Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Subversive Literature in Nazi-Occupied America

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Anthony Vacca's rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Vintage (repint)

I don’t know why this is, but for some reason at the library where I work as a sexy librarian (catwoman glasses and tight turtleneck sweaters are standard issue) it has been decided by my co-workers that I am the go to guy when it comes to all matters concerning science fiction and fantasy novels. I find this odd considering I haven’t read a fantasy novel in about eight years and I can count the number of sci-fi novels I have read in my life on one metaphorical hand and still have one or two metaphorical fingers to spare. I have no idea what to recommend these patrons beside some of the obvious sci-fi classics I know about either because of movie adaptations or because I don’t live under a rock.

I am not prejudiced against sci-fi novels (actually, yeah, I probably kind of am: but not in theory at least). One of the aspects I think the genre has that makes it so worth-while is that it is a great vehicle for allegorical speculations about culture and the role of technology within. This is why films like, Blade Runner, The Running Man, Total Recall, Robocop, Alphaville, Brazil (to name a few) are all excellent (in their own, particular ways) pieces of cinema history. I think one of my problems (misinformed preconceptions?) about science fiction, is that the writing takes a backseat for all that speculation. Maybe I can blame all those hours of creative writing workshops and my young love for minimalism (you wouldn’t know that from the way I go on in these reviews), but I am still pretty critical on the whole "telling when you should be showing" aspect of fiction. What does this have to do with sci-fi novels? Well, I am talking about info-dumps here. Unless you are Neal Stephenson or David Foster Wallace, the info dump can be one of the most terrible atrocities known to fiction. They can turn any sense of a natural flow in prose into some kind of mutant creature that flops around on the ground waiting for a mercy blast from a flame-thrower.

Fortunately, we are spared from that in The Man in the High Castle; in fact, it feels like Dick was making a conscious effort to make the world within his sci-fi novel familiar enough so that we wouldn’t have trouble imagining it. One of the main techniques he uses to achieve this is by setting his novel in the present day (at least it was when it was published in 1962) United States. The only difference between our world and the world of Dick’s novel is that, the Allied Forces kind of lost WWII.

Oh, and the Nazis rule the world.

Sure, Japan is still around, and they were given a portion of the U.S.’s west coast for their part in helping out the Third Reich; but now they’re more than a little regretting ever getting in bed with the devil. There is not a lot they can do as the Nazis turn the rest of the U.S. into a violent and crumbling police-state, or as they build gigantic rocket ships towards space (why settle for Earth when you can have the entire galaxy for an empire?)…and we are not going to even talk about the hellhole of a science experiment they turned the entire continent of Africa into. The world is not a better place and, like any good Nazi, they don’t give a fuck.

But these are all the broad strokes of the world Dick is painting; this novel’s focus is not about epic battles of resistance or about the horrors of a dystopian society ran by Adolf and his thugs; instead, this book is essentially an ensemble piece that follows over the course of a few weeks the lives of several different people in Japan-occupied San Francisco. Not all these people know each other or even meet each other over the course of the novel’s narrative, but their lives reflect one another in that Dick uses his cast to work at his central questions of his novel: what does it mean to have an identity in relation to one’s country?

History, obviously, is one way Dick goes about tinkering with his question.

And so we follow around Dick’s assortment of science fiction grotesques: there’s Nobusuke Tagomi, a Japanese businessman who is beginning to have a crisis of conscious about his role as a successful colonist profiting off of the atrocities committed by the Axis powers; and there is Rudolf Wegener, a mysterious Eastern-European diplomat who shows up at Tagomi’s offices with certain information that may change German and Japanese relations substantially. There is also Frank Frink, a Jewish man who has survived the pogroms by keeping his racial identity secret, and who is now working on a scheme to make fake American antiques to sell for exuberant prices to young, chic Japanese colonists. Unfortunately for American antique dealer Robert Childan, he is the poor schmuck who has no idea he is selling fake Civil War pistols. And we can’t forget Juliana Frink, Frank’s ex-wife, who is living an aimless and restless life as a martial arts instructor, but then a mysterious stranger enters into her life…

Like I said, some plot elements tie these characters together, but there is really only two connecting factors that matter. One is the I Ching, which I know very little (and also care very little) about; but apparently it is kind of a big deal for new age and drug-addled Philip Dick, so of course then it is a big deal for all his characters. It’s apparently quite common for both Japanese colonists as well as Americans to consult this work for help in navigating their lives. The passages where characters consult their I Ching decks or whatever are opaque and I guess jam-packed with fortune cookie meaning.

(Rumor has it Dick wrote this novel while consulting his own I Ching deck. Good for you Dick!)

The other thing that ties these characters together is a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which is a scandalous best-seller in Dick’s version of America. The book is essentially an alternate history novel in which the author describes a history in which the Nazis lost World War II. It’s the kind of book everyone is reading (even when they are not supposed to): Jews, Americans, Japanese, and even Nazis. What is kind of ingenious is that this book does not tell of an America or history as we the readers know it, but instead it is a speculation of what could have happened. Some of the imagined historical events offered in this book within a book have a pretty good logic and rationale behind them. It works well enough for the characters in this book at least, because no one can predict history or the future exactly…well, unless you have the I Ching…

The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is what helps to elevate this book from being a pretty good pulpy sci-fi yarn, and into a fairly intriguing metaphysical novel. Some of his characters who read this book dismiss it as just sensationalist, and even immoral, trash. Others, like the oppressed Americans (go figure) view this book as something more.

For them it is not just fiction. Not just escapism. Not just another disposable piece of junk "genre" writing.

No, for these deserving readers The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is a means for them to reevaluate their own world, their own ideas of self. The book allows them a way to subvert the hegemony of the forces that control the world around them, and allows each reader, even if it is in their own mind, a way to escape to a place that none of the monsters crawling around this world of ours can touch.

And, in Dick’s estimation at least, this is the underappreciated and underutilized power of good old-fashioned fiction, no matter what the genre you classify it away as. Can’t say I argue with the man one bit.

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1 comment:

  1. any day with a pk dick book is better than any day with out one