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A Wholly Reluctant Blog

A blog by someone who prefers writing to writing about writing, but treats blogging like bad-tasting vitamins.

Currently reading

The Phantom Tollbooth
Jules Feiffer, Norton Juster
Walter Scott
Cloud Atlas
David Mitchell
Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit
Daniel Quinn
Bulfinch's Mythology
Thomas Bulfinch
Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign, June-July 1863
Shelby Foote
A History of Mathematics, Second Edition
Carl B. Boyer, Isaac Asimov
The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick I once spoke briefly with a relative of mine about story construction. His advice, which he followed from Kurt Vonnegut, was to establish the central conflict of the story early (i.e., what is the goal of the story?). In doing so the reader isn't left to wonder why they're bothering to read the book.

This is, to say the least, not the strategy employed by Dick. Almost 70 years have passed since the conclusion of the second world war, so the Gasp factor of imagining a world where the allies lost to the axis has diminished somewhat--at least for me. What remains as impetus for the book is shrouded in allusions that gradually become more coherent and forceful as the book progresses, and is actually far more fascinating than the presumption of a tables-turned version of the US and world. That impetus is the existence of a book that, in a metafictional bit of drama that threatens to break the fourth wall, presumes what the world would be like if the US had won.

Dick plays with this assumed book and its narrative vision with comical expertise, deliberately avoiding the history the reader knows for a UK that returns to global dominance. In what I consider the most comical line in the entire story, a character muses why such an alternative history had never been written before--it seemed such an obvious premise. I envision Dick penning this line with a grin on his face and pausing to enjoy it for some time before moving on.

Throughout, Dick is a master at, at the very least, extrapolating perceived WWII Nazi and Japanese motives past the point of an imagined victory. From Nazis bolstered by rare scientific genius and hamstrung by depravities, to Japanese masters of formality, control, and manipulation, yet trapped in a (according to Dick) non-creative cultural stasis.

I have to take a star away only because the story doesn't quite satisfy. Apart from meandering between a few characters that provide opportunities to better explain the nature of their existence in their alternate timeline, they are not central to the main plot, if it can be said that there really is a main sequence of Action. [spoilers removed]

Of course, most striking about the story was the idea that despite these changes, despite control of the world being ceded to what we perceive as one of the most evil regimes in history, there are plenty of parallels to be drawn to the modern world. We still suffer from, what in this political environment seem, high levels of intolerance. We still fret about the destruction of our country or our world for the purpose of an ideology. Perhaps the most poignant line in the story, in light of the election season, was this, following the death of the Nazi regime leader:

"So we presume that the worst, rather than the best, choice will be made. The sober and responsible elements will be defeated in the present clash."

This certainly seems like the perception of the voting parties. To each, the alternative is not just a bad choice, but will bring about annihilation through the profoundest ignorance.

Maybe it is because these are universal, eternal, and sobering truths about humanity, that this story, in spite of its age and twist on history, remains both relevant and disquieting.