The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Tome On The Range

Axis Of Empathy: Philip K Dick's The Man In The High Castle Revisited
Eli Lee , January 6th, 2013 04:16

Fifty (one) years on, Eli Lee analyses the realities and unrealities behind one of the seminal science fiction writer's densest novels

Add your comment »

Known for writing novels that distort, contradict and flat-out deny reality, Philip K Dick is a science fiction legend. Though he died when he was only 53, Dick was amazingly prolific in his relatively short lifetime, producing 44 novels and 121 short stories – a phenomenal amount by anyone’s standards. He had a reputation as a drug-addled paranoiac – I’ve long imagined him sitting at home in Orange County, California, the shades pulled down to stop the light coming in, typing away all dogged and intense, stopping only to top up on amphetamines. Maybe that’s unfair, but the point remains that he was obsessive; the kind of man who would do whatever it took to get his writing done. And he wrote fiction not because he wanted praise for pretty sentences; he wrote it because he saw himself as a philosopher, and he found fiction the most natural way to get his ideas across.

The Man in the High Castle (TMITHC) was published in 1962, only about a decade into his career, and a good five years before he started cranking out the famous stuff like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, VALIS and UBIK. He’d already published a clutch of novels in the 1950s, but TMITHC, which won the Hugo Award in 1963, was the first to show he had serious literary chops. It’s an alternative history, based on the premise that the Axis powers have won World War II and divided the globe into three: most of it is Reich-ruled; the Japanese-led Pacific States of America (PSA) controls a sliver of territory in the Far East and California; and then there’s an even smaller sliver of buffer zone in the Rocky Mountains. Its characters are mostly people living under Japanese rule in San Francisco, and it’s from their perspective that Dick poses the question: what if the Allies hadn’t won the war?

TMITHC can, of course, never answer this question with any real certainty but envisions the possibilities brilliantly. The world-building is vivid, especially in the deliberately snarky touches – like Hitler being still alive in an Austrian sanatorium, crawling towards death with syphilis of the brain. Its rich complexity helps Dick, and his readers, explore the two big questions that preoccupied him his whole life – as he says in his essay “How to Build a Universe that Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later” – ‘What does it mean to be human?’ and ‘What is reality?’

These are questions that science fiction is best poised to answer: for one thing, sci-fi is all about playing with what it means to be human (if you’re not bound to the flesh, you can go on playing forever), and as for the question of what reality is, well, it has all of science (and fiction) at its disposal to answer that. One classic sci-fi convention is to keep most of an imagined universe recognizable and prosaic, twisting and tweaking just a few things to create a sharp estrangement effect. Dick believed that this sense of dislocation – this “convulsive shock in the reader’s mind” – was necessary if sci-fi was going to seduce us successfully; that it must create a world that is both familiar and strange, all at once. The alternative history of TMITHC is a shining example: its world and people are recognizable – even the incongruences have their roots in reality – but there’s something alien lurking there. A constant shadow.

So put the existential questions and the parallel universe together, and you might guess that Dick chose to write TMITHC as a dual-purpose critical allegory - to show how terribly shit things could have been, and to show how terribly shit they are. TMITHC was written at the height of the Cold War, not long after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and JFK’s Vienna Summit with Nikita Krushchev, and with any alternative history, of course, you’re duty-bound to look at the writer’s context. But the Nazi regime in the novel creates such a claustrophobic atmosphere that it sort of closes in on you: there’s one scene where they’re running through the list of successors to Bormann (Dick’s choice of Reich Chancellor) and personality profiles of Goebbels, Goering, Heydrich, von Schirach and Seyss-Inquart are offered up. It’s bone-chilling; the stuff of horror stories. Of course it is. And so, when you’re reading it, you’re not thinking about the Cold War. You’re thinking about how gut wrenchingly sickening the Nazis were. (And in the novel, they’ve gone onto wipe out Africa and Eastern Europe too – it’s a horror fully realised.) You’re plunged into it, and it’s not so easy to sit back and think of metatextual references.

But what this does, instead, is take us right back to that central question: what does it mean to be human? If the Nazis are on one end of the spectrum – in that one aspect of being human is having the capacity to embody evil – then other characters in the novel balance this out, and (luckily) Dick places us mostly in their shoes. There’s Mr Tagomi, a high-ranking official in the Japanese Trade Mission in San Francisco, riddled with classic Dickian melancholy about the moral numbness of the world around him; Frank Fink, a Jewish jewelry craftsman, working for a firm that specializes in fake historical American artifacts (US culture having been repressed and then reappearing as kitsch paraphernalia of a lost time, fetishized by the Japanese); and Frank’s estranged wife, Julianna, who’s living out in the Rocky Mountain States. Dick pulls us into their personal struggles of survival, illuminating the whole by focusing on the detail. We aren’t at the heart of the nastiness but on the periphery, yet the lives of the people here are still entirely circumscribed by the Fascist machine. With their plans and hopes skewered by politics and power, they’re all in the deepest of shit. And what do they do? They consult the I Ching. Escaping Fascism, they pursue Taoism. Here, the novel’s morality is pretty unsubtle – the one main character who doesn’t use the I Ching is also the only racist among them.

This may all sound kind of tenuous, but it’s not unusual for spirituality to inveigle its way into sci-fi; especially not a PKD novel. Or think of the works of Arthur C. Clarke or Roger Zelazny, or even consider Battlestar Galactica – sci-fi is obsessed with man’s solitude in the universe. It cries out for explanations – which comes right back to those two questions Dick asks and, in turn asks us to ask, about humanity and reality. It might seem odd to mix spirituality with political tension and ideological oppression, but Dick is clawing at the root to find out what really matters, when all is said and done, it has its role to play.

So, then, why does he create these extreme situations, these end-of-world, post-end-of-world, and what-world-are-we-talking-about-anyway scenarios? I was listening to a bunch of Dick experts (ha ha) discuss this, on the radio show Expanding Mind and given all the wars, paranoia, confusion, flipped scripts and dissolving realities, I was surprised at what they identified as the most important point of his writing: they decided it was empathy. That’s what they pulled out from the (notoriously sloppy) prose, from the memory-wiping to the electric sheep: empathy. And it’s true. If it’s about anything, TMITHC is about that. All PKD’s novels are. We’re meant to empathise with ordinary people in shitty situations – because to be human is to struggle and we’re all in shitty situations. What matters is to have empathy. As Dick said:
“You know, people think that the author wants to be immortal, to be remembered through his work. No. I want Mr. Tagomi always to be remembered. My characters are composites of what I've actually seen people do, and the only way for them to be remembered is through my books.”

As for the reality-baiting, it comes into TMITHC by way of the I Ching. As I said previously, one of the best things about sci-fi is the way in which it loosens the ground under your feet. There are some PKD novels where this happens constantly, where the characters aren’t sure if what’s real is (really) real or just a simulacra, but no such ruptures happen here. Yet, at its conclusion, the novel’s reality does fall apart, and what happens is both brilliant and confusing. The main characters are all reading a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy (catchy!) about the Allies winning the war. It’s banned by the Reich yet available in the PSA and its enigmatic author lives in the Rocky Mountain States. Juliana goes to find him – he’s the “Man in the High Castle” of the title. (It’s hard to explain what happens now without spoiling the ending, so consider yourselves warned.)

Still here? Okay.

When Juliana meets the author, he says that the I Ching (at the time believed by Dick to be “a superb cosmology and science,” though he later refuted this) guided his hand in writing The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, dictating the plot to him via the hexagrams that appeared when he consulted it. Then, in classic PKD headfuck-style, it’s revealed that what happens in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is in fact reality, and that the world of TMITHC is the fiction. And that’s it. It’s an abrupt ending, and it leaves us at the wormhole between the unreal universe of the book we’re reading, and the real universe of the book inside the book we’re reading. (Ouch. I’m not even sure if that’s a wormhole.)

What did Dick intend by inverting reality like this? There’s something in the fact that the world of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy doesn’t match our reality completely, but its fictions are more consistent with our truths, so we have to journey through the artificial in order to get back to the real. Distinguishing between manufactured pseudorealities and the truth is a Dickian theme – this is the guy, after all, who chose to live next to Disneyland because he appreciated the way its ersatz reality fucked with his head. And time as not inexorable but malleable fits in with Dick’s insistence that reality is volatile; that it constantly changes, collapses and opens up into elsewheres. Sure, this is an obvious sci-fi trope, but it’s not just one of those hypotheses SF writers make up to fuck with our heads. Both in quantum physics, and in all the subjective realities that collide to create consensus reality, ‘reality’ is far from static or fully knowable.

Later on, Dick would choose to explain all this away with a seriously weird Gnostic vision. After a theophany in 1974, he would come to believe he was a persecuted Christian in 1st Century Rome (it’s a long story, by all accounts). But at the time of THITHC, he was still searching for answers. He was saying: what if the world isn’t what it appears to be? Who are we then? Fifty years down the line, they’re still as good-a-questions to ask as any.

Follow @theQuietusBooks on Twitter for more

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.

Jan 6, 2013 1:25pm

Where's the Phil Dick quote in the empathy paragraph taken from?

Reply to this Admin

Jan 6, 2013 2:54pm

Really enjoyed that. Top stuff. There is an interesting summary of his epiphany that you alluded to here;

Fascinating stuff. Scary fascinating.

Reply to this Admin

Jan 6, 2013 3:01pm

I think this particularly weird story might also be related somewhat;

Reply to this Admin

Jan 6, 2013 6:14pm

Hey Charles, it's from a long history about TMITHC on the site - here's the page cos it's otherwise quite hard to navigate to:
-and that's taken from an interview (the references are below). I found it seriously moving that he had a such a hard time leaving his characters & that it destroyed him. He went on to say (if this is a correct source): "The vacuum is terrible. Don't write for a living; sell shoelaces. Don't let it happen to you." Aww, man...

And thanks for the links, G! The pink beam & ghostic theophany and 'Flow my tears...' experiences are fascinating, but I've heard that to properly figure out WTF with them, you have to read the Exegesis ( It looks awesome, but epic!

Reply to this Admin

Jan 6, 2013 9:11pm

When you use 'metatextual', I'm quite sure you mean simply 'contextual' - or perhaps even 'intertextual'. Metatextuality, whilst being a mightily impressive term, doesn't really have much to do with that paragraph. Just me being a literary snark, though. Great read, otherwise. Very tempted to pick this book up, as I have not read it.

Reply to this Admin

Sam C
Jan 6, 2013 9:16pm

Both covers reproduced are fantastic, consideraby superior to the Penguin Modern Classics edition (which is on a similar theme).

Dick wrote this novel using the I Ching, didn't he, just as his character Abendsen wrote his?

The reality 'inversion' is hinted at early in the novel, when Tagomi goes on a kind of fugue and ends up in an unfamiliar, strange-looking part of the city where his ethnicity prompts sullenness and hostility rather than obsequiousness.

Reply to this Admin

Jan 6, 2013 10:41pm

In reply to Eli:

Cheers for that link Eli - engrossing looking stuff. I need to brush up on some of his stories but this looks like a worthwhile purchase. A bit daunting too - what if he's really on to something with all that!?

I noted that the editor of that book said this;

"absolutely stultifying, brilliant, repetitive, and contradictory. It just might contain the secret of the universe."

Has anyone started a religion from this stuff yet? Wouldn't be the first time a sci-fi writer has started something. Except Mr P K Dick had talent of course.

Reply to this Admin

jonathan segel
Jan 7, 2013 12:33pm

In reply to Sam C:

Nice article. I also had re-read TMITHC last year, after finding an old 1963 hardback of it in a bookstore, some 30 years after reading it the first time, and was struck by the fact that "our" reality has changed since the book was written such that the San Francisco that Tagomi sees in his trip through the reality looking-glass is no longer obviously modern-day SF: the prime architectural difference between TMITHC's San Francisco and the "real" SF of 1962 was the Embarcadero freeway, which shocked Tagomi. It was entirely removed by 1991! A modern reader wouldn't even guess that the reality shift was supposed to be into ours.

Reply to this Admin

Jan 7, 2013 3:56pm

More links: PKD's 'How to Build A Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later': (cos the one above doesn't work)
And the PKD episode of Expanding Mind:

Aaron, thanks! I do mean 'contextual' - it's about a decade since I've formally studied literature so I'm nowhere near as on it as I once was, word-wise.
Sam C - Yep, and I should have made a lot more of that but didn't have enough time to do the digging, or access to archives etc. But if you have a read through the link on the philipkdickfans website, there's a bit where he talks about using it to steer the direction of the plot. I also read something where he said he later turned on the I Ching and said it was ultimately malevolent, but I can't track down where I read that!
And yep, the reality-inversion is prefigured by Tagomi wandering around in what he thinks is some kind of Bardo state, which is an interesting perspective. I was fairly confused as to what reality that was, though on re-reading it was (a bit) more obvious. I also love the fact the Embarcadero Freeway isn't there anymore, so it's not even a reality modern readers would recognise as such!

Finally, G, as for PKD knowing the secrets of the universe, um, I dunno, man! Erik Davis, one of the editors of the Exegesis, is doing a PhD on Dick - he's an awesome writer & it'll be really interesting to see what he makes of all the genius & craziness. He talks about him here:

Reply to this Admin

Jan 8, 2013 1:33am

In reply to Eli:

Excellent, excellent link. Thanks Eli.

Just finished watching it. He touches on the religion stuff (Scientology gets a mention too) in a very interesting way and from what I can gather - I really need to watch it again as I'm fading quickly here - PKD was all about the search, there's no definitive answer but the spirituality is in the quest... a quest you maybe set up for yourself?

I dunno, I could've totally missed the point there. I need to watch it again but it was pretty deep and I'll be sure to seek out more of Erik Davis' work. Fascinating, thoughtful speaker with a real passion for the subject.

If I were to take anything away from that though, it's that it's a religion in the making for sure. They've got their prophet and they've got their gospels. Of course, and Davis mentions this, I don't honestly think that was the intent. I think his search and beliefs were genuine ones.

Anyways, great link and thanks again for the thought provoking article. Quietus kicking ass in 2013!

Reply to this Admin