My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I’ve been aware of Philip K. Dick as an author since I was 12 or 13 years old. That’s not because I was reading novels by Dick at that age, but more because his novels were often placed close to the “Doctor Who” novelizations by Terrance Dicks in the sci-fi section of the bookstore and library.
It wasn’t until I was a bit older and saw “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall” that I decided it might be time to sample a little bit of what PKD had to offer.
One of my first entries into the literary world of PKD was “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.” This is probably the case for a lot of people given how easily accessible it is–not only from a literary standpoint but because it’s easy to find in multiple paperback editions at most new and used bookstores. “Androids” is very much an entry level PKD work and it’s a good place to get your bearings and find out if you’d like to go deeper into PKD’s world of questioning reality and paranoia.
Next up in my literary overview of PKD was his second most famous novel, “The Man in the High Castle.” It was the selection of the month by a science-fiction book club I’d joined. I remember reading it at the time, feeling a bit perplexed by book and feeling like if there were an audio version of the book that George Takai should read it.
“The Man in the High Castle” is certainly a deeper PKD novel that “Androids” but it’s one that I’d argue is just as accessible to readers. It’s one of the first alternate histories published and it deals with what question of what would the world be like if the United States had lost the second World War. Interestingly, the novel doesn’t really start off telling you what its premise is, but instead introduces this universe over the course of several chapters. There’s no long infodump of how the universe ended up this way and where history took a different turn from the one we’re used to. Instead, PDK fills in the details as needed throughout the story and even leaves it up to the readers to fill in some of the rest.
But make no mistake–while this is, on the surface, an alternate history story, many of the standard PKD themes are on full display here.
One is the question of what is real and what isn’t. This is most evident in the story of Robert Childan, an owner of a shop that specializes in pre-War American “artifacts.” Childan believes that his offerings are authentic antiques but finds out that some of what he’s offering are cleverly forgeries. Childan than begins to question everything in his store and whether it’s real or forged. Chidan has built a reputation on offering quality, authentic pieces and while he bears a great deal of ill-will to the totalitarian Japanese regime and people, he’s still conflicted by his need to win their approval and possibly become part of their social structure. Several scenes with Childan trying to impress a young Japanese couple who has come into his store are intrigued as we watch his internal struggle to say the right thing and not offend them, all while wondering why he bothers because he also finds them inferior.
Of course, this being a PKD book, the question of what’s real doesn’t just extend to trinkets like a gun from the old West or a Mickey Mouse watch. (Both are pivotal to the story). The book ingeniously creates an alternate history within the alternate history in the form of the novel, “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.” The novel speculates on how the world would be if the Allies won World War II. And while it gets the broad strokes right, it still misses a few things. The book is banned in the Nazi dominated sections of the world and the Nazis have a plan to assignate the author.
Several of the characters read the book and are aware of it during the course of the story. The story within the story shows how some of the characters are deeply aware of how their version of history may not be the proper one, but they’re trapped within it, unable to escape. This storyline is one that questions the essential nature of reality and is one that is prevalent in a lot of other PDK novels and short stories.
If there’s one complaint that I can lodge with “Man in the High Castle” it’s that the story isn’t necessarily the most linear. PKD introduces a lot of characters, many of whom know each other but many of whom don’t. The connections that come to exist between some of them is intriguing. The novel has a beginning and an end, but it’s not necessarily following the conventional rules of story and structure we all learned in high school English classes. And yet, I’d say the book is stronger for that. It read less like a drug-induced ranting that many of PKD’s later books become and it also is one that assumes the reader is intelligent enough to follow the threads and put pieces together. It’s certainly a challenging novel, not only to read but also in its implications.
And that’s what makes it a classic for me and one of my favorites books. It’s also a story that rewards reading it again every couple of years.