The Man in the High Castle and Alternate Histories

In the 20th (and now the 21st) century, alternate history stories were a big hit. If considered a genre in its own right, there is actually a good deal of diversity within the field. But the most popular subsection of this peculiar fiction is surely the What If Germany Won World War II scenario.

This was the premise for Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle, in which the Nazis and the Japanese win the war, invade America, and divide the US between them. Japan receives the Pacific States, with Germany controlling everything east of the Rockies.

Amazon’s 10-episode mini-series (now scheduled to add a second season) brings Dick’s novel to life, expanding upon certain characters, inventing others, and offering us a compelling visual glimpse of just what this world might have been like. Other writers have noted the differences between the show and the novel (Laura Miller’s fantastic piece for Slate is well worth your time). Suffice it to say that the TV show adds a great deal more action, drama and violence. It’s TV, after all.

Which is not to say the show is inherently inferior. Amazon has done a fine job crafting a compelling story with a larger arc than Dick’s novel. And it accomplishes a rather rare and unique feat: humanizing a sadistic Nazi leader (in many ways, Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith is the most likable character, in spite of his adherence to the Nazi philosophy, and when his beloved teenage son is diagnosed with an incurable disease, you can’t help but feel heartbroken for the man).

len deighton ssgbDick was hardly the only writer to explore this particular alternate reality. Len Deighton’s novel SSGB covers similar territory, imagining an England overrun by the Nazis, Churchill assassinated, and a victorious Reich. Robert Harris renewed this theme in his novel Fatherland, which centers around a murder investigation in Berlin after the Nazis have conquered Europe. More recently, the idea was taken up by CJ Sansom, whose novel Dominion is much along the same lines as Fatherland, only set in London instead of Germany.

It is easy to see the appeal of an alternate history set under the heavy Nordic thumb of the Third Reich. Dystopian novels have a long shadow and are perennially popular (Utopian novels, on the other hand, always fall flat). Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World remain bestselling classics to this day. But these works posit a future in which some uncertain government has taken over and subdued society. The Man in the High Castle and its brethren benefit from snatching a few pages directly from history, giving their works a bit more meat on the bone, if not perhaps the same level of thematic musing.

harris fatherlandAnother variation on this theme is Philip Roth’s impressive The Plot Against America. This novel is perhaps more prescient than Dick’s. Roth offers us not a conquered United States, but rather one that capitulates to Germany and signs a peace treaty with Hitler. In an interesting twist, it is the newly elected president, aviator and hero Charles Lindburg, who makes peace with the Nazis. But in other ways, Roth and Dick cover the same ground, showing us an America twisted by racism. Each novel suggests a rather uncomfortable truth: that the racism of the Nazis is only a variation on the homegrown racism in our own country, and that we are not quite as different as we believe.

Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union doesn’t imagine the Allies lost the war, but it does offer a fascinating alternate history after the war’s conclusion: the creation of a Jewish state not in the Middle East, but in Alaska. Chabon takes up the same thread as Deighton, Harris and Sansom, giving us a detective on the hunt for a murderer as the main thrust of the novel. And he graces the reader with his usual luminous prose: Nine months Landsman’s been flopping around the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered. Now someone has put a bullet in the brain of the occupant of 208, a yid who was calling himself Emanuel Lasker.

michael chabon yiddish policemanAlternate histories inherently raise the question of how singular events shift the tide of time. In the phenomenal 11/22/63, Stephen King chooses not WWII but the assassination of JFK as his historical focal point. His hero finds a doorway that leads him into the early 1960s, offering him the opportunity to stop the Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas. Though we only glimpse an alternate history near the end of the novel, King continually raises the same questions as Dick, Roth, and company: what if things had been different?

Another fine example in the genre is Robert Charles Wilson’s novel Burning Paradise, in which the main characters live in a peaceful alternate reality that hasn’t known war since the Armistice of 1914. No WWII. No Vietnam. Unfortunately, this peace is the product of careful control and manipulation by an alien race that has stepped in at crucial moments in history to guide Earth where it wants it to go. The main characters of the novel are a unique minority: they are aware of this manipulation. Which makes them targets for the aliens, who kill anyone who discovers the truth.

burning-paradise-by-robert-charles-wilsonFew genres have offered so many truly compelling and thought-provoking novels as tales of alternate history, and from so many different kinds of authors. Literary novelists (Roth, Chabon) and popular writers (Deighton, Harris) and those with a foot in both camps (King, Dick).

If you haven’t checked out The Man in the High Castle on Amazon’s streaming service, it is worth watching. You have to be a Prime member, unfortunately, but I imagine Amazon will release a DVD/Blu-Ray set at some point. Put it on your list. It definitely made my list of the best television shows of 2015.

One response to “The Man in the High Castle and Alternate Histories”

  1. Interesting post Tyler. I just added ‘The Man in the High Castle’ to my to-read list.

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