Saturday, 2 June 2012

Sitting Under the Shade of the Tree: The Man in the High Castle

Slowly but surely, my massive stack of reading material is going down. I don't think I've mentioned it before, but, well, I have quite the stack of books to get through. My burning desire to get through them quickly stems from the impending arrival, in July (barring any further delays to release), of the boxset of Volumes 1-5 of the Song of Ice and Fire series (in paperback). That's a nice stack of seven books. And I want to read my hardcover, signed copy of A Clash of Kings before the boxset arrives. So, mission to get through my stack of reading.

Now, the other day (/a week or two ago), I treated you all to my thoughts and feelings on Perdido Street Station, the largest book in my reading stack. Since then I demolished a James Ellroy novel (not to be reviewed here, alas, but maybe one day) and, not ten minutes ago, I finished The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick.

I'll admit, I've only read one Philip K. Dick book before - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? And it weirded me out a little. So maybe I was a little hesitant in picking up another Philip K. Dick novel. But numerous friends kept on telling me of the brilliance of The Man in the High Castle, so whenever I wandered into my local bookstore and had a browse, I picked up The Man in the High Castle, read the blurb, flicked it open and gave the first page or two a little read. Eventually, I caved - but mostly on account of the cover, a neat little hardback number in Gollancz's SF Masterworks series. And finally, on Wednesday morning while on the train to Reading to visit my friend Thief, I finally sat down to read the book properly.

So, to those uninitiated, The Man in the High Castle is set around the 1960s, (I imagine 1962, when the book was published), in a world where Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan won World War II. The United States is pretty much in three parts - the Pacific States of America, administrated by Japan, the Rocky Mountain States in the middle, with the Nazi-controlled puppet state of the United States existing on the East Coast. In the Rocky Mountain States is the eponymous "Man in the High Castle", an author of a work of fiction banned by the Reich in all its territories, but popular in the PSA - a work of fiction that describes a world where Germany and Japan were on the losing side of the war.

I have to say, the world-within-a-world idea of the book being about a book that pretty much describes our world was what hooked me. I was intrigued by the post-war world that Dick described - the parallel between what happened here in reality and what is happening there in fiction. Instead of Europe being the buffer zone between the superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union, the Rocky Mountain States are the buffer between the Empire of Japan and Nazi Germany, as their former allegiance drifts apart and a Cold War scenario emerges.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, my first experience with Philip K. Dick weirded me out. Just as I imagine that sentence could in the wrong contexts, but moving on. The Man in the High Castle, while not exactly any less weird, was a different kind of weird. An extremely enjoyable kind of weird. Dick brilliantly draws together the characters, painting a broad, strange portrait of American life under Japanese rule (we only ever get to see events in San Francisco and the Rocky Mountain States - the puppet USA is mentioned, as are various political intrigues in Germany), all drifting around their daily lives and somehow becoming entangled by the book within the book. Some more so than others.

I'm reaching that awkward point of wanting to say more, but not wanting to spoil the plot. This is about where I wrap things up. My friends, for all their pestering about this book, can sit smugly knowing that they were right. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it is well, well worth reading. It's a quiet little book, not one that goes around blowing things up and screaming your face, it just gently nudges you, draws you in and  makes sure you can't put it down and have to read it in four days.

Now, on to the rest of my book pile...

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