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The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick: A Book Review

Updated on December 13, 2016
wingedcentaur profile image

The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


The book is The Man in the High Castle (1962) by Philip K. Dick (1928-1982). Mr. Dick---for those of you who've never heard of him---was a prolific science fiction writer, who produced about thirty-six novels and five short story collections over several decades. Those of you who may have read some of my reviews of Mr. Dick's work----and for the benefit of those who have not---know that, for me, Dick and Ray Bradbury fall into a category I think of as the opposite of so-called hard science fiction. Philip K. Dick's fiction is not that.

I define hard science fiction like this: It is scientifically and technologically elaborate storytelling, of which the scientific and technological elements remain insistent throughout the story or novel. In other words, the futuristic scientific and technological apparatus, upon which the story is based, can be basically considered "a character in the story." The story is never disengaged from the futuristic scientific and technological elements, which remain integral to the story; the story's sense of wonder, if you will, precisely comes from a hard science fiction author's conceptualization of the distant future, in scientific and technological terms; there can be no story without it. Also, the conceptualization of the futuristic science and technology tends to be very complex and detailed, very left-brained, you might say.

Now then, the science fiction of Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick, among others, does not do that. With Philip K. Dick, specifically, the futuristic scientific and technological apparatus is always drawn in very general, simple strokes, readily graspable by right-brain-oriented people, like me. Such a futuristic and scientific apparatus, in Philip K. Dick's hands, serves as a catapult into some speculative or philosophical issue that was on his mind.

Now then, once the reader is propelled into the speculative or philosophical issue that Dick was dealing with, the futuristic scientific and technological catapult that launched her there, may be, effectively, disregard thereafter. It might be fair to call Dick a storyteller who used "science fiction" as rather a means to an end.

For example., one of my favorite Philip K. Dick novels is called Eye in the Sky (1957). There is a science fiction-thing that happens to get us into the story, but after that the relevance of that futuristic scientific and technological apparatus, more or less, falls away. The story, after its futuristic scientific and technological catapult takes us there, is about what it would be like to literally walk around in other people's minds; its about what the world would be like if it were totally dictated by the demands of one or another person's internal landscape. Its about walking "ten miles in another man's shoes" in the deepest possible sense. Its about: "How well do we really know anyone?" The novel makes you think about you and your friends, say, and what it might be like if so and so "ran the world" and the world bent, in every way, to his or her will; and this serves as an interesting way to try to gain insight into what makes one person or another "tick," as it were.

Anyway, the above is, as I say, representative of the way Philip K. Dick's (science) fiction works.

The second thing I want to say about The Man in the High Castle is that it is the most literary of Dick's novel's, in my opinion. I mean 'literary' as opposed to 'genre.' Let me give two more definitions. The following is how I define the terms: literary and genre fiction.

Literary: This is fiction that has no clearly defined mission. In other words, there is never any specific task(s), certainly which must be done by the protagonist(s) within any time window. Literary fiction tends to be 'slice of life' kind of fare.

Genre: This is fiction that does contain a specific, clearly defined 'mission' which must be undertaken on behalf of one or more protagonists. There are very specific things which must be accomplished or addressed by the end of the story; sometimes a time element may be involved. This is true whatever the genre: mystery, suspense, thriller, detective, police procedural, fantasy, science fiction, crime, horror, historical, and so on.

The first thing I want to say is this: Should you decide to read this book, check it out from your local public library or buy it from a bookstore, know that what you're getting is a book by a science fiction author who came of age in the America of the 1940s and 1950s.

The second thing to know is that you are not getting a novel of hard science fiction. You are getting a book by an author, for whom futuristic science and technology---drawn in general and simple terms--- primarily served as a catapult, launching the reader into examination of a speculative or philosophical, even political issue.

The third thing to understand is that this particular novel is, in my opinion, one of Philip K. Dick's fully literary works, as I have defined the term 'literary.'

The fourth thing to understand is that this novel, like all of Dick's novels, is not very long by today's standards. Its two-hundred-forty pages long; and this length is typical of his novels---almost never even as long as three hundred pages; often less than two-hundred-fifty. Dick was a smooth prose stylist in his day; and to that end, I think you will find The Man in the High Castle a fast-paced read

The story is this: What if the Axis Powers (Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Japan) had won World War Two?

That is what the novel plays out; and that is all I will say about the plot, which I leave you, dear reader, to discover for yourself.

Let me just say this: The novel is, in my view, masterful because of the way it deals with complexities with war and its aftermath, of winning and losing. In other words it deals very effectively with the ambiguity of losing-in-winning and winning-in-losing that operates in the real world.

Here's what I mean by that (losing-in-winning and winning-in-losing)

There are some people who like to play the "what-if" game with history. They say: What if someone had shot Hitler? What if Martin Luther King had ducked? What if Lincoln had skipped the theater? (Other than that, Mr. President, how was the play?).

Suppose some asked you: What if the South had won the American Civil War?

Such a question assumes that there were necessarily two, hermetically sealed, diametrically opposed sides with no ambiguity or cross purposes involved.

For example, during the American Civil War, after South Carolina seceded from the Union, the mayor of New York, one Fernando Wood proposed to the New York Common Council that the city also secede from the Union and continue as a free trading port able to continue its cotton trade with the Confederacy (1).

I think that one fact shows that the North was not a simple, single, uniform antislavery block. There were Northern economic and industrial interests tied with the South and its continued practice of plantation slavery. That one fact (and I could go on and on, but I won't) shows that, in reality, it oversimplifies the situation to characterize the American Civil War as a simple War Between the States; if anything it was a clash and alliance of economic interests across state borders.

The complexities of the situation would cause me---the person writing this----to answer the question (What if the South had won the Civil War?) like this: In several critical ways, the South did win the Civil War (2).

If we were living in a world in which the South had won the Civil War and someone had asked me (What if the North had won the Civil War?), I would say: Well, in several critical ways, the North did win the Civil War. With the Civil War one can say that America's transition to an industrialized capitalist economy was completed. The debate between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson had been concluded by force of arms, and decided decisively in favor of the North----and Alexander Hamilton.

Anyway, I could say the same basic thing about World War Two (3). What if Germany and the Axis Powers had won? First of all, it depends upon exactly one defines "Germany," "Italy," and "Japan."

Do you define a country in terms of its geographical location and square mileage between its borders? And do you include all of its citizens and all the work they do, or rather, the total value of output, or whatever?

Or do you define a "country" as the political and economic elite, for whom many believe that national policy is designed to benefit the most? How do you define "national policy?" Do you define it as things a national government carries out on behalf of, in the name of, and for the benefit of the majority of the people living in that country? Or do you define it in terms sectors of national life, that happen to be overwhelmingly controlled by an elite?

It is questions like these that drastically oversimplify X vs. Y scenarios.

Philip K. Dick's novel does a good job of getting at that ambiguity. Now then, within the plot of (What if the Axis Powers won World War Two?), the story actually, hypothetically reverses itself to say: (Actually The United States and the Allied Powers won the war, and Germany and its allies lost it.)

There is a way that this is revealed, which I will leave to you to discover. I will say that there is a "Man in the High Castle," who wrote a novel to that effect. What you have, then, is a novel set in an alternate universe in which Germany and its allies have won World War Two; the story wistfully, from an American perspective, wonders what might have been if the good Allied Powers had won; and then, actually suggests that everybody had been living in a false, dream world all along, and that, indeed, the opposite had, in truth, happened---that is, America and the Allied Powers won the war and the Axis lost.

Is your head spinning at this point? Sorry, but this is also quite characteristic of Philip K. Dick fiction: its concern with the nature of reality itself. And its 'literary' nature comes from the fact that nothing specific is ever proposed as to what to do about this state of affairs; indeed, it is not even clear that there is anything to do, per se.

My review is finished. Thank you so much for reading.


1. Retrieved 12/11/2014

2. Here's just one way the South won the American Civil War, which was about the direction of the country, slave or free. The South was allowed to continue to practice actual slavery for another eighty (80) years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It has to do with something called the Prison Lease system, affecting mostly black men.

Don't take my word for it. You can read an Wall Street Journal article about it by a journalist called Douglas A. Blackmon here:

Mr. Blackmon later made that article the basis of a book he published on the subject. Slavery By Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. Anchor Books, 2009.

As I said before, in one sense the American Civil War was the armed version of the debate that had been carried on by Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson in the previous century. Was to be a continued agriculture-based path for the United States or one of industrialized capitalism with sophisticated financial structure supporting it, as well as urbanization and all that? Hamilton advocated the latter path and Jefferson the former.

As I said before, the result of the Civil War can be said to have been a kind of validation of Hamilton position and prophecy. But, as I've been indicating, its not as easy as that. We usually think of "The South" as uniformly lined up as proslavery, pro-continuing the vision of Jefferson. We think of Southerners as, somehow, uniformly thinking of industrialization as bad and something to be kept at bay at all costs from their beloved South.

But not all Southerners thought this way. Not all Southerners thought that industrialization would be the death of the South. Some actually embraced it, thought it would lead to increased employment and prosperity for the region they loved no less than any other Southerners. Mr. Blackmon's book discusses this.

3. What if the Axis Powers (Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Japan) had won World War Two? Some elements from these countries did indeed "win." Consider Operation Paperclip, which saw more than 1600 Nazi scientists and technicians escape the justice of Nuremberg, only to be recruited to work for the United States Space Shuttle program, for example.

Retrieved 12/11/2014; and Jacobsen, Annie. Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists to America.

By the way, one of those Nazi refugees, one Reinhard Gehlen, formerly Hitler's head of intelligence, landed on his feet by later becoming head of West Germany intelligence service. Retrieved 12/11/2014

Remember the way Germany was split into two halves: West Germany or "Good" Germany, from the perspective of the West and East Germany or "Bad" Germany, again, from the perspective of America and the Allied Powers.

We can see that at least "half" of "Germany" did indeed also "win" World War Two by being drafted to America and by extension the West's side in the War Against Communism, the Soviet Union, and all that. Hitler and the Nazis had been fiercely anti-Soviet/Communist all along anyway.

I could go on and on and on. But I won't. That should do it.


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    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      4 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      @tmbridgeland: Good Day to you and thanks. I'm glad you liked my review. Yes, you are precisely right about Mr. Dick having been more interested in the psychological aspects---as you say---and the human reaction to the situations he puts ordinary people into. As I mentioned, I thought his novel, "Eye in the Sky," is an excellent example of this: How does it feel to walk around inside the mind---literally---of other people?

      And I agree, his characters are well drawn, though I suspect that this might have been an underappreciated aspect of his work when Philip K. Dick was alive. You say that the Japanese and Germans, in the novel--The Man in the High Castle---were changed by their exposure to American culture. Maybe, but I was certainly impressed with the way the curio shop proprietor was changed, getting a deeper appreciation of his own American culture when he saw disdain for it by a Japanese friend of his, who tried to get said proprietor to sell a piece of original, handmade American jewelry as mass-produced, machine-made, interchangeable junk. Remember that scene?

      Anyway, thank you so much for stopping by. :)

    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      4 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      @m Abdullah javed: Thank you so much for the good word! :)

      Take it easy.

    • tmbridgeland profile image


      4 years ago from Small Town, Illinois

      A good review. Thanks. I'd like to add that Dick was more interested in the psychological aspects, the human reaction to the situation he puts his characters into. In this book, he shows how Americans emotionally adapted to the loss. His main characters were beautifully drawn, their internal thoughts make it clear. He also shows where the Japanese and the Germans, in spite of their overwhelming victory, were changed by their exposure to American culture.

    • m abdullah javed profile image

      muhammad abdullah javed 

      4 years ago

      Have found precise details with great emphasis on the literary aspect. Thanks for the share. wingedcentaur. Voted up. Take care.

    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      4 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Thanks a lot, Frank!

      Take care. :)

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 

      4 years ago from Shelton

      a very well document review my friend.. you cover a lot of the book and detail it just enough.. voted up and useful


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