I have to report that I'm not enthusiastic about Phillip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. On the basis of this and the one other PKD novel I've read, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I guess I'm not enthusiastic about his work in general. In both cases, however, I read the book after having seen an excellent movie or TV series based on it, and thus couldn't avoid having at least some of my expectations set in advance.
Androids, as you probably know, is the rather loose source for the movie Blade Runner, which most critics, including me (I mean, if you define critic as "a person who has an opinion"), consider one of the best science-fiction films ever made. It's very potent emotionally. The novel is not, at least it wasn't for me. The characters never engaged me or even seemed particularly real, and I felt very little sense of drama in the story--which, again, makes it compare poorly with the movie.
More or less the same thing is true of The Man in the High Castle. As you probably know, the premise of the story is that it's an alternate history in which the Axis powers won the Second World War. The idea obviously has a lot of dramatic potential. Although I had a good many reservations about the Amazon TV series, it did deliver on that potential fairly well. Comparing the book to an expensively and skillfully produced ten-hour TV series (to limit the comparison to Season 1 only) may seem unfair, but I can think of several such comparisons where the book very much holds its own even to a very well-done adaptation (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, for instance).
The novel seems pretty slight, and I suspect that most people who come to it after watching the series would find it so. Apart from the basic concept, and half a dozen or so of the major characters--Frank, Juliana, Togomi, Childan, a few others--the two don't have all that much in common. It's almost--not quite, but almost--as if the producers of the series took those elements and wrote their own story. After the first season, that's definitely true.
The novel takes place almost entirely in the Japanese-ruled Pacific states, the rest in the neutral Rocky Mountain region. We get no sense at all of what life is like in the American Reich, apart from the fact that the Nazis have remained monsters in the roughly fifteen years since the end of the war, and if anything are worse than ever, having turned their genocidal mania on the whole African continent. (Obergruppenführer John Smith, from the TV show, does not exist in the book.) The Japanese are portrayed fairly sympathetically, somewhat more so than in the series. Dick clearly has a fondness and fascination for Japanese culture. The I Ching plays a bigger role in the novel and in fact is a major presence in it. (In passing: if Dick is accurate, the I Ching, which is Chinese, is more important in Japanese culture than I would have thought.)
Well, it's tempting but would probably be tiresome to go on with a comparison of book to film. I think the book would seem slight even without the comparison. It seems basically cerebral. For me at any rate it held very little dramatic tension. The premise, the characters, and the events that ought to make for a very good story are there, but the intensity is not. And I doubt that anyone has ever claimed that the author writes memorable prose.
I felt more or less the same way about Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Now I'm thinking that PKD may be basically a novelist of ideas. But what ideas? I'm not really sure. I gather from his Wikipedia article that he held (or played with?) somewhat gnostic metaphysical and spiritual ideas, the sort of thing that sometimes appeals to the sort of person who has both philosophical and scientific interests--who wants, for instance, to somehow combine or reconcile Taosim and advanced physics. Actually he seems to have been a bit crazy, in the way that a very smart person who has a great drive to fit everything into a mental scheme can be--Chesterton's logician who wants to get the heavens into his head. Maybe more than a bit crazy, actually.
The Man in the High Castle seems to conclude with some sort of revelation, but I'm not sure what it is. It may be that the novel's reality is not the real reality, that the world where the Allies won the war is the really real one. But then Who's To Say What's Real Anyway? And to be honest I'm not all that interested.
Merits of the novel as novel aside, I was disappointed in my main reason for reading it, which was to find out more about the films possessed by the mysterious title character which are of such crucial importance in the TV series. They don't exist in the book. The only testimony to a world in which the Germans and Japanese lost the war is a novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, written by the title character, the man in the high castle, Hawthorne Abendsen. Cool name.
Here's something I meant to post last week. Stu sent me the link to this article about the farmhouse in rural France which W. S. Merwin bought in the early '60s and still owns, though he apparently doesn't live there most of the time. The somewhat surrealistic poems that he was writing then touch occasionally something that seems to belong in just such a place--a door, a wall, a stone, a path--and I always thought it was a place where he lived, or had lived. This is very much like what I imagined, though the one in my imagination was much closer to being a ruin, which will not surprise you if you know those poems.
Another LP from the closet: Joni Mitchell's Hejira. Released in 1976, it was the successor to The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which I wrote about few months ago, and it's just as good. I'd be hard put to choose one over the other, either for my own listening or as a recommendation. Musically they're fairly similar, though the instrumentation on Hejira is sparser overall--but it also has on several tracks the amazing Jaco Pastorius on bass. The lyrics on Hejira are somewhat more focused on herself and her romances than on Summer Lawns. Here's one of the best songs, "Amelia." It's one of Joni Mitchell's best songs, period, which is saying a lot: as a matter of personal taste she's not my favorite artist, but she's certainly among the major talents to have emerged from the '60s pop wave.
I'm very glad that I have these two albums on LP, because the covers, which Mitchell designed, are beautiful (and on Summer Lawns include her own drawings). They're so good that I went to my local record store and bought, on LP, the two albums that came out after this one and which I've never heard, Mingus and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. I'm sure I will be reporting on them in due time.
Used LPs, by the way. I'm shocked at what people are paying for new ones. I certainly never thought vinyl would come back, and when it did start to come back I thought it would be a short-lived fad. But there's no sign of it going away that I can see.
As I have mentioned, we don't get much brilliant color here in the fall from the trees that actually choose to lose their leaves. But if you look closely you can still see some beauty even in the dull sycamore leaves, especially when they retain some of their green.