The Man in the High Castle: When a Nazi-Run World Isn't So Dystopian

Amazon's new TV series simplifies (and inverts) novelist Philip K. Dick's original, more sinister vision of everyday evil.

Amazon's new television adaptation The Man In the High Castle—part of the streaming service's 2015 pilot season—opens in a conquered New York. The Nazis won World War II, and the American flag now bears a swastika. A few freedom fighters struggle on—we see one in particular brutally tortured and beaten to death—and the police are everywhere. Life in this alternate dystopia is a thing of fear and hardship, as in 1984, or The Handmaid's Tale, or The Hunger Games. The familiar forces of freedom struggle against the familiar totalitarian forces of dystopia, epitomized, in the usual way, by a cruel, sadistic supervillain (here portrayed by Rufus Sewell as SS officer John Smith). If the Nazis had won the war, the TV series warns us, the world would have been much, much worse.

This message, as it happens, is a complete inversion of Philip K. Dick's 1962 novel of the same name, on which the series is based. As such, it betrays the source material’s difficult and conflicted message in the interest of the banal genre default of plucky Americans fighting for freedom against the evil invaders; as Adi Robertson of The Verge suggests, it might as well be Red Dawn.

Superficially, perhaps, the novel isn't all that different. Dick also imagines that the Nazis have won World War II, and the world under the Nazis is certainly horrible enough: The novel mentions several times that after their victory in the war, the Germans set about murdering everyone in Africa. Slavery has been reinstituted in the southern United States (an uncomfortable detail that isn't mentioned in the pilot episode), and American Jews in Nazi-controlled areas have been systematically gassed. One of the Jewish main characters, Frank Frink (née Fink) is arrested on the Japanese-controlled west coast and scheduled for deportation to Germany. Meanwhile, in the TV series, Frink (Rupert Evans) only has a Jewish grandparent, which seems a bizarre alteration.

But while life in the novel’s alternate reality is certainly awful in many ways, it's not exactly a dystopia, which is precisely why it's so chilling. Dick's book has little of the pulp melodrama of the TV pilot; there are no torture scenes, no supervillains, and not even a single scene set in the repressive Nazi-controlled region of the former U.S. Instead, the action occurs in the independent Mountain States or on the Japanese-controlled Pacific areas, and most of the characters go about their daily lives just as most of us do now. They have small problems and worries and cares, they adapt to quotidian injustices. But they do so without great urgency about the genocidal violence being inflicted on people on the other side of the world, continent, or neighborhood. The frightening thing isn't the dystopia. It's that the dystopia is so familiar it doesn't really feel dystopian at all.

This is nowhere more clear than in the novel's treatment of race. In the TV pilot, the bad guys are racists, and the good guys are not. Frank’s wife, Juliana Frink (Alexa Davalos), makes it clear that she opposes the racial laws that threaten her husband and that she harbors no racist feelings toward the Japanese conquerors. But in the book, things are a lot murkier. Juliana and Frank are estranged, and in her internal monologue she sneers at him for liking "Japs" and for being "ugly" with "large pores" and a "big nose." Another character who doesn’t appear in the pilot, the salesman R. Childan, vacillates between obsequious paeans to Japanese racial superiority and resentful, vicious Orientalist stereotyping. Even Mr. Tagomi, the Japanese official who is the moral center of the book in most respects, lapses occasionally into racist invective—"white barbarian. Neanderthal yank. That subhuman …"— although he regrets it almost immediately.

It makes sense that a world in which the Axis won the war would be, in just about every way, more racist. But the uncomfortable question is, just how much more racist is it? Again, the Nazis seem to have created a protectorate of sorts in the southern U.S., the implication being that whites who supported Jim Crow there would find the Nazi racial doctrines quite congenial. And when Mr. Tagomi, in a quintessential Dickian moment, stumbles out of his alternate reality into the "real" 1962, his own racist preconceptions (as he orders whites around) are met in turn with the simmering racist antipathy of the world in which America won the war. ("Watch it, Tojo," one man says to him.) The racism in Dick's alternate universe isn't alien. It's homey.

The imagined and the real fit together in a number of other ways as well. One of Dick's characters muses, for example, that the basic insanity of the Nazis is that "They want to be the agents, not the victims, of history. They identify with God's power and believe they are godlike … Man has not eaten God; God has eaten man." That's a reasonable analysis of Nazi obsessions. But it's also a reasonable analysis of American obsessions, as Carl Freedman points out in his book Critical Theory and Science Fiction. Dick, Freedman says, is linking "the quintessential Western will to domination with the horrors of genocidal Nazism." And that Western will to domination is shown most clearly in the book through the Nazi plan to drop a bomb on the Japanese home islands. But in the real world the Nazis didn't drop a bomb on the home islands. America did.

In the TV pilot, Juliana finds a banned newsreel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which portrays a world in which the Allies won the war. The idea that this might be true fills her with an almost religious, tearful enthusiasm. In Dick's version, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is a book. Juliana discovers that that book is true—but her reaction is not exactly fervor. Instead, it's a mixture of hope, bafflement, and a kind of displaced, distant fear. "Truth, she thought. As terrible as death." That truth, or at least one possible truth suggested by Dick, is that there is no radical disjunction between his alternate history and our own. The TV show encourages us to congratulate ourselves on our horror at the Nazis, and our distance from them. But Dick's novel suggests, disturbingly, that the defeat of the Nazis did not, in fact, truly transform the world. Their evil was not banished; it's still here with us, a dystopia we can choose, and that many of us do choose, every day.