Is Europe welcoming desperate refugees, or being invaded by economic migrants? Is Donald Trump a serious President, or a clownish attention seeker? The Man In The High Castle reveals the most basic truths about our era of competing narratives.
In 1947 the forces of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan swept to victory over Europe and America. Fifteen years later America still lives under Axis dominance. This is the starting premise of Philip K Dick’s 1962 science fiction masterpiece, The Man In The High Castle, which recently become the latest of the famed sci-fi author’s stories to be adapted for the screen.
It’s often claimed that The Man In The High Castle is a novel of alternate history. While it’s true that the story contains a fascinating counterfactual timeline of the world following an Allied defeat, theres an even deeper level of significance within Philip K Dick’s classic novel. The Man In The High Castle is a novel not just of alternate histories, but of alternate narratives, and it’s in this contest of narratives that the novel says most about the politics of today.
“We, like the characters reading The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, must question the narrative of our own reality.”
The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is a story within a story, a novel within the novel of The Man In The High Castle. This secondary book imagines a world where the Axis powers *lost* World War 2, a world uncomfortably close to our actual reality. Even while we as readers follow the story of Germany and Japan winning the war, PKD engineers a counter narrative in which, as with our actual reality, those nations lost the war. And as the story progresses, these two alternate narratives begin to conflict.
Advanced SciFi & Fantasy
Writing the 21st century myth
Damien Walter, writer on sci-fi and geek culture for The Guardian, BBC, WIRED and graduate of the Clarion writers workshop, leads a journey into scifi and fantasy storytelling.
When high-falutin people talk about sci-fi you’ll often hear them use words like novum and the like. Critic and academic Darko Suvin came up with novum to describe the…thing…at the heart of every sci-fi story that makes it sci-fi. Androids hiding as humans! A world populated by talking apes! A portal that leads to everyContinue reading “Write better sci-fi stories with this simple idea”
Corporations love to take cool things and turn them to trash to make money. In the early 80s black artists took DJ music loops, rapped radical political lyrics over them, and invented hip-hop. Corporations took hip-hop and degraded it into “gangsta rap”, perpetuating stereotypes of black male violence to sell hip-hop to the masses. CorporationsContinue reading “Science fiction sold out. Let’s take it back.”
When did the science fiction community start using “genre” as a proper noun? “It’s a common thing in Genre.” As though “Genre” is a city you can visit. Or a distinct community unified by being “Genre”. It’s one of those linguistic ticks that arise on the internet. But for science fiction it’s also symbolic ofContinue reading “Genre fiction is the worst thing that ever happened to science fiction”
M John Harrison is one of the all time greats, a “science fiction writer’s science fiction writer”, a creator of weird tales in the horror tradition, and a powerful weaver of fantasy. The Viriconium stories defined political fantasy in the 80’s, as the Light trilogy redefined literary SF in the 00s. As editor of NewContinue reading “How does M John Harrison enter a story?”
When life takes an unexpected left turn I do four things – tidy my room, go running, take 72 hours away from anything stressful…and read a good book. This time around I landed on Neuromancer by William Gibson. I first read this book when I was 14, I suspect I read it at least sevenContinue reading “Neuromancer…still the best science fiction novel ever written”
Neal Stephenson – legendary author of speculative fiction – on Elon Musk and geek culture, the NSA revelations of Edward Snowden, how negative cultural narratives are killing big science – and the upbringing that made him the writer he is. IN LATE 2013 I had the opportunity to interview the author Neal Stephenson. Some Remarks,Continue reading “The remarkable Neal Stephenson interview”
Every genre of science fiction began as literary fiction. For writers and fans of SF it’s useful to get familiar with the literary origins of genre fiction. The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse is set some 400 years in the future from its first publication in 1943. Hesse spent over a decade writing this,Continue reading “7 literary Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels you must read”
Calling sci-fi a genre in 2016 is about as accurate as calling the United States one nation. In principle it’s true, but in practice things don’t work that way. While crime, romance and thrillers all remain as coherent genres of fiction, it’s been decades since sci-fi could be comfortably understood by any shared generic criteria.Continue reading “The 8 Tribes of SciFi”
A Scanner Darkly is one of Philip K Dick’s most famous but also most divisive novels. Written in 1973 but not published until 1977, it marks the boundary between PKD’s mid-career novels that were clearly works of science fiction, including The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and hisContinue reading “Transrealism: the first major literary movement of the 21st century”
The author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, Hawthorne Abendsen, is the eponymous “man in the high castle”. He lives in an isolated mountain compound, to which a number of the novel’s central characters are drawn by reading the novel within the novel. As they do, reality itself begins to shift and alter, and they begin to enter the world of Abendsen’s book. The resemblance between Abendsen and Philip K Dick is deliberate. PKD is suggesting that we, like the characters reading The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, must question the narrative of our own reality.
Confused? Perhaps no more so than we all are by the conflicting narratives of everyday life. Today our world is saturated with narratives. Newspapers, television, advertising and the internet are continually bombarding us with stories of society, politics, wars, technology and thousands of other subjects. PKDs fascination with this complex web of narratives lead him to repeatedly ask the question in fiction that confronts us all today in reality – which narratives are we, ultimately, to believe?
“The false narratives of others are easily spotted, but we’re almost entirely blind to false information that supports our own narrative.”
Is Europe welcoming desperate refugees, or being invaded by economic migrants? Is Donald Trump a serious presidential candidate, or a clownish attention seeker? Are cuts to public spending a necessary economic sacrifice, or is economic recession just an excuse to force through ideology? These hot button issues don’t simply divide culture, they reveal the competing narratives fighting for dominance of culture.
Conservatives and liberals who take opposing positions on these issues don’t just hold different opinions, they believe radically different narratives. The conservative narrative, that believes in God the creator and religious law, leads people to very different conclusions on major issues, than the liberal narrative of evolution and scientific discovery. What Philip K Dick understood in 1962, that most of us today are only beginning to see, is just how our narratives define our sense of reality. While we may live in one world physically, we inhabit very different worlds psychologically.
Social media means that more people than ever can create narratives and put them into the world. The website Snopes.com catalogues, and debunks, the complex half truths, conspiracy theories and outright lies that proliferate on the internet. Taken in isolation the mistaken belief that Starbucks removed Jesus from their Christmas cups, or that Steve Jobs recanted his capitalist ways on his death bed, seem simply absurd. The false narratives of others are easily spotted, but we’re almost entirely blind to false information that supports our own narrative.
With The Man In The High Castle, Philip K Dick was pointing to one of the great conundrums of modern life and culture. When we attempt to judge competing narratives as true or false, we inevitably do so in relation to the narratives we already hold to be true. PKD asks us to imagine a world where Nazi power triumphed in WW2, and a world in which the narrative of history was written by the victor. If we lived in that world, how would we know that the lies spun by a Nazi government were not the truth? If even a power as malignant and destructive as Nazism could persuade us to believe its narratives, then anything we believe true might potentially be based upon lies.
The answer Philip K Dick guides us towards is an awareness of narratives themselves. Until we see how stories are used to shape our perceptions and reality, we’re vulnerable to continued manipulation. But once we can think critically about the ways that narratives are constructed, and the various agendas they serve, we can begin to assess objectively our own beliefs. That simple insight places The Man In The High Castle among the best guides to our 21st century world, and is the reason why the works of Philip K Dick are read so widely some fifty years after they were written.
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