If you are doubting whether to read this novel, then you’ve probably already come across multiple descriptions of its premise. It usually goes like this: “In this alternate history book, the Allies have lost the war. America is divided up between Japanese and the Nazi zones of occupation.” Yes, and that is true. An interesting mirror to Europe divided between the US and USSR. But this is also a Philip K. Dick book, and Philip K. Dick books are never that straightforward.
First of all, Dick does a standout job with his alternate history America. His main characters live in Japanese controlled California, under a white puppet state somewhat like East Germany, and Japanese culture has come to suffuse society. The “native” American characters talk with Japanese accents (and now things like American comic books are considered native culture) and an Asian sense of social place is part of life. I was reminded of San Fransokyo in the film Big Hero 6. You don’t want to know what the Nazis have done with the rest of the world but it is suitably grisly.
Lots of writers can cook up a straight alternate history novel, but Dick adds his own mindset. The cultural alienation of the Japanese occupation is a topic ideally suited to his interests, as is the psychosis of the Nazi mind. Divided between the two, America has lost its identity and is in one of those delicious states of alienation that Dick jumps on like a hungry caterpillar. Against this background, Dick’s characters have their quirks as well. They all have a fascination with the I Ching for divining their future. There are twelve I Ching readings in the book that push the story in various directions, and in fact Dick used the I Ching as a plotting device. Of course, writing an alternate history is dabbling in games of chance already, so the I Ching angle makes sense thematically.
What ultimately convinced me to try this novel is a plot line about a writer (the titular man in the castle) who, like Dick himself, writes an alternate history book in which the Allies DID win the war, but it is again different from our reality, so now we have yet another variation on the 20th century, a double inversion of history. There we have the multiplicity of realities that Dick is famous for. So, instead of lazily building your novel on a single brainstorm and calling it quits, Dick plays around with multiple variations of alternate history. Like throwing sticks in an I Ching reading. That lifts the novel up on my personal ladder to a job well done as a speculative exercise.
Is the I Ching the magical device that allowed Dick to sculpt the perfect novel? That is for you to decide. But the answer is no. The story doesn’t seem to have a clear goal. It just follows a bunch of characters through some moments of their lives while they are confronted with the peculiarities of the political situation. There’s a Japanese business man doing things and there’s a Jewish man trying to start a jewellery store. Some excitement was lacking for me. What is very good is how Dick deals with the complex emotions of being part of a subjugated people. The characters clearly struggle with trying to belong to the Japanese culture and failing, and feeling inadequate and resentful and proud of their own background. Throw in also the Nazi ideology and simply living becomes an emotionally confusing mess.
On a deeper level the novel is about chance, fate and serendipity, and trying to understand that deeper reality behind the reality you are observing. Dick’s choice to write an alternate history novel seems secondary; flowing from that deeper topic of interest. The stuff about the Japanese and Nazis is not the deepest point of the novel, and if you were to go into the book with that expectation, the whole I Ching angle will be really odd.
I respect its legacy, which is based purely on the salient alternate history stuff. I admire the speculative roads the novel goes down, but the stories of the characters left me cold. The world is fascinating, but I wished the story was more interesting.