Why The Man in the High Castle Is Essential Science Fiction

Here are some reasons why you must watch and read Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle before you die...

Editor’s Note: It’s The Man in the High Castle Week here at Den of Geek! For more High Castle stories, click here.

If you know anything about the late science fiction grandmaster Philip K. Dick, then you’re aware that picking up one of his books means that you’re in for quite the trip. Not of the LSD kind — unless that’s what you’re into. I mean that his mind-bending, reality-altering prose is the kind of fiction that will leave you frothing at the mouth. What is reality? Is there a real reality and a false reality? Can there only truly be two realities?

Those are the types of questions that PKD sought to answer during his long trips into the darkest caverns of the mind and society. If you ever have the time to read his craziest book of all, The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick (edited by long-time hardcore fan and fellow scifi grandmaster Jonathan Lethem), then you can get a taste of just how deep the rabbit hole goes. 

For the more common fan (or the unknowing fan), there have been countless films, TV shows, and games based on PKD’s work. Most notably, you might remember Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, and The Adjustment Bureau. They’re all fantastic film experiences. If you missed any of these, I suggest you plan to watch them over the weekend. 

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Add The Man in the High Castle to the many works that have inspired/been adapted for screen. This novel, which presents an alternate history where the Axis Powers won World War II, is one of the writer’s greatest and is on the edge of becoming Amazon’s newest digital series. 

Amazon joined the original programming business back in 2013, and has been adding new shows to their lineup since. Last year’s Pilot Season — a period in which Amazon users can vote on their favorite pilots in order for them to be turned into series — included an adaptation of The Man in the High Castle, which will now premiere as a full series on Amazon Prime on November 20th. 

We haven’t always been treated to the best PKD adaptations, and many of our favorite books still remain off the screens (but really, I doubt I’d ever want to see something like UBIK on my TV), but Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle is truly something to celebrate as a great first step into our next sci-fi TV obsession. You can read our spoiler free review right here.

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Here are five reasons why The Man in the High Castle is essential science fiction for fans of the genre:

1. Alternate Reality Galore

You’ve probably read things before that present “what if” scenarios based on our history. Books like Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee (which inspired PKD’s novel), The Plot Against America by Philip Roth, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon all present twisted versions of our own history. Usually, there’s a crux for this alternate reality. In The Plot Against America, FDR loses his third-term election to Charles Lindbergh, who fathers Fascism and anti-Semitism into the United States. The South wins the Battle of Gettysburg and ultimately the Civil War in Bring the Jubilee

The point of divergence for the terrifying reality in The Man in the High Castle is very grim indeed: FDR is assassinated in 1934 by Giuseppe Zangara — a year into his first term. If you believe that FDR was a great man, you know that it was through his leadership that America survived both the Great Depression AND World War II. Hell of a resume. But that would never come to pass in PKD’s reality.

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Instead, the Axis Powers crushed the opposition and took over most of the world. The Third Reich and Imperial Japan became the resulting superpowers of the world. This triggered a Cold War between them.

The novel and the TV pilot both begin in the aftermath of these world events, as the continental United States is divided in two by Japan and Germany. For the most part, the American people accept these harsh realities and fall into the new status quo. 

But then PKD expertly introduces an alternate reality to his alternate reality, one in which the Allies won the war but that doesn’t result in our reality. In fact, the US and the UK end up duking it out in a Cold War that the UK eventually wins, becoming the only superpower in alternate-alternate reality’s world. 

Much of the novel, and presumably the show, is about challenging these realities and coming to terms with the fact that there aren’t two set realities — one that is and one that isn’t. As you read through the novel, you’re presented with the alternate reality, the alternate-alternate reality, and your reality, effectively proving that there must be more than two realities. Many diverging paths. 

Okay, take a breath.

2. Worldbuilding at its Best

From a technical standpoint, PKD is one of the great masters of setting. His characters inhabit worlds in which robots are more human than the humans they serve, drug-addled narcs can’t tell the difference between their countless undercover personas, and police officers can apprehend criminals before they commit any crime. It’s not only the quality of his prose or the details that allow us to step in and out of PKD’s radical world visions with ease. It’s the way he’s able to mold the characters to the worlds he creates.

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We watch guys like Rick Deckard (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? aka Blade Runner) look upon his neighbor, who can afford a real animal in a postapocalyptic world where robotic animals are the norm, with envy. Or Jason Taverner, a celebrity, who is suddenly forced into a parallel universe where nobody knows who he is. Page by page, his mind deteriorates in a world that is unmistakably like his, except that it does not know him. 

I dare call The Man in the High Castle PKD’s best example of worldbuilding. We’re introduced to a Pacific United States that has been completely taken over by Asian cultural hegemony. Characters (and PKD himself) consult the “I Ching,” an ancient Chinese book of divination to decide crucial points in the narrative. The Nazi-controlled East Coast burns with its captor’s insignia, bleeding through the streets of Times Square. That United States of America kills Jews and burns the old and decrepit so that it snows ashes on the highways. Finally, there’s the Wild West of the Rocky Mountain Neutral Zone, where part of the novel takes place. 

The show gives life to all of these parts of PKD’s fictional world, delivering the big, stunning differences in a matter-of-fact way. While the male protagonist is on the road to the Rocky Mountain Neutral Zone, he is taken by the snow. A police officer informs him in a nonchalant way those are the ashes from the hospital a few miles over. It’s haunting. 

3. A Text Within a Text

The source of the main characters’ obsession is a book (or film reel in the show) called The Grasshopper Lies Heavywritten by the titular “man in the high castle.” The book tells the story of the alternate-alternate reality mentioned above. All of the characters are in some way affected by this “piece of fiction” and try to reconcile the reality they’re living in with the one from fiction.

One character even has a vision in which the reality from The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is the true reality before he is pulled back into his grim existence. Two characters in particular try to find the writer of the book, one Hawthorne Abendsen, who is said to live in a fortress where the Nazis can’t find him. His book, obviously, isn’t very well received by the powers that be. 

Much of the book becomes a hunt for truth in a world that designates both of its realities as unreal. How is anyone ever supposed to get anything done in this country? 

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4. Cold War

It’s startling how well PKD captures the political climate of his alternate reality. Not unlike the story between the US and USSR, Japan and Germany are locked in a Cold War that could break into nuclear war at any moment. Both superpowers have amassed most of the lands of the world, and are now waiting with their fingers on the big red button. 

The arms race is very real. The Third Reich has advanced nuclear technology, which allows their planes to fly around the world in a very short time. It’s interesting to see an alternate reality in which the Axis Powers are capable of greater scientific achievements than the side that actually won WWII. Germany also manages to drain an entire sea and colonize the Solar System. Japan is in trouble.

The novel begins after Hitler has fallen ill and can no longer govern his part of the world. Martin Bormann takes his place as Fuhrer and is equally as terrible, wiping out much of Africa’s people. We join our characters after Bormann has died and a power struggle within the German ranks commences. The Japanese fear that whoever ends up in power, it will spell doom for the superpower. 

5. Spies and Double Agents

Since there’s an oppressive master, obviously there are rebels. The TV pilot immediately focuses on American freedom fighters’ struggles against the Third Reich. One member, Joe Blake (Joe Cinnadella in the novel), must transport the mysterious Grasshopper Lies Heavy through the United States and into the Rocky Mountain Neutral Zone. Pretty early on, we question his allegiance, as he makes it past Nazi checkpoints and meets up with other allies. Will he complete his undercover mission and save the old ways or turn out to be someone else completely?

In the novel, Joe Cinnadella gives us a bit of a surprise on his way to find Hawthorne Abendsen with the female protagonist, Juliana Frink, who is secretly Jewish (nee Fink). There are enough spies and counter-agents in this novel to keep us invested in the characters, as well as the organizations/governments/movements they work for. 

There’s also Mr. Baynes, a Swedish industrialist, who is actually a Nazi Counter-Intelligence officer. He’s on a mission to warn the Japanese government of an impending nuclear attack by Germany. What he knows could prevent another World War and the complete decimation of America, but if he succeeds, the dark reality of the novel will continue. Who do we root for?

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John Saavedra hasn’t read enough Philip K. Dick novels. Recommend some to him on Twitter

* This article originally ran in January of 2015. We brought it back to celebrate the premiere of the show on Amazon Prime. *