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The Man In The High Castle

Interesting ruminations on the book from Eve Tushnet. I don't remember the book in perfect detail, but as I remember it this is subtly wrong:

The characters don't necessarily recognize that the "real world" (= the world you and I know, where the Axis lost) is preferable to their own world, where Africa is a heap of bones and North America is a collection of occupied territories.

As I recall it, the book has a more complicated structure [spoilers].

In the book, the Axis has won the war. Also inside the book, there is another book, in which the Allies won the war. Meanwhile, in our world, the Allies won the war. Ergo, the world of the book-within-the-book is our world, the world outside the book. Except it isn't. Important historical elements of the book-within-the-book are "wrong" by the standards of our world even though the right side wins the war. This site seems to agree:

Using a meta-narrative device of the sort that would become a menace to sanity during the reign of postmodernism, the alternative history novel, “The Man in the High Castle,” gives a synopsis of the historical scenario in the fictional alternative-history novel, “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.” Aside from the fact the Axis loses, the world of “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” does not greatly resemble our own. Franklin Roosevelt, though happily unassassinated, serves just two terms. The British win the Battle of Stalingrad and extend the British Empire to the Volga. There is apparently even an Anglo-American war.A

As I recall, an important part of the Allied victory in "Grasshopper" is that FDR wisely set the Pacific fleet to sail, thereby avoiding its destruction at Pearl Harbor, whereas in the real world of course America prevails over Japan despite the sneak attack achieving a good measure of success. To say what this was supposed to signify, I suppose I'd need to re-read the book.

February 13, 2006 | Permalink

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You don't really have to re-read the book, Matt. You could just use this interweb thing to supplement your memory, and re-read what you wrote about the book. I hope you don't mind if I quote at length:

I see Ezra's been reading Philip K. Dick's The Man In The High Castle. Great book. I don't know if this is like a totally obvious observation in the world of Dick fandom, but what I think is really, really fantastic about the novel is this. It's an alternate history story in which the Axis has won world war two. Much like the real world, however, the alternate world features alternate history stories. Noteably, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy in which the Allies won the war. On one level, this is a very neat literary device, because having characters debate the plausibility of Grasshopper lets Dick get his explication of the history of the real-in-the-fiction world out in a relatively non-painful way, something that gives most alternate history books trouble.

The really neat thing about Grasshopper, though, is that even though it depicts a "what if the Allies won?" story, it doesn't depict the history of the "real" world in which you and I win. Rather, even though it "gets the story right" it exhibits many of the typical flaws of alternate history books. High Castle, for example, like many works in the genre seems to put too much weight on the actions of "great men." Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a very skilled leader, but it's hard to believe that his assassination alone could have led the Axis to win the war, much less to actually conquer and occupy the United States, given the economic and demographic realities. Grasshopper, too, errs in putting too much weight on Roosevelt. His massive prescience is said in the story to essentially prevent Pearl Harbor because he wisely foresaw the possibility of a Japanese sneak attack and so dispersed the fleet, meaning that America's main Pacific force escaped unscathed.

High Castle seems overly a product of the Coldwar era in which it was written. The postwar rivalry between the US and the USSR and the postwar division of Germany into rival zones is projected straightout into a cold war between Germany and Japan complete with the division of the United States. Grasshopper seems overly a product of the fictive world in which it is written. The postwar falling out between Germany and Japan is projecting straightout into a cold war between the USA and the British Empire, while IIRC it's just taken for granted that of course the Soviet Union couldn't withstand the Soviet onslaught.

On a related note, I can't remember the title or author of what I thought was one of the very cleverest alternate WWII stories I've ever read. The set-up is that the Normandy landings failed or some such thing, and you're following a day (or a week) or whatever in the life of some rather desperate men trying to fight off the Nazi onslaught. And it goes on and on for a while. The reader is totally convinced he's reading an alternate history about "how the Germans won." Then, all of a sudden, the story ends with a line like: "day broke early that morning over Dresden, brighter than a thousand suns." Because of course when you think about it, the Allies didn't need to invade Europe anymore than they wound up needing to invade Japan. By summer 1945 the United States would've had nuclear weapons one way or the other, and they could have been used against Germany (indeed, this was the original plan) just as easily as they could've been used against Japan. Lots of things would've worked out differently had the war ended in this way, but the allies still would have won.

All the words are here, but you have to click through to the Wayback link to see which ones are italicized (more than you might expect!), to follow the link to Ezra's post (not particularly relevant!), and to see the comments to the post (29 of them!).

Posted by: Blar | Feb 14, 2006 12:26:59 AM

PKD is God.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 14, 2006 1:31:05 AM

Hey Blair,

You certainly are the student of all things Matt. That is a sad page to visit, the first post, "The Case for Hope" (in the Kerry candidancy) was just heartbreaking to read.

Back on point (sorta), the problem with alternative histories of World War II is that they try to make it the mirror image of what actually happened, so we see the Axis powers occupying the Allied powers. In any credible world, its just like Lincoln said, "All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined... could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge... If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher".

I thought Robert Harris's Fatherland was quite believable-- the Nazis wins and the result is a Cold War between German and the US (having Old Man Kennedy as President was a nice touch).

Posted by: beowulf | Feb 14, 2006 2:18:37 AM

You're right that the world in the book-within-a-book differs from our real world, but one of the undercurrents of the narrative of the book is that some of the characters, in particular the shopkeeper protagonist, sense through the I Ching that something is "not right" with reality, and that there's another, somehow more "real" reality hidden from view. The book-within-a-book is an expression of that sense, and it's fairly clear that the reader of the book (us) is supposed to think the "real" reality is our reality, while the reader of the book-within-a-book is, if they are at all sensitive to this other reality, is supposed to think "real" reality is as described therein. It's beside the point to say that they are "wrong", since the thrust of the narrative is to suggest that our "real" reality is itself a mask.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Feb 14, 2006 7:20:53 AM

I have to reread it myself, but I thought there was a character who had a glimpse, not of the world of Abendsen's book, but of ours? Nevertheless, Eve did miss touching on the darkest aspect of Dick's alternate world play - in Abendsen's world the allied victory leads to a cold war between America and England because it is the stubborn nature of things for the two most powerful nations in the world to be rivals *purely because they are the two most powerful nations of the world*. IIRC the book suggests that that as much as anything, is the "real" point of the play with alternate realities.

This means Dick was a "Democratic Peace" skeptic before there was a Democratic Peace theory!

Posted by: Jim Henley | Feb 14, 2006 8:19:19 AM

Books within alternate-history books that give some version of actual history are actually quite common. Authors seem to think the idea is cute. They often are inacurate as well. Dick differs in the signifigance and emphasis he gives the book and the carefulness on the creation of the alternate history.

Posted by: samiam | Feb 14, 2006 9:35:29 AM

I read the book years ago. I came to the conclusion at the time that the book's storyline - that the Germans and the Japanese won the war is what happened. Given the strength of the Japanese and German economies at the time and the law-n-order Nixonian paranoia it seemed like the right conclusion. Course, I'm very easily confused.

Posted by: LowLife | Feb 14, 2006 9:59:43 AM

Did we ever remember the name the alternative WW2 book/story which ended "day broke early that morning over Dresden, brighter than a thousand suns"?

Posted by: otto | Feb 14, 2006 11:09:04 AM

Matt is of course incorrect in the earlier post when he declares that the Allies did not need to invade Europe. They certainly did need to - in order to keep the Soviets as far East as possible. Americans have an incredible blind spot about the Eastern Front. We like to forget that Germany had effectively lost the war by the time D-Day was launched. On June 22 1944 the Soviets launched Operation Bagration, smashing Germany's Army Group Centre, and destroying the bulk of Hitler's army. From that point on the Germans were done, they had NO chance of winning. It was only a matter of time until the Soviets took Berlin. Stalin was certainly not going to make a separate peace or allow the Germans to negotiate. If the US had just lobbed atomic bombs on Germany without US/British troops on the ground we would have only cleared the way for the Russians to move West even faster.

Posted by: Vanya | Feb 14, 2006 1:25:25 PM

It is true that Germany could not have defeated the Soviet Union by June of 1944, but it is also true that it is far from obvious that the Soviet Union by itself could have defeated Germany. A stalemate somewhere in Poland or the like was probably the most likely non D-Day outcome.

Posted by: Patrick | Feb 14, 2006 2:18:02 PM

"It is true that Germany could not have defeated the Soviet Union by June of 1944, but it is also true that it is far from obvious that the Soviet Union by itself could have defeated Germany. A stalemate somewhere in Poland or the like was probably the most likely non D-Day outcome."

If Dick Cheney had been able to go back in time with a single shotgun, all the history of the era could have played out drastically differently. For example, we'd all be speaking Basque today.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 14, 2006 3:03:45 PM

I just bought a book called Dark Star at the Salvation Army yesterday, because I remember DeLong giviing it a good review. Not that I'll ever read it, but how could I resist. Previously I'd bought an Iceberg Slim book at the same Sally for the same reason, except for the DeLong part.

Posted by: godoggo | Feb 14, 2006 10:30:54 PM

I just bought a book called Dark Star at the Salvation Army yesterday, because I remember DeLong giviing it a good review. Not that I'll ever read it, but how could I resist. Previously I'd bought an Iceberg Slim book at the same Sally for the same reason, except for the DeLong part.

Posted by: godoggo | Feb 14, 2006 10:31:12 PM

Patrick, give the fact that by June 1944 the Soviets had spent a year and a half rolling the Germans back a thousand or so miles from Moscow and Stalingrad, I don't really see a "stalemate somewhere in Poland" as likely. As long as the threat of an Allied landing in the west was tying down several German armies in France and Belgium, and actual Allied troops were slogging up the Italian peninsula, the Germans simply couldn't reinforce themselves in the east. It may have taken them longer without Overlord actually happening, but Vanya is absolutely right -- the Soviets would have bulldozed their way to Berlin and beyond. Just look at what they did against the Japanese in Manchuria in 1945...

And yes, Mr Tagomi the trade official has a vision of this world's Embarcadero Freeway (well, 1962's Freeway), after killing the German agents who attack his office. It's an amazing book.

Posted by: scooter | Feb 14, 2006 11:49:03 PM

Patrick, give the fact that by June 1944 the Soviets had spent a year and a half rolling the Germans back a thousand or so miles from Moscow and Stalingrad, I don't really see a "stalemate somewhere in Poland" as likely. As long as the threat of an Allied landing in the west was tying down several German armies in France and Belgium, and actual Allied troops were slogging up the Italian peninsula, the Germans simply couldn't reinforce themselves in the east.

Well, there's a difference between a Reich that had to station many divisions to guard the coast of Western Europe, and a Reich that had defeated the allied landings. In the latter case Hitler would have been free to massively reinforce his eastern front, safe in the knowledge that he had bought many many months of quiet in the west. Mind you I don't think it's a foregone conclusion he could have forced Stalin into a stalemate, but I don't think it's entirely impossible either. The Soviet Union, after all, had suvived near mortal wounds at the hands of the Nazis (25 million dead, etc.), and her capacity for warfare was not infinite.

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Feb 15, 2006 12:32:05 AM

That's a really excellent point P.B.

But it is important to point out that Overlord outside of the summer months was not a real possibility due to channel conditions, so the threat of an invasion probably would have lost credibility in the fall anyway.

Posted by: Patrick | Feb 15, 2006 4:14:29 AM

I think Almeida and Patrick are seriously underestimating the effectiveness of the Red Army by that stage of the war. Rerouting all the frontline German divisions from the West to the East would only have delayed the Soviet march into Berlin to 1946 or so. A separate peace with Stalin? What, exactly, could Hitler have done by then to compel Stalin or the Russians to such a peace?

Posted by: Tequila | Feb 15, 2006 6:11:36 AM

Patrick and PB Almeida are also overestimating the effectiveness of transferring troops from the West to the East. First of all some number of troops had to be stationed in France and Italy just to keep them under German control. In June 1944 the Soviets had 200 divisions, with 1.7M men and 6000 tanks versus 34 German divisions in Army Group Centre. The Germans had 46 infantry divisions and 9 tank divisions in France. Had Overlord not taken place, the Germans would have had at least 10 more divisions in the East, that might have slowed the Russians down but it would not have stopped them. The Russians simply had more men, more tanks, more planes, more fuel, more everything. And once Romania fell to the Soviets in August the Germans were doomed to run out of fuel - so game over. But the Allied landings were certainly necessary, without them there certainly would have been Communist governments in France and Italy. In any case a potential stalemate in Poland doesn't contradict my original point - that simply dropping A-Bombs on Germany in 1945 would not have done the US and UK any good unless a Soviet dominated Europe was your goal,(or you were willing to start bombing the USSR as well) hence the central fallacy in the alternative history Yglesias mentioned.

Posted by: Vanya | Feb 15, 2006 10:43:25 AM

What I'm really curious about is this: how did the British get involved in the Battle of Stalingrad in "Grasshopper"?

Posted by: right | Feb 15, 2006 11:04:01 AM

I think that in light of Dick's overall life's work, the differences between the history revealed through the I Ching to Abendsen and the one we live in are simply explained: we too live in a world that's gone wrong, even though less batantly than his.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh | Feb 15, 2006 3:02:43 PM

I think my favorite aspect of the alternate-alternate history in "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy" was that after FDR declined to run for a third term, the new Democratic president was ... Rexford G. Tugwell. That's some serious wonk love on Dick's part.

Posted by: Dave | Feb 16, 2006 1:24:08 PM

TMITHC is a wonderful book, full of cool details (my favorite : the main characters smoke Japanese marijuana cigarettes, because those were legal in Japan until the US occupation, which of course never happened in the book, and they brought the practice to the US West Coast under their occupation).

I think that WWII was a pretty near run thing. The key events of the War probably occurred in 1941, when the Germans invaded Yugoslavia in the Spring (because they had a revolution and pissed Hitler off), which delayed Barbarossa for some months (from April to June, IIRC). If the invasion of the USSR had gone on the original plan, Guderian would arguably have been at the gates of Moscow in September or October, not December, with troops that were not freezing, and Moscow would have probably fallen. If that had taken out the Soviet leadership, which it might have, then the USSR / Russia might have been arguably knocked out of the war. In that case, I would not have bet on England lasting too long. (Much of what we built for Germany, BTW, we used on Japan, not just the Bomb. The B-29, for example, was intended to bomb Germany from the US, or maybe Canada, in case England fell. I wonder how effective it would have been, in the face of German fighters, if that had been necessary.)

We will fortunately never know, but both my life and my study of history has taught me not to trust in the immutability of history. We make our own history, and there is nothing so apparently solid that it couldn't disappear like smoke.

Posted by: Marshall | Feb 20, 2006 11:24:09 PM

In so far as alternative history is concerned what would have happened if Stalin had ordered his red army to keep moving towards the channel in April/May 1945 - go for broke. Could the Anglo-Americans have stopped him and what support could the Germans have provided the Allies.

Posted by: martin copelin | Mar 4, 2006 9:13:57 AM

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