The Man in the High Castle: the novel where one alternate history meets another.
Phillip K. Dick’s novel The Man In The High Castle depicts a dark alternative future in which the Axis powers beat the Allies in World War 2. In the history of The Man In The High Castle, the United States of America as we know it has been disbanded and split into three occupied territories: the Pacific States of America, occupied by Imperial Japan, the United States of America, occupied by Nazi Germany, and the Rocky Mountains buffer zone, with sparse shared occupation. The story takes place in the 1960s in the Pacific States of America and centers around the protagonists’ struggles with Axis authorities resulting from their possession and consumption of a fictional banned book.
Why is a Fictional Banned Book Worth Writing an Entire Book About?
The banned book that drives conflict in the story is called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Written by an eccentric recluse named Hawthorne Abendsen, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy depicts an alternative past in which the Axis powers actually lost the second World War. Later in the novel, we learn that Hawthorne Abendsen is terrified of being killed for writing the book, and lives a paranoiac life in a remote fortified compound which is nicknamed the “High Castle”. This, of course, makes Abendsen The Man In The High Castle. With Japanese and Nazi occupation frequently imposing upon everyday life, it is no surprise that a book describing their downfall would be banned in their occupied territories and authors of such material would be prosecuted or murdered.
Despite the ban, there is a vibrant and easily accessible underground market for copies of the book, and it is wildly popular among both the remaining resistance cells and the general American public. While the book is so ubiquitous as to being a mere misdemeanor-level charge for possession, those who print or distribute the book are frequently stalked and assassinated by the occupation’s secret police force, the SD. Much of the novel’s plot revolves around the main characters attempting to warn Abendsen about an undercover SD agent’s plans to assassinate him.
Things are Pretty Bad
Before the reader learns more about the content or genesis of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, there is considerable exposition describing the main alternate history in which The Man In The High Castle itself takes place. The main point of emphasis is that the victory of the Axis powers over the democracies of the world was absolute, a mirror-perfect opposite of the victory of the Allies in our reality. All allied countries are occupied to the gills with frequently-brutal Axis agents, and, much like the USA and the USSR after our version of the war, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany are now locked in a worldwide Cold War, with both jockeying for control of their history’s Third World. Both superpowers have hydrogen bombs, and so are unwilling to directly fight each other, though they have no qualms about nuking third parties.
The Italian Empire also makes an appearance, though it is clear that it is still a proxy state of Nazi Germany and uninvolved in occupation, fighting insurgencies, or genocide. There are no remaining pockets of armed resistance to Axis occupation in the USA or any of the allied countries, though it is implied that ongoing armed resistance is occurring in places where the two superpowers are fighting proxy wars. In short, there appears to be no hope for a reversal of fortunes and a return to our version of history.
To make matters worse, the Nazis have begun to colonize the other planets of the solar system. Phillip K. Dick’s deep understanding of the Nazi love of massive public projects and initiatives shines very strongly here. On Earth, the Nazis are pursuing extensive terraforming, draining the Mediterranean to make more room for farmlands and flooding vast portions of the Sahara to make habitable oases for German colonies.
The project of genocide has been expanded to Africa (considered to be the final cleansing project) after the complete destruction of all Jewish, Arabic, Persian, and Slavic peoples. Germans have colonized all of the depopulated areas, and, with citizens encouraged to reproduce with luxurious government support, have more than trebled their population in the two decades since the end of the war, showing no sign of stopping. The “Forever Reich” appears to be on track to overtake Imperial Japan, with a seemingly endless supply of soldiers, agents, and material. This is frequently lamented by the protagonists, as the Japanese are considered to be the less brutal of the two occupiers.
The Grasshopper Lies Heavy
The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is thus, on the surface, an escapist fantasy for the citizens of the occupied territories, written by a paranoid man who is sheltered by his delusions. What Abendsen conjectured as the most likely path for victory of the Allies is quite different from what happened in our reality. Abendsen’s version of history has the US avoiding the destruction of its Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, and instead using its power to beat the Japanese in conventional naval warfare quite quickly. After Japan’s defeat in the Pacific, the USA and the United Kingdom shuffle millions of troops to the eastern front to aid the Soviets at Stalingrad, resulting in a tsunami-like collapse and total annihilation of the Nazi armies, capped by a rapid conquest of Berlin. War crimes trials result in the hanging of relevant Nazis, despite the Holocaust being nipped in the bud.
As the Holocaust was of a greatly reduced magnitude, there is less worldwide stigma against ethnic hatred and violence, resulting in the United Kingdom becoming an imperialistic and racist (though not genocidal) empire after the war, whereas the USA quickly heals its racial wounds and avoids the Jim Crow laws to gracefully become the world’s bastion of multicultural liberal democracy and diversity. This rift results in a new Cold War between the UK and the USA, which is where The Grasshopper Lies Heavy ends.
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Ancient Chinese Divination Isn’t Perfect
The book-within-a-book’s interpretation of an alternate history is complicated further by Abendsen’s liberal use of the I-Ching, an ancient Chinese divination technique. According to Abendsen’s testimony to the protagonists attempting to warn him about his imminent assassination, using the I-Ching gave Abendsen a glimpse of a world in which the Axis had lost the war. This vision was then encoded into The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which Abendsen claims is so popular because it connects to the aspect of people’s eternal spirit which recognizes that the reality they live in is “false”, and should not have occurred. Far from being skeptical, one of the protagonists immediately buys into Abendsen’s revelation, having a strong gut feeling that the history Abendsen saw was, in fact, the “true” way that events should have turned.
Thus, The Man In The High Castle ends, leaving us with the image of Abendsen having departed from his fortified bunker and instead living in a simple home with his family, bereft of fear since the successful interception of the assassination attempt, and liberated from the existential angst of a lost happier potential reality by sharing his methodology for its discovery. Blissfully content that somehow everything will be all right, it’s hard to see Abendsen as mentally stable, given his circumstances.
Featured Image: Amazon / The Man in the High Castle adaptation