Saturday, October 10, 2009

Past imperfect

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick (1962)
This novel was the first major success for Philip K. Dick, although it was far from the first novel he wrote or published. It was his ninth published sf novel, and it also appeared after he had written 11 mainstream novels, most of which were posthumously published (a few were lost). The Man in the High Castle displays both mainstream realistic skill in description, characterization, and evocation of place, as well as supreme science-fictional sensibility. It won the 1962 Hugo Award for Best SF novel. However, the only sf premise is that of the existence of a parallel time track, one in which Germany and Japan won World War II. Rereading this for probably fourth or fifth time, I was struck this time by the metafictional quality of the oft-criticized ending, which seems to peter out unsatisfactorily. In this ending, we get to meet Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of a novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which portrays a world in which Germany and Japan lost the war. (It's not quite ours, but a lot closer than that of The Man in the High Castle.) He confesses that the I Ching helped him write his book, just as in real life it helped Philip K. Dick write the book that contains the fictional novel. So Abendsen (whose name sounds like a composite of German and Japanese words, and is a kind of shadowy character befitting the German word abend, evening) is a thinly disguised version of Dick himself. It is as if we are suddenly raised above the story to have a chat with the author, and what we find is that the author has no special knowledge about the reality behind his story. He is sort of like the Wizard of Oz. This somewhat self-abnegating posture on the part of the author, an act of self-diminishment, is only disappointing if we are looking for a more conventional ending to a most unconventional story. I find it fascinating, and for me it works.