A poisoned apple at the time of its writing, Philip Dick’s alternative history has lost none of its bite. Dick deftly destabilized the traditional “what Germany and Japan had won World War II?” scenario by rerouting it through the 1933 assassination of FDR (the year an Italian-born anarchist in fact shot at — and missed — the newly sworn in president in Miami). With FDR gone, the U.S. grows complacent, Nazi Germany and Japan bolder, the Allies are eventually routed, and on Capitulation Day 1947 the winners partition an occupied America so that patient Japan holds the West and the nervous Nazis control East, with the Rocky Mountain States as an iffy demilitarized zone.
The year is 1962. Martin Bormann and Joseph Goebbels rule the Reich. Jews are “kikes.” “Oven camps” still simmer. Transatlantic Lufthansa rocket flights last minutes. The Japanese (and conquered “white aboriginal” Americans) use the I Ching and its divining straws to make decisions while the syphilitic Nazis (Hitler is dying of the disease) colonize deserted Venus and Mars, this after draining the Mediterranean, herding Slavs into reservations, and conducting a genocide of African blacks, the survivors made into slaves.
Into this scenario comes deferential Robert Childan a San Francisco peddler of arts and crafts Americana (the Japanese love it), Jewish “exile” and laborer Frank Frink, his estranged ex-wife Juliana, and reclusive Hawthorne Amundsen, the mysterious author of a book called “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” a banned novel that re-imagines within the re-imagining: making the Allies into victors, titillating the Japanese while enraging the blood and eugenics Nazis, “evil beyond compare.” Amundsen is the man in the high castle, hiding out in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Dick’s people and circumstances often get clunky. What is not clunky is the portrait of a humbled and defeated U.S., submissive to the colonial goals of others. They have suffered a pre-Marshall Plan European fate —”…millions of bleak-eyed and despairing American men and women picking through the ruins after the war.” Dick’s penny ante Americans and weary foreigners — Childan, owner of American Artistic Handicrafts, Frick, Juliana, as well as a troubled Japanese official named Mr. Tagomi and a Nazi nonconformist known as Mr. Baynes — lend credibility to a bleak landscape whose lords and masters seem to be chugging their way toward World War III, with Germany and Japan filling in for the U.S. and the Soviet Union. This alien America is a place of self-loathing apologists — barbarians to their new masters — whose often-mundane concerns give the story its terrifying verisimilitude (“If those Nazis can fly and forth between here and Mars, why can’t they get television going?” asks Juliana.) They smoke marijuana cigarettes to keep their nerves in check.
Dick is not in search of high literature. Instead, he wants the jaded winners to think twice about their tranquil affluence, which began peaking in 1960. In that he succeeds with remarkable and provocative aplomb, giving his fictional paranoia an ironic bite. “If Germany and Japan had lost the war,” muses passive Childan, “the Jews would be running the world today. Through Moscow and Wall Street.” Made into a 2015 television series by the same name.