This summer, my big project is to read my way through the Philip K. Dick Collection from the Library of America. This three volume set has 13 of Dick's more critically acclaimed efforts, but it is far from a complete overview of his work, since there are no short story offerings. Many of his earlier works are also ignored, which is not necessarily an insult to an author this prolific.
Yesterday afternoon, I started the first novel in the set, The Man in the High Castle, and I will be working my way through each of them in chronological order (although likely with some breaks to read other books). So far, I'm halfway through the book on a first read. The prose is not dense, but it is surreal, and the social fabric of the novel is complex.
Originally published as a thriller, The Man in the High Castle is actually a startling and jarring alternate reality piece that envisions a world where Roosevelt was not re-elected during the Depression because he was killed in office, and where the Axis powers, because of America's lack of material preparation, have won. It's bleak, and Dick does not pull back from bluntly laying out the way that the Nazi regime would have continued to shape the world if it had successfully gained control of the oil fields in the Middle East and then turned those resources toward Africa in earnest.
While I have nothing but praise for the craft in this book so far, it is not an entertaining read. Luckily, because the attention to cultural symbols, social roles, and the power dynamics of conquered and conquering people are so well layered and displayed, it is not likely that most readers would mistake it for lighter fare.
The most striking aspect of the book to me so far, and this is one I haven't read before, is the way that Dick makes the unfamiliar and isolating interior lives of conquered Americans on both the Reich and Pacific (Japanese occupied) sides of the continent vividly realistic and conspicuously self-conscious. Whether characters are attempting to ensure their place in an occupation government without destroying their sense of their own culture or slyly dodging through the genocidal machinery of the Reich through blackmail and plastic surgery, the book has a harrowing, interior view of occupation that forces readers to acknowledge two things:
- The imperial, globalistic regimes that have divided the world are hauntingly familiar, even down to the point that many of their crimes are barely even known to the people within them.
- The book's odd combination of reverence for some aspects of Japanese and Chinese culture (something the author shared), combined with both its blunt shifting of racial dynamics and the frank manner with which existing American racism is redirected into self-loathing and desire for position (in the Japanese-occupied Pacific) and a kind of enthusiasm for the "cleanliness" that is late-stage genocidal totalitarianism. It paints a brutal picture of what Dick thinks about our core values and the ease with which the remaining population would justify their survival at the cost of their victims.
I'll have more thoughts on this tomorrow, but keep in mind that I'm both impressed with his book and overwhelmed with it. I'm learning a lot about how to work with certain political themes, and I believe that the time is ripe for a close study of one of the few authors to really dedicate themselves to social construction of reality, the forces that enter into play when corporations and governments become interchangeable with each other, and the effects of both on existing social patterns.
That doesn't mean I'm necessarily recommending this hands-down for everyone though. The book's frank discussions of brutality and the way that characters discuss and demarcate horror without allowing the real consciousness of it permeate their being... there are people that don't need to be taught about that. And they shouldn't necessarily feel this is a "must read". For those of us who are emerging from childhoods dominated by tiny American flags and heated discussions about how burning them (or not) is a Very Import Discussion, but civil forfeiture laws are Not A Problem For The Constitution... we need this as a tool in our assessment of our culture and the generation that raised us in it.