–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Themes from Philip K. Dick

by | Apr 11, 2023


The Man in the High Castle (1962)

The novel is set in an alternative history in which the Axis powers were victorious in the Second World War, and the United States has been divided up between German and Japanese empires, the Germans controlling the East Coast, the Japanese the West. An illicit alternate-history novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy – in which the Allies were victorious over the Axis in the war – is circulated throughout the underground.

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Without going into the details of the story, which are fascinating, we are given the very strong impression by the end of High Castle – and I would argue that it is more than that – that in fact, the Allies did win the war, the setting and plot and details of the novel notwithstanding, and in a bizarre momentary interlude, one of the main characters, Nobusuke Tagomi (the Trade Minister for the Japanese states), abruptly finds himself in what seems to be that version of history, only to almost immediately shift back. While one of the most striking moments in the book from a narrative perspective, I’m not sure Dick was wise to include it, because it inevitably leads many readers down a rather dull interpretive path, according to which the book’s setting is taken as the product of a weird dimensional shift or some other tired science fiction trope; a reading that has the unfortunate effect of rendering the really fascinating questions the book raises about the nature of the past more difficult to see.

So, I discourage this reading of High Castle. The world is exactly as the book describes it. And it is also the case that the Allies won the war. How is that possible? What does it mean?

When I used to teach High Castle, some students would recognize the pressure that Dick is applying to the idea of an historical fact and its relationship to – and entanglement with – interpretations. Clearly the problem is far less acute with certain kinds of statements about the past than with others. “The Allied destroyer X sank on ___, in 1940,” for example, is relatively easy to negotiate. But, it is worth noting that the sorts of statements about the past that enjoy this relatively unproblematic status are inevitably the least interesting ones. It’s the stuff that we really want to know that poses the greater difficulty. “At the end of the war, the Allies were the victors” or “The war began on  ___, in the year ___.” It’s statements like these that reveal the past as being inextricably entangled with its interpretation.   

The cleverer students would ask in what sense the Germans and Japanese in the book are rightfully described as victors. Their lot, as described, is shit. Hitler is in the late stages of syphilitic dementia, and the members of the high command are busily knifing each other (figuratively and literally) for power. The German thirst for never-ending expansion is unhinged and self-destructive (their effort to conquer space is depicted as particularly deranged), and they are planning to go to war with the Japanese, which will almost certainly be catastrophic. The Japanese, meanwhile, are stagnant and superstitious, ossified in their rigid hierarchies and formalities, and weirdly preoccupied with the ancient oracle, the I-Ching, which they compulsively consult prior to every decision. Significant portions of the world remain unconquered and a substantial resistance flourishes in the US, in the unoccupied Midwest and Mountain States. So, did the Germans and Japanese “win”? Well it depends on what you mean by “win.” Is a Pyrrhic victory a victory? It depends on what you mean by “victory.”

One needn’t turn to fiction to raise this crucial cluster of issues. Whether the Americans won or lost the Vietnam war was a divisive, sore point in American politics for the greater part of my life, and the issue only really lost its capacity to raise hackles after the end of the Cold War, decades later. What started it and when it started was almost as divisive a question. Was the Tet Offensive a victory for the North or a defeat? It depends, it depends, and it depends.

Some want to say that “the past is what it is or what it was,” suggesting – implying – that there is some fact of the matter with regard to it, independent of our interpretations; that there is an historical “reality” independent of our conceptualizations; that the past is part of “the world” that our narratives are “about.”

So what is/was it? Did the Americans win or lose in Vietnam? Were the Axis or the Allies the victors in The Man in the High Castle?  

Which past is or was?

The answer is, “all of them.”

The Three Stigmata of Palmer-Eldritch (1964)

We find ourselves on an earth that is suffering extremely high temperatures resulting from an ecological disaster. So hot is it during midday that people must wear protective clothing when outdoors and even then, must not remain there for very long. The cost of maintaining climate controlled interior spaces is wildly expensive, and a military-style draft lottery has been implemented for the purposes of selecting people to ship off-world, in order to establish colonies on a number of our solar system’s planets and moons. Barely inhabitable and supporting only the most rudimentary lifestyle, below even subsistence-farming levels, people try to avoid being drafted, and like the draft during our own Vietnam war, the capacity to evade involuntary emigration depends upon one’s social position and wealth.

A major corporation, Perky Pat Layouts, INC, produces doll-and-environment sets called “layouts,” which are sold to colonists along with a technically-illegal, though widely available drug, “Can-D,” which, when chewed, allow the users to collectively “translate” into the dolls and their environments. There is a vigorous, quasi-theological debate among users as to whether translation is real – whether people really inhabit a Ken-and-Barbie style Earth – or a collective hallucination. Beyond the obvious reference to the perennial division between Protestant and Catholic/Orthodox belief regarding the metaphysical nature of the Eucharist and Communion, fascinating questions are debated by the characters in the novel over the status of acts performed while in translation, including, significantly, adultery, as users often have sexual relations with one another while in translation. There is also Dick’s prophetic anticipation of virtual reality and the prospect of people increasingly inhabiting such unreal spaces, in order to escape their real lives. 

Palmer Eldritch, an entrepreneur and explorer, has reportedly returned from the Proxima Centaurus system with a lichen that he has used to develop a new translation drug, Chew-Z. Proxima is home to a powerful alien species, and there are rumors that the Palmer Eldritch who has returned to our system is not the same man who left it; that he has been transformed in some profound way. Some even suspect that he has become a puppet of the “Proxers” and has returned as prelude to an invasion. 

Far more powerful than Can-D, Chew-Z requires no layout, and translates the user into an entire world of his or her own making. Disturbingly, however, every translation-world seems to include within it Palmer Eldritch, who now bears what are referred to as three “stigmata”: a mechanical hand; artificial eyes; and steel teeth. Chew-Z becomes quite popular, effectively competing with Can-D among the colonists, and as more people use it, they themselves begin to manifest Eldritch’s stigmata in the real world. Eventually, even those who have not used the drug do so.  


There are strong echoes of Christianity here and specifically the idea that in consuming the body and blood of Christ, one is inhabited by his spirit, and thereby born again and redeemed. But is such “inhabitation” by a Deity salvific or something far more sinister? Should we take his professed motives at face value? Passages like this can only give us pause:

All three stigmata, the dead, artificial hand, the Jensen eyes, and the radically deranged jaw. Symbols of its inhabitation… In our midst. But not asked for. Not intentionally summoned. And we have no mediating sacraments through which to protect ourselves; we can’t compel it, by our careful, time-honored, clever, painstaking rituals, to confine itself to specific elements such as bread and water or bread and wine. It is out in the open, ranging in every direction. It looks into our eyes; and it looks out of our eyes.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1966)

In this thematically rich novel, just one plotline of which served as the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s popular and critically acclaimed Blade Runner (1982), Dick describes an earth irradiated by a nuclear war. Most of the animals have died, and those with means seek new lives on off-world colonies, aided by highly advanced androids, who may surpass human beings in intelligence and physical prowess, but who are believed to lack the capacity for empathy. The dominant religion, Mercerism, is practiced by holding the handles of an “empathy box,” a device that transports all concurrent users into the body of William Mercer, who endlessly climbs a barren hill, under a barrage of rocks, sticks, and other small missiles thrown at him by mocking onlookers.  The Christ imagery here is obvious, a connection made even stronger by the mechanics of the empathy box, through which practitioners all share the experience of Mercer’s suffering collectively and thereby gain a kind of salvation.

Later developments in the novel, however, may lead us to reconsider. We discover that William Mercer is, in fact, an actor, named Al Jarry, and that his mountain climb is performed and recorded in a studio. He is a fraud, and one might easily take from the story a moral regarding false prophets and false promises.

And yet, there is even more. Late in the book, Mercer/Jarry speaks with our protagonist, a bounty-hunter of renegade androids, Rick Deckard, and offers him the following message:

You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe.

When I would teach this book, class discussion would inevitably lead to students describing situations in which they’d found themselves, where every option was bad and failing to act would also have been bad. We would discuss the Christian idea of being saved from one’s natural condition (i.e. native sin) and whether the idea makes any sense or offers any real consolation. Students often were visibly moved by what is suggested in the book, via the shared experience that the empathy box offers: that there is no salvation from our condition, but only consolation in the sharing of its burdens with others; that most important, consequently, is solidarity with one another; and that it matters not one whit to the truth of this whether Mercer, Jesus, or any other savior-figure really exists or existed.

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1970)

Jason Taverner is the host of a wildly popular TV show in which he sings, dances and interviews celebrity guests. After a strange attack by a jilted lover that leaves him unconscious, he awakes to find that no one knows who he is and that he has no identification. The world in which his story unfolds is one in which there is ubiquitous police surveillance, with cameras and manned checkpoints every few blocks, and he soon becomes a hunted man, desperately trying to avoid capture, arrest, and the inevitable incarceration in a forced-labor camp that follows. At the same time, he also is desperate to be known again; to regain the celebrity he has lost, and the social standing and perks that come with it.

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In the latter parts of the book, Taverner meets Alys Buckman, sister of Felix Buckman, a high ranking policeman who is pursuing him. The two Buckmans have a secret, incestuous relationship and live together, as a husband and wife would. Taverner learns that his erasure from the public consciousness is the result of Alys’s having taken an experimental drug that causes the user and anyone who has come into contact with the user to share a common hallucination, in this case, a world in which Jason Taverner does not exist. Alys subsequently dies from the drug, and though Felix knows Taverner is innocent of the crime, he nonetheless prosecutes him for it, both to assuage his personal grief and to obtain a conviction, so as not to expose Alys’s drug abuse. At one point, musing on this, he thinks to himself:

All right, Jason Taverner, Buckman thought, you are known again, as you were once before, but better known now, known in a new way…As you go to your grave your mouth will be still open, asking the question, “What did I do?”

And I could never explain it to you, Buckman thought.  Except to say: don’t come to the attention of the authorities. Don’t ever interest us.  Don’t make us want to know more about you.

I found this dimension of the book eerily prescient and terrifying. Far more than in 1974, when the book was published, our existence and sense of self depends upon our being noticed, because so much of our lives are lived and conducted online. Instant celebrity is just one viral Tweet or YouTube video away and is something we crave and especially the young. Yet, such attention puts a person in tremendous jeopardy. Not just from law enforcement, whose aim is to make arrests and attain convictions, not discover the truth or pursue justice, but from feral, online mobs, whose purpose is to destroy a person’s reputation and livelihood. It is no surprise, then, that the dominant, omnipresent sensibility of our age is one of anxiety: we thirst for visibility, celebrity, and recognition, and we also know the terrible things that may befall us if we get them.

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