A friend (I think it was longtime p3 correspondent James the Elder) sent me a collection of Philip K. Dick short stories several years ago, and although I found the early prose style a little tough going at times, I was soon hooked by his recurring premise -- although "obsession" might not be too strong a word: Dick's stories usually center on a single character who, for one ingenious reason or another, has sudden and urgent reason to worry that what they think is "reality" . . . isn't. ("Blade Runner," "Total Recall," "Paycheck," "Minority Report," "Screamers," and "A Scanner Darkly" are all films made from PKD stories, with wildly varying degrees of fidelity.) In that sense, Dick was a lot like Harlan Ellison, who also has one story he seems to write over and over until he gets it right: the man who must journey to the past, possibly never to return, as the only way to save his present.
I went on to read VALIS (intriguing, but finally just too damned strange for me) and A Scanner Darkly (which I enjoyed but wouldn't want to face again too soon).
Yesterday I finished one of PKD's early novels, The Man in the High Castle, said by many to be his best work. Its premise: Because the US was weakened by the Depression and hamstrung by isolationism (both following from the assassination of FDR in 1933), the Axis narrowly won World War II and now, in 1962 (the year of High Castle's publication), Japan and Germany have divided up the globe. The Eastern US is controlled by Germany through a puppet government, the West Coast by Japan in the same way. (About the fate of Africa we shall not speak here.) The two empires coexist uneasily, and plot against one another. The death of Reich Chancellor Martin Bormann, following the death from syphilis of Hitler, has triggered a power struggle with global implications. (The depiction of the Japanese conquerors is markedly less unsympathetic than that of the Germans.)
Woven through this piece of alternate-history fiction is another work of alternate-history fiction, a controversial novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy (the title is a biblical reference, although it suggests what might result if the works of Jacqueline Suzanne were written by and for insects). Grasshopper begins with the premise that the US had indeed been able to gain strength in the 1930s, helping the Allies emerge victorious, albeit into a world with greater and lesser differences from the 1960s we know. It's banned in German-controlled areas, but available to the elites in the Japanese-controlled areas. Several of the characters in Dick's story have read or begun to read Grasshopper, whose author is said to have retreated for his safety to a heavily-defended compound outside of Cheyenne -- he is "the man in the high castle" -- and remains, for most of Dick's story, an invisible figure.
I was hooked about five pages into High Castle, but it quickly occurred to me that this was the least Philip K. Dick story I've ever read by PKD. It has a couple of his lesser signature touches, most conspicuously the taking a wildly counterfactual premise and pushing it relentlessly through to its logical yet quotidian implications, down to its effect on how someone would hold their fork. There are also brief hints of another favorite PKD theme, the race to stop some evil from leaving the planet and heading for the stars (the Germans are leveraging their superiority in rocket technology to begin interplanetary travel), though again that's minor.
Then, literally on the next-to-last page, the big, classic PKD move abruptly happens. It's almost superfluous to issue a spoiler alert here, since anyone familiar with the PKD stories mentioned above will instantly realize that a PKD spoiler can only go one direction in the story I've described so far. The result is a reversal so big, and yet with so little time left to do anything with the interesting possibilities it raises perforce, that I found myself more than a little disappointed.
Still, the alternate world Dick created under our very noses was fascinating in its own right. One last hint about the reversal: Many of the American characters in the Japanese-controlled regions have come to rely on the I Ching as a guide to their understanding and action, and that book also looms large -- very large -- in the story.
(One difference between Dick and Ellison: Ellison's time-loop conceit is rarely the object of mystery or the surprise at the end; it's the premise. On the other hand, with Dick -- certainly in the case of High Castle -- sometimes the "big reveal" is that everything's been about "what is reality?" all along.)
Another pleasant oddity about High Castle: Dick's prose could sometimes be a tad windy and clunky, as if he too often reached for the thesaurus when he shouldn't have. And yet High Castle zips along pretty briskly. This is partly the product of a literary move that, in almost any other context, would be a howler: Much of the dialogue, and even the narration, falls into a slightly staccato pidgin-English. It's not a crude "keel Moose and Squirrel" burlesque of Japanese or German speakers of English (or vice-versa), but something else, somehow managing to suggest that these are people who are all being forced to think through their words and actions in a language (perhaps even a reality) not their own before committing to them.
(Hat tip to the Fathomless Zen Tyrant, who first recommended High Castle to me.)