Cailin Reads: Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Some people want to read the book before seeing the movie or watching the show. I like to do just the opposite. If I read the book first, I find I don’t enjoy the adaptation as well as when I get into the show and then return to the source material to see how it compares.

Although I have heard nothing but good things about the Amazon series based on this story, I haven’t actually gotten very far into it yet. I have a hard time getting into new shows. I don’t watch much television at all and what I do watch tends to be news or documentaries. But the shows I do enjoy, I enjoy to the edge of obsession and gladly re-watch time and again. Still, the first few episodes of Man in the High Castle, along with the fact that I’ve read other Philip K. Dick novels in the past, was enough to spark an interest in the book.

The two have little in common.

The book was engrossing, although the writing style used to capture the ways in which certain characters think was a little clumsy to read in places. I had a particular love-hate relationship with the abbreviated, often subjectless sentences of the Japanese and Japanese-influenced characters in the Pacific States of America. It fits so well with the structure of the Japanese language, which I studied briefly in college and practice a bit with my daughter who is taking it in high school, but at the same time it is choppy and disjointed from the perspective of a native English speaker.

The storyline itself was fascinating. The ways in which the two halves of the United States developed on different paths, split between the Axis powers that won WWII, and their starkly different cultural dynamics as well as the balance of power between them made for a fascinating backdrop to the action of the story. Touching on themes of politics, faith, and art, it was a book with a lot to say about the human condition without feeling heavy-handed or pretentious.

The ending, however, was terribly unsatisfying. After introducing a major threat to the setting in which most of the action takes place and adding a metaphysical aspect of questioning reality itself in the closing chapters, the book ended on a very unfinished note with no closure on either count. I have since read that Dick planned a sequel to the story, which would presumably have furthered one or both of these storylines, but it was never completed.

Even though I didn’t love the ending, I would still recommend the book as a whole. It is worth reading for the characters themselves and the insights that stem from how they navigate the complex societies that replace American culture in the alternative timeline.

And it was enough to renew my interest in the show, which I don’t think I’d have continued for its own sake. But reading the book made me curious about how the series will progress, particularly as it stretches out into a second season, and whether the unfinished themes of the book will feature or be somehow resolved in the television adaptation.

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