The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick’s oeuvre is a blindspot in my reading history, perhaps from a contrarian streak reacting to his fundamental importance to the speculative fiction genres. It was this streak that explains why the only other Dick I have read was problematic Dr. Futurity. Reading The Man in the High Castle in 2018 was a frustrating experience for some reasons, but finally opening one of Dick’s classic works demonstrated why he is so highly regarded.

Everything you know about the outcome of World War 2 is wrong. President Roosevelt was assassinated before the war even began and the US was slow to build its military against the rising threats of Japan and Germany. Now in 1962, the former United States is divided between the Pacific States (Japanese occupied), the Rocky Mountain States (free), and the German-occupied United States. The allies Japan and Germany split occupation of America, one was predominantly inward-looking, while the other achieved world-domination. German demands prevail, meaning a return to slavery of African Americans (a mild outcome compared to what happened when the Germans conquered Africa) and all Jews are declared renegade German citizens who must be deported. German technology grew by leaps and bounds, making them the dominant partner.

The Man in the High Castle unfolds through several small, loosely connected stories. In one, an antiques dealer in San Francisco named Robert Childan gets caught up in a forgery scandal when it turns out that some of his firearms were less than authentic, a fact brought to his attention by Frank Fink, a Jewish man living in secrecy in the Pacific States who approached him in disguise after losing his job as a forger. Around the same time a man calling himself Mr. Baynes and claiming to be from Sweden but speaking not a word of the language arrives in the city to pass information about Germany to one of Childan’s clients, the Japanese bureaucrat Mr. Tagomi. Meanwhile, in the Rocky Mountain States, Frank’s ex wife Juliana meets a man who introduces her to a banned book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in which Germany loses the war and convinces her that they should pay a visit to the author—the man in the high castle himself.

As plots went, each of these was thin, and the characters were only a little bit better. They all served their purpose to show a slice of life in this dystopic America, but I did not find any of the characters particularly memorable or get swept away by any of the plots. What compensated for these weaknesses, was the alternate history that unfolds in the pages. Now, I should say that much of this world exists off stage and those parts are actually filled with a good deal of classic sci-fi fabulism, such as Nazi space colonization. In contrast, what happens in these pages is the stuff of horror as a highly plausible rendition of what could happen in the event of fascist takeover.

The Man in the High Castle was worth reading for the setting alone, but I found myself asking what the takeaway ought to be from the novel. This grim vision of what could happen in the United States seems to have particular resonance in the current political climate, and Dick does a good job of underscoring that some American collaborators welcomed the new status quo rather than simply acquiescing to the new reality. But the novel is structured to build toward the ultimate reveal of Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. We are led to expect that he is a political reactionary living in a fortress, but when Juliana arrives it turns out that he is living in his own delusion, namely a normal suburban life. Further, she discovers, Hawthorne has largely put aside the I Ching and ceased looking at the world through the lens of this form of divination. These passages reek of fatalism, but a positive reading of this is to say that the refusal to give into fear and reclaiming agency is the highest form of resistance—not to mention that a book can change the world.

In the end, I was uncertain where I came down. The people bent on destruction are thwarted, at least for the moment, but the Reich still rules.

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Things have been hectic around here between the summer class I am teaching and trying to find time for my research projects, so I am slowly working my way through Ghost Wars, a history of the US involvement in Afghanistan before 9/11.

Dr. Futurity – Philip K. Dick

I picked up Dr. Futurity in a used bookstore recently based on two criteria. First, one of my blindspots in the area of classic science fiction is the work of Philip K. Dick. I am aware of the premises for quite a few books, but I have never read any of them. Second, of the options before me, the synopsis of Dr. Futurity, a future world dominated by the young and fetishizes death, sounded the most interesting. [I should also mention that I believe in the important marketing elements of cover and description when it comes to pre-judging a book.]

Doctor Jim Parsons leaves his wife standing on the porch of their southern-California home one morning in 2010 and takes the expressway north to San Fransisco. On this high-speed commute there is an accident and he is launched four hundred years into the future, into a a world that is barely recognizable. This future world is one in which healing is stigmatized and death fetishized. The population is divided into tribes based on totems, with athletic competitions determining the proportion of the population each tribe gets to have. Men are sterilized at birth and zygotes brought to term through a strict regimen of eugenics; women are without representation and, other than their participation in the competitions, serve to please their male partners and guests as housekeepers and sexual objects. Mars is transformed into a prison colony for dissenters and Venus into a mine, with juvenile delinquents trained to be shupos, violent killers who enforce the government’s positions.

Parsons, with his white skin and hippocratic oath, is dropped into this world and sentenced to Mars. In transit he is rescued by the Wolf Tribe, dissenters of Native American heritage, who need him to save their leader who was killed with an arrow while on a mission to the sixteenth century. Using the time machine, Parsons leaps backward and forward, trying to find a balance between his family back home, a new love in the future, and the vicissitudes of human ambition.

The basic hypothetical Dick poses, the one that caused me to get the book, was the strongest part of Dr. Futurity. In contrast, the plot (and the questions pertaining to time travel) were simply okay, as it hopped forward and back in time. In my opinion, Dick did not add much by way of conversation about history or the paradoxes posed by time travel, and the fact that the story veered away from the future and to these issues weakened the book. In fact, most of the consequences in Dr. Futurity fell back on the question of personalities and power dynamics within human families or societies.

And yet, I had other, bigger issues with Dr. Futurity

  1. Some of the specifics Dick used to place Parsons as the inhabitant of the near future were hilariously out of date. Notably, the inhabitants of the future try to make Parsons feel at home by providing creature comforts of his era, and the go-to taste of home was a Lucky Strike cigarette—a brand that was discontinued in the United States in 2006.
  2. More important was the treatment of women. Where the racial dynamics in the future were refreshing, generally treated just as a fact and not with a moral attached, the book reeked of gender issues. First, while the stay-at-home wife seeing her husband off might have been true of the time of publication (1960), the setting is somewhat in the future and therefore distressingly regressive. Second, in the far future the need for biological mothers is eliminated, and yet the women are further relegated, being sex objects and servants for their men, while it is considered rebellious to even broach the topic of female suffrage. Some of the main characters do not fall into this category, but only because they are exceptional women.

    The first two issues were troubling enough, but could have been explained in the course of the narrative, but, instead, Dick’s writing slips into a third sexist tic. He tells the story through Parson’s eyes, and often has Parson casually ogle the breasts of female characters. To wit, he describes Loris, the leader of the Wolf Tribe and “the most potent human being alive” as “the powerful, full-breasted creature” who has “energetic loins” and “superb breasts” that “glistened, swayed”. Dick does use these moments to establish sexual interest, but while Loris has her uses for Parsons, the interest in principally coming from the other direction. Had there been a valuable narrative purpose to Parson’s wandering eye that would be one thing, but the above quotes come from multiple passages that offer a troubling discourse on the purpose of women in the world of the story.

In sum, Dr. Futurity brimmed with tantalizing potential, but fell short on a number of fronts. It might well be a setting worth revisiting, but this particular story only flashed glimpses, otherwise proving shallow and problematic.

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I just finished reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller, about an isolated tribe being acclimated to modern society as a modern anthropology student becomes absorbed into their traditions. Next up I am going to read Albert Cossery’s A Splendid Conspiracy.

Foucault’s Pendulum – Umberto Eco

True esotericism does not fear contradiction.

People are starved for plans. If you offer them one, they fall on it like a pack of wolves. You invent, and they’ll believe. It’s wrong to add to the inventings that already exist.

Foucault’s pendulum, this novel’s eponymous device, swings in the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers in Paris and one theory holds that, with the right map, its movements will reveal the navel of the world and allow the user to access ultimate power. But this is only a conspiracy theory, right?

Foucault’s Pendulum is narrated by Casaubon, whose doctoral dissertation was on the historical facts surrounding the Knights Templar, though he insists that everything after the trial of Jacque de Molay belongs in the realm of myth. After graduating, Casaubon goes to work for press in Milan with his fellow editors Belbo and Diotallevi that specializes in the work of self-funded authors—-the realm of obsessives and those who see conspiracies at every turn. One of their potential authors is Colonel Ardenti, who claims to have discovered a message, in code, of course, concerning a Templar plot for world domination that spans centuries. But that contract falls through when Ardenti disappears.

Life happens and years go by, including a sojourn in Brazil for Casaubon, but around every corner is evidence of Ardenti’s Templar plot. By the 1980s all three editors are back in Milan and starting a division of the press that specializes in the occult. Years of reading books on cabala, conspiracies, and the occult has them seeing ever more evidence for the Templar plot until they decide to start feeding facts into a computer that will generate connections between disparate pieces of evidence. What they discover is a grand conspiracy that has been ongoing in its current iteration for more than six hundred years, but has been the principle motivator of world events for far longer.

Most of Foucault’s Pendulum‘s narrative takes place in the imagination of the three editors as retold by Casaubon. Nevertheless, the breadth of their knowledge makes the unfolding of the plot an intellectual tour de force, finding even the most improbable connections.

There was, however, one plot point that did not hold up for me: the computer. Set in 1990, the computer of Foucault’s Pendulum is touted as advanced (since Belbo was an early adopter) and capable of finding connections between any facts, but those data points must be manually entered. The editors use a few locked points (that the Templar plot is real) and call upon the computer to spit out connections to their inquiries. My issues with this plot point are two, one in terms of how the book aged and one in terms of the book itself.

First, the idea of a computer that can process information and return answers is all well and good, but I think that it has aged poorly simply in terms of the computing power currently available and the huge amount of data available through the internet. Similar ideas are at play in, for instance, the t.v. show Person of Interest, but on a more modern scale. This is not to discredit Foucault’s Pendulum, but rather to say that the device seems somewhat quaint at this point.

Second, and more pertinent to the plot of Foucault’s Pendulum is that the editors believe that the computer is producing connections in response to their questions, but answers are always oblique, requiring interpretation. This is probably Eco’s intention, meant to demonstrate a fatal flaw from the outset. The willful ignorance that makes up a significant portion of the plot would have bothered me less had it entirely been the result of human error, but the insertion of a technological wizard behind the curtain struck me as a relatively weak red-herring.

I really liked Foucault’s Pendulum overall. It was a stimulating mystery that also serves as a profound meditation on the foibles of human imagination and power of belief. The novel sprawls out, and only accelerates as it nears the conclusion, but this is necessary since the big reveal relies on a lifetime of accumulating evidence. I might have wished for just a bit more at points, but that should not detract from what is, ultimately, an immensely impressive novel.

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Next up is Philip K. Dick’s Dr. Futurity.