I have just returned from a visit to the Pacific north-west – mainly staying in San Francisco, along with a side trip to Portland, Oregon.
A couple of things that I wanted to do while in this area was to firstly visit a number of independent book stores, and secondly buy books either by writers who live in the area, or books with stories set in the area. And so, during a visit to Powell’s City of Books in Portland (about which I will blog in detail in another post, shortly), I bought a second hand copy of Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” which is set, for the most part, in San Francisco. BUT it’s a very different San Francisco to that of today.
Set in 1962, just 7 years after the end of WW2, it offers up an alternative ending to the second world war. In this book the war was won by the Axis – Japan and Germany (with the Italians in tow). The west coast of the USA is in the hands of the Japanese and the east coast is under German control. There is a slim buffer zone – kind of a neutral area – in the middle, down the Rocky Mountains, where American life is more or less business as usual. In San Francisco where much of the novel is set, American’s are allowed to live, work and run businesses, but very much under the eye of their superiors – Their Japanese masters.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot as it would spoil things for potential readers. So here is a brief summary.
The Japanese are clearly in control of American lives and businesses in San Francisco and the west coast – and have stamped Japanese values into the American culture and yet, perversely it seems, the Japanese also hold American memorabilia in very high regard – almost like priceless antiques. Part of the story follows a memorabilia shop owner who is constantly trying to find pieces to satisfy the whims of his high ranking Japanese clients. This is a world where a Mickey Mouse watch is a sought after item.
As well as the memorabilia man, the novel follows a number of other lives and reveals that some of them have been reading a book – banned on the east coast by the Germans, yet a blind eye is turned to it on the west coast by the Japanese rulers…..some of whom also read and have copies of the book. The controversial book in question is called “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” – a book that gives an alternative and, for some, unthinkable ending to WW2 where the USA, Britain and their minor allies are the victors. Whilst the Japanese are intrigued by the book, the Germans absolutely hate it, and it’s author, Hawthorne Abendsen, is believed to be in hiding, in fear for his life, in a fortress like building somewhere in the Rocky Mountains…hence the title of Dick’s book – The Man in the High Castle.
The story indicates that although the Germans and Japanese were on the same side during the war, there is a certain amount of political friction between the two over their control of the former USA. This “friction” boils over into violence…..BUT, I’ll say no more about that. Read the book.
Philip K. Dick is mostly known for his Sci-fi books. This is more of an alternative history/thriller and, to be honest with you, is the only one of his books that I have read…so far. It has had a lot of hype, many people love this book and I have a liking for a dystopian story. It is, however, a strange book for me to try to give a rating to. On the one hand I found the idea of the Japanese/German victory and control of the USA quite fascinating. AND I thought that the premise of the other book – The Grasshopper Lies Heavy – with it’s real ending of the war was a nice twist of irony.
Dick starts off slowly focusing on the every day lives of the main characters and builds things up nicely for a big ending….starting very slowly, almost boringly slowly, and gradually adding action and tension. I kept looking at how many pages there were left and thinking that he wasn’t leaving a lot of time for the big finish. BUT I found the ending to be a bit of an anti-climax and the whole thing left me feeling quite flat.
As a result I could only give it a 3 out of 5. I’d say it’s worth a read just to see what all the hype is about.
If you like the idea behind an Axis victory, but like a little more action and thrills, I’d recommend James Herbert’s book “48” – which is set in a post war London where Hitler has been victorious by using a biological weapon which targets specific blood groups. It follows one mans survival story.
Interestingly, Goodreads give The Man in the High Castle a rating of 3.63 and Herbert’s “48”, which I felt was a far superior story, rates only slightly higher on 3.75
As usual – thank you for reading – your comments and shares are always appreciated. AND please remember to support your local book sellers.