The Man in the High Castle – a book within a book and more than meets the eye.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Dystopian novels and real life Preppers

I love a good dystopian novel. I enjoy a good story where I can’t afterward pick the story to pieces, highlighting the glaring errors and the “no way would they react like that” events.

I’m actually surprised, reading other WordPress blogs, at the number of female fans of this genre. I had assumed, obviously incorrectly, that this was the domain of males…..Survivalists and Preppers.

If I may just mention a couple of novels in this genre I enjoyed reading…

James Herbert’s “48”

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set in London in 1948 after Hitler won the war by bombing the UK with a biological weapon designed to kill people of certain blood groups – keeping the Arian race pure. Naturally, things don’t go quite as expected…..I won’t spoil it for you. London is eerily empty and abandoned as we follow the struggle to survive of “our hero”. It certainly makes one think about how different things would have turned out, had Hitler had this weapon at his disposal and had the chance to deploy it. I really enjoyed this book.

John Marsden wrote a series of 7 books for young adults which are still worth a read for adults too. The first book in the series is “Tomorrow when the War began”.

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Set in Australia, follows a group of teenage friends who go camping, at the end of the school year, in the outback. One night while camping they hear a large number of military aircraft flying overhead. They return to their small town a few days later to discover the entire town’s residents have been coralled into a makeshift prison camp by Chinese troops. They don’t know at this stage if it is a localized or national invasion. It’s not just a book about surviving and trying to fight back against a foreign foe, but also about the relationships that develop with in the group and who among them step up to lead.

As I mentioned earlier it is the first of 7 books in this series AND there is also a spin off trilogy called “The Ellie Chronicles” – which continues to follow the life of one of the lead characters from the “Tomorrow” book.

There are several events in the series of books that are of the “no way would they do that” or “no way would that happen” – but they don’t detract from the story which barrels along from start to finish. I can see why teens would enjoy reading this series of books.

A movie was made of the “Tomorrow” book with an option to do one of the second book. Unfortunately the first movie failed to meet the financial targets so the second was never made.

I must admit that when I read dystopian type novels or watch apocalyptic movies I do tend to analyse the characters and events – and whether or not what they do, or the way they react to a situation, is within the realms of realism.

I live in New Zealand – known as the “shaky isles” as we are sitting on the edge of two techtonic plates and numerous fault lines and just to add interest, have active volcanoes. All of which combine to also make us a Tsunami risk. Many of us here wouldn’t label ourselves as “Preppers” as in the American National Geo Series “Doomsday Preppers” – we’re not prepping for the Zombie outbreak, but we do take steps to prepare for natural disasters. We have emergency supplies (food, water, medical supplies, emergency shelter etc.) just in case something major happens. I believe that the direction that the world is currently heading – with extreme weather phenomina, the predictions of a major pandemic (similar to the Spanish Flu of 1918 – which infected 500 million people around the world – without the assistance of passenger jets, including people on remote Pacific islands and in the Arctic, and resulted in the deaths of 50 to 100 million), the possibility of natural disasters and the danger of political leaders with “balls bigger than their brains” being in charge of nuclear, chemical and biological arsenals – it pays to take precautions. As one who does – I feel qualified –  to a point – to pull apart bad dystopian novels.

New Zealand’s earth quake and tsunami risk doesn’t put off rich – mainly American – businessmen and celebrities from buying up land here (and building underground bunkers) for their emergency bolt holes when things go belly up in the northern hemisphere. NZ has been named as one of THE best places to be should a major world wide disaster occur.

Fellow blogger wishvintage has a post on her favourite list of dystopian novels. It’s a really good list. See link below.

My Dyspotipian and Apocalyptic Literature recommendations.

If anyone has other recommendations, please let me know.