How Philip K Dick’s 1962 Masterpiece Nailed Politics in 2016
Is Europe welcoming desperate refugees, or being invaded by economic migrants? Is Donald Trump a serious presidential candidate, or a clownish attention seeker? The Man In The High Castle reveals the most basic truths about our era of competing narratives.
In 1947 the forces of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan swept to victory over Europe and America. Fifteen years later America still lives under Axis dominance. This is the starting premise of Philip K Dick’s 1962 science fiction masterpiece, The Man In The High Castle, which recently become the latest of the famed sci-fi author’s stories to be adapted for the screen.
It’s often claimed that The Man In The High Castle is a novel of alternate history. While it’s true that the story contains a fascinating counterfactual timeline of the world following an Allied defeat, theres an even deeper level of significance within Philip K Dick’s classic novel. The Man In The High Castle is a novel not just of alternate histories, but of alternate narratives, and it’s in this contest of narratives that the novel says most about the politics of today.
The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is a story within a story, a novel within the novel of The Man In The High Castle. This secondary book imagines a world where the Axis powers *lost* World War 2, a world uncomfortably close to our actual reality. Even while we as readers follow the story of Germany and Japan winning the war, PKD engineers a counter narrative in which, as with our actual reality, those nations lost the war. And as the story progresses, these two alternate narratives begin to conflict.
The author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, Hawthorne Abendsen, is the eponymous “man in the high castle”. He lives in an isolated mountain compound, to which a number of the novel’s central characters are drawn by reading the novel within the novel. As they do, reality itself begins to shift and alter, and they begin to enter the world of Abendsen’s book. The resemblance between Abendsen and Philip K Dick is deliberate. PKD is suggesting that we, like the characters reading The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, must question the narrative of our own reality.
Confused? Perhaps no more so than we all are by the conflicting narratives of everyday life. Today our world is saturated with narratives. Newspapers, television, advertising and the internet are continually bombarding us with with stories of society, politics, wars, technology and thousands of other subjects. PKDs fascination with this complex web of narratives lead him to repeatedly ask the question in fiction that confronts us all today in reality — which narratives are we, ultimately, to believe?
“The false narratives of others are easily spotted, but we’re almost entirely blind to false information that supports our own narrative.”
Is Europe welcoming desperate refugees, or being invaded by economic migrants? Is Donald Trump a serious presidential candidate, or a clownish attention seeker? Are cuts to public spending a necessary economic sacrifice, or is economic recession just an excuse to force through ideology? These hot button issues don’t simply divide culture, they reveal the competing narratives fighting for dominance of culture.
Conservatives and liberals who take opposing positions on these issues don’t just hold different opinions, they believe radically different narratives. The conservative narrative, that believes in God the creator and religious law, leads people to very different conclusions on major issues, than the liberal narrative of evolution and scientific discovery. What Philip K Dick understood in 1962, that most of us today are only beginning to see, is just how our narratives define our sense of reality. While we may live in one world physically, we inhabit very different worlds psychologically.
Social media means that more people than ever can create narratives and put them into the world. The website Snopes.com catalogues, and debunks, the complex half truths, conspiracy theories and outright lies that proliferate on the internet. Taken in isolation the mistaken belief that Starbucks removed Jesus from their Christmas cups, or that Steve Jobs recanted his capitalist ways on his death bed, seem simply absurd. The false narratives of others are easily spotted, but we’re almost entirely blind to false information that supports our own narrative.
With The Man In The High Castle, Philip K Dick was pointing to one of the great conundrums of modern life and culture. When we attempt to judge competing narratives as true or false, we inevitably do so in relation to the narratives we already hold to be true. PKD asks us to imagine a world where Nazi power triumphed in WW2, and a world in which the narrative of history was written by the victor. If we lived in that world, how would we know that the lies spun by a Nazi government were not the truth? If even a power as malignant and destructive as Nazism could persuade us to believe its narratives, then anything we believe true might potentially be based upon lies.
The answer Philip K Dick guides us towards is an awareness of narratives themselves. Until we see how stories are used to shape our perceptions and reality, we’re vulnerable to continued manipulation. But once we can think critically about the ways that narratives are constructed, and the various agendas they serve, we can begin to assess objectively our own beliefs. That simple insight places The Man In The High Castle among the best guides to our 21st century world, and is the reason why the works of Philip K Dick are read so widely some fifty years after they were written.
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