A while back, we were aimlessly perusing tv shows available on Amazon Prime and came across an Amazon original series titled The Man in the High Castle. I was 100% intrigued by the premise – the Allies lost World War II, and now, in 1960’s America, the Nazis rule the eastern half of the country, while the Japanese occupy the west. I absolutely love stories that are parallel to real life – what if one aspect of history changed?
Of course, we have virtually no time to actually watch television, so we haven’t actually seen the Amazon series. But at the time I told my husband that if it was a book, I would totally read it. Well, guess what… like every idea on television or in the movies… it was a book!
Unfortunately, for me this book didn’t deliver. While the setting was intriguing, there was virtually no plot. I got the impression that this was one of those really deep books that delight students of literature but annoy straightforward people like myself. I was hoping to see an occupied America with some kind of underground movement. I didn’t necessarily need to see the Axis governments overthrown, but just some kind of action?? Instead, I got several rather disjointed threads that sort-of-kind-of-not-really came together. Even halfway through the book I was still hoping that something would actually happen, but everyone just sort of meanders about living their regular lives, except under the rule of someone else.
So basically this random guy in Colorado – much of the middle of the country is considered neutral and isn’t occupied by either country – writes this book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. In this book, the Allies win the war. The book is, naturally, forbidden in the Nazi territory, but is published in the neutral regions and in the Japanese occupied region. In Grasshopper, the Communists don’t take over just because the Allies win. Instead, the world is a much better place. (Better, in fact, than our real life, where the Allies did win.)
So some of Castle is various people reacting to Grasshopper. Some of Castle is about these guys in San Francisco making jewelry, while another man in San Francisco runs a shop. An important Japanese businessman makes arrangements to meet with a Swiss man for some business dealings, but it turns out that the Swiss is actually a German using the meeting as a cover to give some important information to a Japanese general. The guy in charge of Germany dies, and various factions are attempting to take over, but we only get that information secondhand. Everyone just sort of mucks about, with stories crisscrossing but not really building.
In some ways, I think that that was the point – whatever happens in history, the conqueror always spins the win, reminding everyone how terrible their lives would be if the winner had lost. In The Man in the High Castle, many people believe that if the Allies had won, Russia/Communists would have taken over the world, and the Great Depression would never have ended. In short – even though many aspects of their lives aren’t that great, being humans, they accept that what is is what is, and comfort themselves by thinking about how terrible it would have been if what is wasn’t.
In this passage, a man in San Francisco has heard of Grasshopper but not read it yet:
Tomorrow I will have to go out and buy that Grasshopper book, he told himself. It’ll be interesting to see how the author depicts a world run by Jews and Communists, with the Reich in ruins, Japan no doubt a province of Russia; in fact, with Russia extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific. I wonder if he – whatever his name is – depicts a war between Russia and the U.S.A.? Interesting book, he thought. Odd nobody thought of writing it before.
He thought, it should bring home to us how lucky we are. In spite of the obvious disadvantages…we could be so much worse off. Great moral lessons pointed out by that book. Yes, there are Japs in power here, and we have to build. Out of this are coming great things, such as the colonization of the planets.
I think that the author has placed his own point for the book in this passage. The worlds in Grasshopper and in Castle are not so different from our own. Every war in history has victors and losers, and, in the long run, is there really that much of a difference for the common people? We assume that if the Axis powers had won World War II, the entire planet would be in ruin. But Castle gives us a story where people go right on living in the normal way for the most part. Atrocities are committed yes – but atrocities were committed by the Allies as well, and continue to be committed around the world even now.
Most of the book takes place in the region occupied by Japan. As conquerors, the Japanese are portrayed as much more reasonable than the Nazis, and life is actually pretty normal. I think that was the other thing that was a little annoying about this book – there isn’t really a whole lot of difference in life. We’re told, in a vague way, that the Nazis are really terrible, and they went through with their plans to slaughter basically everyone they didn’t like, including but not limited to, Jews, blacks, Slavs, homosexuals, the mentally retarded, and the elderly. But almost none of the story takes place in the regions occupied by the Nazis, so even though they do come into the story some, it’s not really a driving force of the book.
And in the end? There isn’t really an end. This is a bit of a spoiler (as much as you can have one for a book with no plot) so if you want to actually read the book, you may not want to read this – but basically throughout the book, everyone consults a Japanese oracle book called the I Ching. One asks the oracle a question, and then uses straws or coins to determine which passages in the book answer the question. In the end, one of the characters finally reaches the author of Grasshopper and asks him how he imagined what he wrote, and he tells her basically the oracle wrote the book because he consulted it the entire way. So we’re left with this kind of mystic godlike entity that wrote a book through a prophet…??? Kind of??? Except Grasshopper isn’t really causing a revolution or stirring people up, so I don’t really know what the point was of the oracle writing the book.
As an aside, I kind of disagreed with Dick’s politics anyway, as he manages to reassure us that FDR was a godlike figure who, if he hadn’t been assassinated in this alternate history, would have gone on to save not just the US, but the world, from the Depression and the Nazis and probably every other kind of horror in the world. Personally, I hate FDR and basically everything he represented, so I wasn’t really buying all the FDR praise.
All in all, this wasn’t really a waste of a book, but it was a 3/5 for me. I still may get around to watching the Amazon series at some point, because it sounds a lot more action-oriented than the book (and probably has nothing to do with the book’s story), but I didn’t really feel like Castle was a classic I needed to add to my personal library.