I’ve always enjoyed the idea of Philip K. Dick, but have to admit that I haven’t read as much of his work as I might like. After all, he is a difficul...moreI’ve always enjoyed the idea of Philip K. Dick, but have to admit that I haven’t read as much of his work as I might like. After all, he is a difficult author, so it is easier to enjoy his works in the adaptations of others. I have read some though and, based on that, The Man in the High Castle is the best I’ve read yet.
Dick has several problems as an author. His drug use and chaotic lifestyle are widely accepted explanations for the slap-dash quality of some of his output. It does seem sometimes as if he just tossed ingredients together to bring in cash after a major party, perhaps, or to replenish his drug inventory.
But High Castle is certainly not one of those poorly put-together works. He claims it was laboriously assembled by asking the i ching question after question, thousands of them. I discount that: even if true, the artistry comes from the author, since he must have asked his oracle some incredibly creative questions.
The primary difficulty that remains here is that Dick has trouble creating coherently emotional people. His characters are strangely affectless; when life is dealing them astonishingly odd or tragic outcomes, they blandly bemoan their fates without much passion, as if they were spectators in their own lives. If you’ve only seen the adaptations, you’ll have missed that. Only Keanu Reeves (in A Scanner Darkly) seemed to have that PDK stamp of bloodless authenticity, but I suspect that’s just Keanu.
But here in High Castle, that flaw is less in evidence because the nature of the story calls for many people to suppress their emotions. This comes from three factors. The story takes place twenty years after the United States has lost World War II, and most of the action is located in San Francisco, which is in the Japanese-controlled Pacific States of America. Since the “white” people are second-class citizens, they kowtow to the Japanese and keep their behavior and words under tight control. Furthermore, several key characters are involved in diplomatic work, which also calls for careful self-control. Finally, the ruling Japanese culture is depicted as very emotionally restrained, in which the display of emotion is considered distasteful. That aspect of Japanese life is also taken as a pattern for the subject people of the PSA, so people tend to be like the Japanese in this to the extent they are acceptable and successful.
So Dick’s major storytelling flaw only really affects a few characters, and two of those have some serious emotional difficulties anyway.
Enough about why High Castle isn’t bad — how is it good?
What Dick is famous for is coming up with ideas that no one else does, and specifically ideas that are imbued with a philosophical conundrum. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the question is what it means to be human. If ever-more sophisticated androids can pass as humans, are they human? What precisely is required to be considered human? For a police detective who’s job is to hunt them down and “retire” them, this becomes a very personalized dilemma.
In Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said the problem of identity is personalized: if everyone around you forgets who you are, then what is left? If so much of our identity is embedded in what others believe and know about us, then what resides inside ourselves?
The most obvious “puzzle” in High Castle is the counter-factual story — the Axis powers winning World War II — and the role of the i ching. To me, neither of these fits the pattern of a classic PDK philosophical dilemma. So where is it?
I think it is better hidden and more subtle here, and deals with the relationship of the individual to their social collective. Dick paints the Germans, Japanese and Americans with broad strokes, but then places those cultures in opposition to one another and explores how that societal conflict plays out in individual lives, in individual actions.
Fairly early in the book, one of the major actors tries to analyze the German racial character. Later, the various factions within the German political world are identified, but at this point he tears into the German “race”. And he, Lotze, is playing games with his identity — is he Swedish? Jewish? German? Some of that is left unresolved to the very end. When told that, as a Swede, he is just like the Germans, he ponders.
Am I racially kin to this man? Baynes wondered. So closely so that for all intents and purposes it is the same? Then it is in me, too, the psychotic streak. A psychotic world we live in. The madmen are in power. How long have we known this? Faced this? And—how many of us do know it? Not Lotze. Perhaps if you know you are insane then you are not insane. Or you are becoming sane, finally. Waking up. I suppose only a few are aware of all this. Isolated persons here and there. But the broad masses . . . what do they think? All these hundreds of thousands in this city, here. Do they imagine that they live in a sane world? Or do they guess, glimpse, the truth…? But, he thought, what does it mean, insane? A legal definition. What do I mean? I feel it, see it, but what is it? He thought, It is something they do, something they are. It is their unconsciousness. Their lack of knowledge about others. Their not being aware of what they do to others, the destruction they have caused and are causing. No, he thought. That isn’t it. I don’t know; I sense it, intuit it. But—they are purposely cruel . . . is that it? No. God, he thought. I can’t find it, make it clear. Do they ignore parts of reality? Yes. But it is more. It is their plans. Yes, their plans. The conquering of the planets. Something frenzied and demented, as was their conquering of Africa, and before that, Europe and Asia. Their view; it is cosmic. Not of a man here, a child there, but an abstraction: race, land. Volk. Land. Blut. Ehre. Not of honorable men but of Ehre itself, honor: the abstract is real, the actual is invisible to them. Die Güte, but not good men, this good man. It is their sense of space and time. They see through the here, the now, into the vast black deep beyond, the unchanging. And that is fatal to life. Because eventually there will be no life; there was once only the dust particles in space, the hot hydrogen gases, nothing more, and it will come again. This is an interval, ein Augenblick. The cosmic process is hurrying on, crushing life back into the granite and methane; the wheel of life turns for all life. It is all temporary. And they—these madmen—respond to the granite, the dust, the longing of the inanimate; they want to aid Natur. And, he thought, I know why. They want to be the agents, not the victims, of history. They identify with God’s power and believe they are godlike. That is their basic madness. They are overcome by some archetype; their egos have expanded psychotically so that they cannot tell where they begin and the godhead leaves off.
He was getting a bit mystical at the end there, but this was a key passage for me. I’ve spent many hours wondering in a similar manner about the modern world, about how people can be so ideologically passionate that they miss how destructive they are, or want to be. The internal narrative is just right: that struggle to swing one’s focus around to what rings true, virtually debating with oneself. Anyway, his insight immediately called to mind George Lakoff’s Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think and his examination of how foundational ideological premises can broadly sway entire cultures. [This also reminded me how disappointed and annoyed I remain with Lakoff — instead of pursuing these deep questions across many cultures and many times, he decided to turn into a partisan hack.]
I’m sure many would laugh at Baynes’ characterization of the German rassischer Identität, and I won’t exactly defend it. But I felt the same way about Lakoff’s tremendous oversimplification of conservative and liberal ideology: even as he reduced these to an almost comical abstraction, he was zeroing on an approximation of some fundamental truth. Just as you might call someone as “basically pessimistic person”, I think it is justifiable to find similar “basic” traits about social groups.
Dick uses those basic cultural truths in High Castle as marionette strings, inexorably tugging his characters around. And, in one case, showing how dislocated someone’s psyche can become when they are forced to act outside the bounds of that culture.
And we must be similarly affected. What are the “truths” our culture has imposed on us? The United States is big enough that different subcultures seem to be in almost diametric opposition. When our ideologies become destructive, are we are insane as Baynes decided the Nazis were? It is easy to see the lies others tell themselves, but... well: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” Knowing how difficult that is, are we as doomed as the Nazis were? As the Soviets were?
With the best of literature, we find reflections of ourselves and our own times. This is Dick’s strength: even though his stories are often poorly written, the bones of those stories pose questions that are timeless.
Where does the individual end, and the collective begin?
This slim book is required reading for anyone who lives in or loves San Francisco. It is also highly recommended for anyone who lives in the region af...moreThis slim book is required reading for anyone who lives in or loves San Francisco. It is also highly recommended for anyone who lives in the region affected by San Francisco’s thoroughly confusing summer weather, which can include the entire bay region, the delta, and even much of the central valley and the Sierras.
There’s no evidence that Mark Twain actually said “The coldest winter of my life was the summer I spent in San Francisco,” but the idea is correct. Several oddities of the geology and climate combine to give San Francisco very curious summer weather: a typical day is chilly and windy, much to the surprise of tourists expecting “California weather.”
This is a fun and quick read. But in the days after I finished it, I found that my impression took a bit of a dip as I pondered it, and it lost its fo...moreThis is a fun and quick read. But in the days after I finished it, I found that my impression took a bit of a dip as I pondered it, and it lost its four-star rating in the process.
But first, a curiosity: this is the second off-beat mystery novel set in Oakland that I've read recently. The other one, Swing: A Mystery by Rupert Holmes, isn't SciFi at all, but also involves a musical theme which is even more central to the plot.
As the blurb and other reviews have remarked, Gun, with Occasional Music has a fantastic element. Definitely not magical realism: the tone of the novel is pure big-fisted Raymond Chandler noir. But both animals and babies have undergone "forced evolution" which means guns, sneers and snide language are often aimed at our protagonist by sheep, monkeys, kangaroos and toddlers. This does lend a surrealistic feel, but is more like Who Censored Roger Rabbit? (the source material for the 1988 film). And Philip K. Dick is best known for confronting questions of identity and existence, which Lethem never taps into here. (But see postscript, below.)
What we have here is a basic noir detective story set in an uncertain time with some scifi elements. Lethem channels the attitude of Raymond Chandler/Dashiel Hammett well enough, and the amalgam of genres is handled pretty well. In fact, he does the detective story better than Philip K. Dick did in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.
But it doesn't take too much thought to realize that Lethem didn't put too much effort into this. He doesn't have to, of course, but without the extra push he doesn't earn the extra stars, either.
This is definitely taking place within a dystopia. The general population is kept numbed with mind-control drugs and heavy censorship. But who is doing the controlling, and why? The only authorities shown are the local cops ("inquisitors"), and they have their own petty political battles and succession crises, and they clearly aren't at the top of the pyramid, but we never get a hint of who or what is in charge of the big picture. What is so feared that so much control is desired?
With evolved animals taking most menial jobs, should there be massive problems with underemployment of humans? Where are all those people, and how do they feel about this? There are hints that the animals are resented, and that killing them isn't considered murder... Something happened before this story took place that re-branded police investigators are "inquisitors", eliminated written journalism, and conditioned the population to feel uncomfortable about asking questions? Not a hint about what took place, and in many ways such traumas have left disturbingly few collateral changes.
The time and place also feel anachronistic. The general technology (cars, no cell phones) recalls the publication date of 1995 and keeps things from feeling too futuristic, but then those animals and "babyheads" (the forced-growth toddlers) are absurdly out of place. And within the first few pages our hero is complaining about bleeding gums and I'm thinking "they've figured out how to turn sheep into sentient beings (albeit still dim-bulb sex toys) but haven't advanced dental care?"
Lethem has given us a minor delight of an adventure story, but things simply aren't thought out well. Put this story in the hands of Ridley Scott and you might get a miracle of a movie, but don't expect too much from the book.
Postscript: amended a month after reading.
I just returned to a reading a bit of Philip K. Dick after an absence of decades, and I can definitely see the similarity to Lethem's book. But it wasn't where I had thought it might be. PKD's signature, in my mind, is in presenting questions of identity and existence, which are absent here. It is the existential mires his protagonists run into that makes him so interesting to movie makers and new audiences so many years after his death.
But PKD also used the Chandler/Hammett hard-boiled writing style, which Lethem did replicate quite accurately. Characters are socially isolated, with no friends in which they can place heartfelt trust. Caution, even paranoia, is so pervasive it has become boring. Authority is corrupt and inefficient, using arbitrariness and barbarism to instill fear and fealty. Drug use is casual. Violence is frequent and indifferently meted out, sometimes in the most curiously impersonal way: the fellow standing in front of you with the baseball bat isn't your enemy, just another peon doing his job, and he might chat with you in sympathy before breaking your nose and ribs, then help you up and express concern over whether you'll be able to make it home.
I thought this was pretty sweet. A pretty taut hard-boiled detective novel set in my home town, but quite a few centuries in the future.
Biggest innova...moreI thought this was pretty sweet. A pretty taut hard-boiled detective novel set in my home town, but quite a few centuries in the future.
Biggest innovation: the ability to make backups of humans (a la Cory Doctorow'sDown and Out in the Magic Kingdom) and to install them into other bodies, which have been demoted to mere "sleeves". Humans can also be "run" in virtual mode, in faster than real time.
The punishment of criminals is most often to put their digital copies into storage for the term of incarceration. Curiously, this is the same form of punishment used in Gun, with Occasional Music, written by Jonathan Lethem in 1994 — also a hard-boiled scifi story, and also set in the San Francisco bay area, albeit in Oakland.
The characters Altered Carbon were well composed, with a piquant blend of likable and distasteful attributes. There were definitely some villains, but they had all-too-human motivations, not just the old hackneyed evil-for-the-sake-of-evil.
Central to any detective story is the mystery that is being investigated, and this was a nicely convoluted one. I figured out the mystery long before the climax, but not the actual form it would take.
I was just a bit disappointed that the author saw fit to rename my city — why on earth would anyone ever see fit to replace a nice romantic name with something so banal is beyond me, though. Still, he did a fairly tolerable job with the locales considering he lives in Scotland. At least he didn't put a space port in the Marin headlands.
Amusing — comically inept. Published in 1994, but quite a few of the pictures are obviously from the mid-seventies. Anyone alive then would recognize...moreAmusing — comically inept. Published in 1994, but quite a few of the pictures are obviously from the mid-seventies. Anyone alive then would recognize the era from the number of people wearing polyester in red-white-and-blue (the bicentennial, of course) and sporting feathered haircuts. But more astonishingly several of the pictures are just wrong: » The most amusing: a backwards picture (swapped left-for-right) of the Bay Bridge is labeled as being the Golden Gate Bridge, despite obviously not even being the correct color. » P. 27: the upscale waterfront Point Richmond is captioned "A suburb with a difference — Richmond"; Richmond is a notoriously violent and troubled suburb, probably with few houses with yachts docked in the back yard. » P. 33: A rural mission (San Juan Batista?) is confusingly included as if in San Francisco. » P. 38: Saint Peters and Paul in North Beach is described as being Mission Dolores. » P. 50: A shot of the famous casino on Catalina Island, hundreds miles south, is captioned as a charming view in San Francisco. » P. 59: Dolores Park is mis-captioned as Buena Vista Park. The book was printed in Italy by a publisher from Connecticut, which was probably why it was being remaindered. (less)
Excellent albeit bizarre and often disturbing poems by a chap that used to do open mike poetry readings I often attended back when the world was much...moreExcellent albeit bizarre and often disturbing poems by a chap that used to do open mike poetry readings I often attended back when the world was much younger.(less)
Good points I recall: the author presents an intriguing list of social, economic, environmental and technological changes tha...moreRead this soooo long ago.
Good points I recall: the author presents an intriguing list of social, economic, environmental and technological changes that add up to, more or less, a progressive liberal fantasyland.
Bad points I recall: the political upheaval that made the forgoing possible was implausible at the time, but worse was that the same inventory, above — which was the raison d'etre for the novel — also became tiresome. Think of it as a staged tour of a Potemkin village. Time after time, everything has somehow worked out exactly as the revolutionaries [author] wanted it to, showing how wonderful life would be if only people would share and follow through on the vision! Interfering details such compromises, radical changes that didn't work out so well, or even just the messiness of quotidian existence: none of these are permitted.
I might be mis-remembering. The downside of the revolution might have gotten more airplay than I recall, but that certainly wasn't what has stuck with me after twenty-five or thirty years. I also have no recollection of a plot, so I suspect it was mostly there in service to the guide tour of the author's vision.
One detail I do remember is that San Francisco's Market Street was torn up and the (supposedly) ancient stream that used to lie along that path was brought back to life. In the intervening years while on a congested and chaotic Market Street, I've often tried to imagine a stream and a garden path there instead.
Nice fantasy, but not really plausible enough to be an important book. (less)