Castle

There are a few spoilers ahead.

The Man in the High Castle’s cinematography is quite beautiful, with a muted palate like a faded old film print. The red of the Nazi flags is the brighter for it. There are some strikingly emotional moments, such as the ash falling like snow from the hospital that is burning “cripples, you know, a drag on the state” in episode 1, and the boom shot of mass graves in episode 7. One character leaves origami birds behind him, in a nod to producer Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

The plotting is tight, with nothing wasted even when the story takes its time unfolding. It is intrigue upon intrigue, delicate, building on the increasing tension between the Japanese and the Nazis. Like ripples expanding in a pool, the number of characters grows and the conspiracy expands. By episode 4, though, a main driver of the plot becomes Juliana’s search for answers to her sister’s death rather than the resistance itself.

The acting is as impeccable as the writing allows. The Man in the High Castle suffers at times from the rushed characterization of series television. Characters leap into rebellion or radicalism with little prelude to their sudden embrace of the cause. The exposition is occasionally clunky, as characters ask obvious questions and translate what they just said, effectively repeating themselves.

Secondary characters become more developed as the series goes on, while the primary characters actually become soapier. Juliana (Alexa Davalos) and Joe (Luke Kleintank), the young leads, are unfortunately underdeveloped as they are written. As a possibly wavering double agent, Joe’s moral ambivalence too often comes across as indecision.  And Juliana strikes me as too vacillating and selfish to be a hero. Her determination comes off as a sort of Nancy Drew pig-headedness. I’m surprised the resistance didn’t kill her for a loose cannon when she told them she will not sacrifice for the cause.

But there are a number of very strong scenes in the second half of the series that help add depth to what has gone before. One of the best is between an unctuous antiques dealer and a wealthy Japanese couple. The Japanese are attempting to embrace all aspects of American culture while the dealer rejects out of hand any Black and Jewish cultural contributions. Cultural appropriation is rampant on both sides. The awkwardness feels real.

By the last episode, both the Japanese and the Nazi players are more interesting and more important than the resistance characters. Again, much of it falls back on the script. The bad guys are allowed to display deeply moral decision-making processes and a willingness to shoulder their responsibilities in a way that is missing from the resistance characters. As Obergruppenführer John Smith, Rufus Sewell is a nuanced Nazi, believable as a father wrestling with the state-required death of his genetically diseased son and also as a military man who suspects he is being set up. And in particular, Trade Minister Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente), and Officer Wegener (Carsten Norgaard) all display a sense of larger purpose, willing to sacrifice their honors and their lives for the sake of averting further war.

In my opinion, The Man in the High Castle is a flawed yet satisfying show. The cast and production are outstanding. There are many philosophical points to ponder among the plot twists, awkward romances, and action. The final scene left us hanging. This is well worth ten hours of your time, either in a binge or more moderately paced. Since I binged, I will have to read the source novel while waiting for season two. I’ll let you know how that goes.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!