When the race relations portrayed in a book written more than 50 years ago are still all too familiar, it can be a wake-up call.
Books that deal with alternative histories may be one of the most under-appreciated genres. The phrase “oldie but goodie” is definitely an apt description for my latest read, The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick.
Fans of Philip K. Dick have likely read many of his sci-fi stories or seen films based on those books, such as Blade Runner, Minority Report, or Total Recall; but this book takes a more realistic, alternative history approach. If the title sounds familiar, it’s probably because Amazon has turned the book into an original series of the same name, “The Man in the High Castle.”
Although a big sci-fi and alternative history fan, I hadn’t heard of the story until my father-in-law pulled out an old copy from his shelf after seeing an ad for the new tv version. After reading the cover, I knew I had to read it before watching the show.
The story is a nerve-touching one.
It takes place in the year it was published, 1962, and presents life in an America occupied by the Axis forces. Ever wonder what would have happened if Japan and Germany had won WWII? Well this book gives you one version of what may have been.
What I found so fascinating about this book was actually not the alternative history part, although that was well done. To me, the subtle story-line around race relations, as well as the “meta” aspects, were what really kept me reading all through the night.
The meta aspects were fun and a little obvious. A key part of the storyline is an underground hit, a banned book about life on Earth if the Allies had won, which many of the characters read throughout the story and are unable to put it down.
So, here you are… in an America that won the war, reading a book you are unable to pause in reading… And you are reading about characters in an America that lost the war, who are also reading a book they can’t put down, but about an America that won the war… You see how that can take your thinking into a spiral!
(Interestingly, the meta quality holds true from what I’ve seen of the tv version so far… They replaced the banned book with a banned film!)
But most interesting to me was that the book really hit home. It still carried relevance to events happening today, even though it was written more than half a century ago.
**The following isn’t a direct spoiler, but does describe, loosely, a scene in the story.
To give you an idea of what I mean, there is a continuing theme throughout the book regarding tension between the people in power and the other citizens in the country. For example, one particular scene plays out an encounter between the privileged class, which in this case are the Japanese, and the “other,” an American. The privileged couple in this scene are well-meaning, trying to subtly let the American know they are on his side, but they are so out of touch with his reality that the whole encounter goes awry. The American becomes frustrated by their arrogant appropriation of other cultures, and their judgement of him when he says what he thinks they want to hear. There is so much tension and such a lack of perspective regarding the other person’s position that both leave the encounter feeling disappointed, frustrated, and unsure of where they went wrong.
This could have easily been a scene from 2015. The storyline wouldn’t need any altering, except substituting in varying cultures/races/religions/nationalities/genders. It seems amazing that more than 50 years later, this same scenario is still being played out. That we still have so many people who can’t relate to each other and feel the need to tip-toe around the conversation or not partake in it at all.
I’ve only begun to watch the tv adaptation, but am curious to see if this theme is highlighted in Amazon’s original series. The subtleties could be well played through a film version, but you never know what to expect when a book is adapted for the screen, big or small.
In my case, the book was enough to get me thinking. My curiosity was peaked. Why? Again, it goes back to the meta aspect. As a white person in America, I’ve been on the side of the privileged in that scene I described. I’ve tried to subtly let people know that I am on their side; that I appreciate the situation for what I see it to be; that I’m as upset as they are… only to realize that my attempt isn’t enough to express my true feelings because the veil of power is too hard to get past with subtleties. Here we are trying to take on attributes of the other in an attempt to show our support, when what we should be doing is coming out and saying what we mean. We should be having the conversation.
Will we ever get to a point where movement between groups and circumstances is done often and with enough ease that these tensions no longer exist? Or will this book continue to hold relevance for readers 50 years from now?
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