October 14, 2010
The High Castle comes down to Earth

Blade Runner director Ridley Scott is going to turn another Philip K. Dick book, The Man in the High Castle, into a BBC miniseries. High Castle is probably my favorite of Dick's books. Here's a piece I wrote on the inclusion of the author in the Library of America:

Canon Fodder

National Review, May 28, 2007

Four Novels of the 1960s, by Philip K. Dick
(Library of America, 900 pp., $35)

In 1981, less than a year before his death, Philip K. Dick wrote that managing to publish only one of the many non-genre books he had written was the “long-term tragedy” of his creative life. The science-fiction writer published over 30 novels and more than three times as many short stories in his lifetime, but the mainstream success he craved always eluded him. Like many American originals, Dick was taken seriously by the French — some even suggested him as a Nobel Prize candidate — before his own countrymen understood his talent. Even after his death, his reputation didn’t increase at the same rate as his name recognition: Hollywood turned Philip K. Dick into an identifiable brand, but one that was best known for providing a brainy basis for big-budget action flicks.

If only Dick, born in 1928, had lived to 78 instead of just 53. A quarter-century after his death, he is finally considered not just a serious American writer but one of the century’s greatest. At least, that’s one conclusion to be drawn from Dick’s inclusion in the Library of America: the first science-fiction writer to be so canonized in what is the closest thing to secular sainthood in American letters. Best known for collecting the works of such titans as James and Faulkner, the Library of America presents “America’s best and most significant writing in authoritative editions.” And Dick has been included not for his realist books, which finally started appearing in print posthumously, but for some of his most outlandish sci-fi creations.

Some may complain that a genre writer has beaten Hemingway and Upton Sinclair into the Library of America. But these four novels — The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ubik — are not simply outstanding examples of their form. With their haunting evocations of alienation, thoughtful meditations on reality and religion, and vivid prose style, they are among the best American novels written in the last century.

The sci-fi genre, in fact, was just a colorful trapping Dick used to frame his tales of ordinary people caught up in situations they can barely understand, let alone control. As one character in The Man in the High Castle says of that book’s novel within a novel, “He told us about our world. . . . He wants us to see it for what it is.”

High Castle is barely even science fiction. It’s alternate history, an imagining of what the world would have been like if the Axis had won World War II. Japan has control of the West Coast of the U.S. and Germany has control of the East Coast, while the Rocky Mountain States serve as a semi-autonomous buffer between the two. The novel follows a loosely connected cast of characters from all three regions. Robert Childan is the owner of American Artistic Handcrafts, a San Francisco store selling artifacts of American history — Civil War arms, Mickey Mouse watches — to Japanese clients who worship the remnants of the culture they’ve destroyed. Among them is Nobusuke Tagomi, a high-ranking bureaucrat who undergoes an acute mental crisis on being faced with the deeds of his German colleagues — they’ve emptied Africa of the Africans and New York of the Jews. Frank Frink, meanwhile, is a jewelry designer trying to sell his wares to Childan, who has no interest in anything involving current America. Frink is a Jew who’s changed his name — the Japanese may themselves not kill the Jews, but they sometimes send them back to the Germans.

High Castle has some of Dick’s most sharply drawn characters. Like most genre novels, his are usually strongest on plot. But in High Castle, it is the journey and not the destination that matters. Each character grapples with the difficulty of living in a world of evil — an Axis-ruled America being just an extreme version of our own flawed world.

This world, some characters realize, doesn’t have to be so wicked. A banned book making the surreptitious rounds is an alternate history imagining a world in which the Allies won World War II. (Dick could be as meta as the most literary of experimental novelists.) This novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, doesn’t exactly mirror the real world — after winning the war, America also solved its race problem. But in showing a world in which Americans didn’t adopt Nazi anti-Semitism, Grasshopper suggests to the despondent that it might still be possible for men to do good.

Dick’s books are known for their dystopias. His futures are filled with technological innovations that have alienated the human beings who created them. But what many commentators miss is the sense of hope that, without fail, shines through.

Nowhere is hope more needed than in the outrageously imagined world of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Global warming has made Earth almost unlivable; there still exist bores who accost you on the subway with, “It’s going to be another hot one.” The United Nations drafts unlucky citizens to colonize nearby planets, where conditions are even worse: Facing such barren landscapes, the colonists don’t even want to leave their hovels, and keep from killing themselves by taking a hallucinogen that simulates the Earth world they know and love. But when industrialist Palmer Eldritch comes back from the outer reaches of the solar system with a competing drug, this tender equilibrium is disrupted. The new product’s slogan is: “God promises eternal life. We can deliver it.” But that eternal life — or the hallucination of it — comes with a price: the manifestation of the godlike Eldritch in everybody who takes it.

Palmer Eldritch tackles what it means to be human: Colonists seem happy enough to give up their humanity if it means an escape from a world too cruel to bear. Again Dick explores good and evil in a desolate world, finding, as in High Castle, that man can counter original sin and reach the divine that’s in all of us through empathy, “grasping another, [but] not from outside.”

Empathy plays a crucial role in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the book that inspired the film Blade Runner. The marital spat that begins the novel might find a place in any realist novel, except for the fact that the couple is arguing about the use of a “mood organ” that programs feelings in its users. “I can’t stand TV before breakfast,” Iran says. “Dial 888,” Rick tells her: “the desire to watch TV, no matter what’s on it.” “I don’t feel like dialing anything at all now,” she responds. “Then dial 3,” he says.

Americans need these generated emotions to keep from falling into despair in the aftermath of “World War Terminus.” The country is covered in dust; everyone smart has emigrated to planetary colonies. But Rick cannot: He’s a bounty hunter whose job is to round up the androids who have killed their masters and made their way to Earth and freedom. He tells the difference between android and human through an empathy test, which androids fail. Over the course of a single day, Rick begins to question his choice of profession. He watches an immensely talented opera singer, who brought the world much joy, killed, while another android gives herself away by repeatedly referring to an owl as “it.” (Most of our own population would fail such a test.)

In Ubik, the question isn’t who’s android and who’s human, it’s who’s alive, who’s dead, and who’s in between. In the future world of Ubik, the dead are quickly put on ice to live out their “halflives,” in which the mind keeps going for a while. The book’s characters wonder whether they’re fully alive or just half alive. It’s an exhausting world, but Dick has the same lesson here as in the other novels: No matter what God or demons play with us, we still have the ability — and, more important, the responsibility — to make choices.

One of the characters likes to say, “So it goes” — which is also a repeated line in another book published in 1969, the late Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Like Dick, Vonnegut used the conventions of genre to focus his readers’ attention on ideas crucial to our understanding of what it is to be human. Unlike Dick, Vonnegut never had to fight for literary respectability. Yet Dick is just as funny as Vonnegut and as gifted a prose stylist as any. Even if he had never delved into mankind’s search for meaning in an increasingly alienating world, he would still belong in the Library of America for creating striking, unexpected metaphors and beautiful sentences about the human heart. His books are filled with learning; this college dropout effortlessly references Shakespeare, the Bible, and the I Ching. (Novelist Jonathan Lethem has written endnotes that could have been a bit more extensive.)

Fortunately, Dick used his gifts to speak eloquently about the dominant themes of the 20th century. His books offer hope, reminding us that, mistake-prone though we are, free will means we have at least the means of making the right decisions. As a character in Palmer Eldritch asks, “Isn’t a miserable reality better than the most interesting illusion?”

Kelly Jane Torrance is an arts and entertainment writer at the Washington Times and fiction editor of Doublethink.