Sunday, May 31, 2015

Audiobook Review: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Book Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 Stars
Audiobook Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

The Man in the High Castle is Philip K. Dick's 1962 novel that takes place in an alternate history where the Axis powers won World War II.  In his timeline, the war lasted until 1947 and control of the United States was split between Japan and Germany following the end of the conflict.  The book takes place several years later in America during the 1950's and follows several intertwining storylines.  One involves the power struggle that ensues in Germany following the death of Adolf Hitler's successor Martin Borman.  Another involves attempts to inform Japanese officials in America of a plot by the Nazis to launch a nuclear strike on their home country and thus take full control of the world.  Another involves an assassination attempt on the author of the book The Grasshopper Lies Heavy which posits another reality in which the Allied powers won the war (though it has its differences from our own timeline).

The book is quite interesting, though I found it ultimately unsatisfying.  Philip K. Dick has always been a great idea man (demonstrated by the number of his concepts that have been adapted to film and television), though I personally find he tends to come up a bit short at times as a writer.  His ideas tend to work better in short stories where he can stay more focused with less room for meandering (more on that at this link).  With his novels (including his most famous, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), his writing tends to stray and become muddled at times (more on that at this link).  That's definitely the case with The Man in the High Castle as he fails to give a satisfying resolution to several of his storylines and some just seem tacked on (like the fascination the Nazis and Japanese have with artifacts of Americana).  The setting, though, is quite fascinating and I found it interesting that he gave an almost (though no quite) sympathetic view of the Japanese occupation of the U.S. and of that country's culture in general.  But there was so much in the book that cries out to be developed further, and when it ends rather abruptly it leaves you feeling cheated.  Ultimately, it appears Dick's goal with the book was less about exploring this alternate reality he created and more about delving into the philosophy and predictive nature of the I Ching.  An interesting idea in its own right, but not what I was looking for from this alternate history novel.

Amazon Instant Video is adapting this book as one of their original series, and they are taking plenty of liberties with it as has typically been the case with Dick's works.  But several of the basics are there with the division of the U.S. between Germany and Japan, the ensuing power struggle among the Nazis, as well as the suggestion of an alternate-alternate reality where the Allies won the war.  I'm hoping that show will dive into some of the more interesting possibilities that Dick suggested about this alternate reality but failed to flesh out. The pilot is currently available for viewing at Amazon (at this link) and the series will kick off later this year.  Perhaps, as with Blade Runner, the adaptation will improve upon the original.

As for the audiobook version (currently available from, Tom Weiner does a decent job of narrating the story, though I wouldn't call it a standout performance.  He delivers a very mechanical reading, especially early on, and has an annoying habit of drawing out the last word in every sentence.  But he does do a god job with the Japanese and German accents and also with differentiating between the many characters.  And his robotic idiosyncracies become less noticeable and less of a distraction as you progress through the book.

Overall, The Man in the High Castle is a decent book with some very interesting ideas and worth the read (which isn't too long at about eight and a half hours for the audiobook).  But you might enjoy it better if you go in with the understanding that it is less about exploring the alternate reality that Dick has created and more of an observation on Asian philosophy, particularly the I Ching.

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