May 25, 2018
The Man in the High Castle, Season 2: Juliana saves the world
Reality might be no more than a “collective hunch”, to quote Homeless Trudy from Lily Tomlin’s 1980s opus The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe, but philosophers have been pondering the nature of the real for at least as long as there have been campfires to pontificate around.
In the brave new post-WWII atomic world, science fiction of the non-space opera variety became the perfect bridge linking storytelling, philosophy, and physics. Philip K. Dick was arguably its most on target prophet. There are the stories he wrote made into films that shape the way we see reality: Total Recall, Blade Runner, Minority Report, to name three, and then there are the stories he didn’t write, but which could not have been written without him: The Matrix trilogy, the better episodes of any of the iterations of Star Trek, and Westworld (the original and the remake). His stamp is on any work of fiction published from the 1950s on that asks what it means to be human in a world of thinking machines, and what or who is “real” in a universe where even our dreams are commodified.
Dick’s dystopian masterpiece The Man in the High Castle is set in 1962. Written less then ten years after Erwin Schrödinger coined the term “multiverse”, the novel takes place in an alternate timeline in which the Axis powers won WWII. It’s as bleak a place as one can imagine. Whole swaths of humanity have been eradicated. The west coast of the United States is occupied by the Japanese. The east coast, or what’s left of it, by Germany. In between is the neutral zone, which isn’t quite neutral as much as it’s simply lawless. Slavery has been reinstated, and even the Pacific states are supposed to deport any remaining “Semites” to Germany, which is still obsessed with building the master race. Meantime, there’s a cold peace between the Germans and the Japanese, a fragile alliance, because what kind of “alliance” can you have with barbarians who would actually drop a nuclear bomb to get what they want?
Oh wait. Who did what now?
Which brings us to the context of the novel. We think of the postwar period, the “boom” years as when America was, you know, great, at least for some people. But watch a random episode of The Twilight Zone, or look at the horror and science fiction that was coming out in print and at the movies, and you’ll see signs of the fear underneath. It was the era of duck and cover. Fail Safe, the story that imagined an accidental nuclear war was on the bestseller list, and its snarkier cousin Dr. Strangelove would soon be a hit movie.
While Dick was imagining the world as run by the Nazis, the USSR and the United States reached the brink of thermonuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. To many people living under Soviet influence, or in brutal right-wing client states of the US, life could be almost as miserable as the world depicted in Dick’s alt-verse, but “almost” is a long way from the same. Nazis were always the ultimate evil, and they were amazingly efficient. Theirs would have been a world without even the smallest flicker of hope.
But the main characters in his story muddle through, as people do even in horrific times.
Only one thing threatens the new world order: The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. The novel within the novel is an ostensible work of underground fiction which imagines a world where FDR was not assassinated, where the US entered the war sooner, and the Allies won. It’s not quite our reality either (Britain emerges as a superpower), but it’s a bit closer. There’s something about the experience of reading the book that changes people. They recognize it as “true”. Readers somehow intuit that the reality described is what happened, and that somehow the Nazis pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes. It’s not simply that readers experience a work of the imagination in which the war ends differently, but rather they recognize that the Allies actually won, and that the world they are living in is a facade, a shadow world as false as the one described by the world’s first speculative fiction writer Plato in The Allegory of the Cave.
It would be, metaphorically speaking, as if we were told that someone had “won” an election even though it could be proven that he got almost three million fewer votes than his opponent, that a foreign power interfered, that targeted minorities had been taken off voting rolls, and that voting machines might have been tampered with.
The Man in the High Castle is distinct from other “alternative histories” that simply ask “what if?” This is not Philip Roth’s depiction of America under fascist isolationist Charles Lindbergh, something that easily might have happened. High Castle is not asking “what if” the US didn’t enter the war until later, but rather a more timeless question: What if the collective hunch defining reality is wrong? This is what makes the story a classic, forever relevant—and now more than ever.
There are other questions implied in the novel that might have been in Dick’s planned sequel, which he never finished on account of no amount of the substances he regularly ingested could make writing about the darkest timeline any easier. However, fragments of that lost/never written next chapter exist, so we have an idea of where he was going. The Nazis were well aware of the timeline in which they were losers. They’d even sent spies there to collect intelligence. The regime couldn’t live with the possibility of a loss in any timeline. What wasn’t explained was how the alt-verse came to exist. Who caused the rift? A reader might speculate that the timeline could have been the result of an attempt by a losing Germany to go back and change history, but we’ll never know if that was where Dick was going or where he would have gone from there.
Unfortunately, the Amazon TV show with the same name and similar premise has by the end of season two abandoned any interest in the big questions. Instead of Dick’s metaphysics, we get a comic book alt-reality with Nazi and Japanese overlords, and a morally compromised resistance that only seems to get in the way.
The novel could be described as minimalist. Much of it takes place inside the heads of the characters. There are a few subplots, the most important of which is one character’s journey to meet Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of the novel within the novel. Turning it into a series couldn’t have been an easy task. Some choices made make more sense than others. The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is not a novel on stream-o-vision. It’s a film, or rather a series of newsreels depicting another reality. This makes sense. We can watch a film within a film. We can’t watch actors reading a novel. But it becomes problematic. A novel springs from the mind of the author. A novel could be based on something the author experienced, or it could be something he completely made up. It could even be a combination of the two, as the best fiction is: a work involving imagination, experience, and a visit to the collective unconscious—a ride on the zeitgeist express.
The film reels, however, are real physical artifacts originating elsewhere. They couldn’t have been “made” in the High Castle timeline. So how did they get there? By the end of season two, we have an idea, but it’s murky. Also, there might be more than one alt-reality, and some of the films may be from the future, which puts characters into the familiar time travel position of fighting to change what is to come.
The book is set in the Pacific States and the neutral zone. The television show adds a storyline in the Nazi occupied east coast, which offers way too much opportunity for Nazi kitsch, with too many black leather stormtrooper jackets (even if they are kind of hot), and snarky takes on what a 1960s television cop show might sound like if it were Nazified for our amusement.
Sometimes less is by far more effective, and by hitting us over the head with “Oh look! Nazis!”, we hardly even notice the truly chilling moments, such as when a group of housewives meet to play bridge and mention the “genetically Semitic” nanny of a neighbor that one of them reported because it was “the right thing to do.”
Rather than focus on Dick’s metaphysics, the series offers (god help us) characters whom we are supposed to care about, and possibly identify with. Regrettably, several of them are Nazis who we’ve seen doing very bad things. TV has asked us to identify with a lot of antiheroes—mob bosses, teachers turned drug kingpins, Soviet-era spies who kill sweet old ladies—but embracing genocidal war criminals feels like a bridge too far. The show is, in effect, “normalizing” the very abnormal alt-verse. Even more problematic, the stream-o-vision version of Juliana Crane, one of the novel’s main characters, is a complete ninny who makes one ridiculously stupid decision after another.
Dick’s Juliana is a most unusual creature for the science fiction of the time: a woman who can take care of herself physically. She knows judo, and unlike Neo, not because she had it implanted into her brain. In the book, she puts this knowledge to use when she kills a man she knows as “Joe” after she figures out that he isn’t an American truck driver, but rather a foreign assassin sent by the Nazis to to kill Abendsen, whom they’re both on their way to see. Her act isn’t “political” in the conventional sense. She’s doing what she perceives as the right thing. In the series, Joe is still with the Nazis, but his past is more complicated. And for reasons that make no sense no matter how many times one watches the season one finale, Juliana gives Joe one of the newsreels and gets him on to a boat to Mexico sent by the resistance for Juliana and her boyfriend.
This action makes the resistance want to kill her because… wouldn’t you? But it turns out Juliana is operating on a higher moral plane that has to do with “feelings”. As the second season progresses, the resistance come off like a bunch of angry sore losers, AKA what our alt-right thinks Hillary voters would be like if they had more balls. By the second season finale, Juliana’s idiosyncratic sense of right and wrong leads to a confrontation between Juliana and the leader of the east coast resistance, a man who’s gone out of his way to protect her. He wants to use some intel she inadvertently received to take down a big bad American Nazi (a man responsible for the death of many), but because that information would also harm another person that Juliana views as an “innocent”, she feels this makes the resistance “as bad as the Nazis.” It’s a version of the classic “trolley question”. The runaway car can either go one way and kill the fat guy on the track or the other way and kill everyone on the train. Juliana’s solution? She kills the conductor, or in this case, the resistance leader.
Can we please take a moment here to remember that the resistance is fighting Nazis? It’s one thing for a show to point out—at times, effectively—that a nazified New York in 1962 might sometimes resemble the sexist/racist white man’s world of Mad Men, but it’s quite another to compare a small group of determined people fighting Nazis to Nazis. Did I mention these guys are Nazis, of the real deal, swastika-wearing, Jew-killing, allegiance to Hitler (who still lives) type? And also, if science fiction has taught us anything, isn’t it that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one?
To make matters even more ludicrous, Juliana’s action, of killing the man who saved her ass more than once, turns out to be the right call. Because the resistance didn’t take down the bad guy, the bad guy (with whom we’re supposed to maybe sympathize, because to know all is to forgive all, or something) was able to go to Berlin and prevent Germany from blowing up Japan and San Francisco. So by not allowing him to be exposed, Juliana wound up saving the world. How can we be sure of that? We get a quick appearance by Abendsen where he explains that he’s seen multiple timelines and outcomes, and Juliana is always making some wacky decision that saves us. She’s the One, just like Neo, Buffy, Superman, and the entire pantheon. It’s her destiny. She’ll keep acting from the heart and not in any organized fashion, but she’ll always get it right. Expect more of that kind of thing in season three. Resistance, it seems, is futile.