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The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick I don't think I'm going to be able to finish this book.

It's not that I don't think it's a good book. Dick's writing flows smoothly (though occasionally I get stuck on some of the choppier sentence fragments), the plot seems to be headed in interesting and unexpected places, the characters read like real people. . .everything is there for an engaging and thought-provoking read. But the setting makes me deeply uncomfortable in two ways, and I don't think I'm going to be able to get past that.

The first is a minor quibble, though still one that drags at my enjoyment of the book. I spent rather a lot of time in college studying Japan and World War II, and I simply cannot believe that the situation Dick describes would lead to them winning the war. Further, though I think it's inevitable given the years when Dick wrote the novel, I find the white-washing of the Japanese war crimes off-putting; the Co-Prosperity Sphere as described resembled wartime Japanese propaganda very much and the ways the Japanese actually ran their occupied territories very little. It's also curious that while Dick sprinkles his brief mentions of the Reich with the names of historical Nazis, by page 100 I have yet to hear about a single historical Japanese political or military leader; the Japanese political scene as described is vaguely shadowed in passive voice and group decisions, which I suppose suits certain cultural stereotypes but doesn't mesh well with what I tend to see as a fairly personality-driven political era. I like my alternate history either well-grounded in real history, or based on events that I know little about and can therefore take at more or less face value while I'm reading the story.

That's the intellectual objection. The emotional objection is much stronger, and conversely one I didn't anticipate being nearly as much of a problem. I cannot read an account in which the Nazis won World War II without rather viscerally recalling what my relatives went through; the sensation is strong enough that I found myself nearly crying on the metro over a few sentences of rather bland description. It feels a bit like karma after all the time I spent disputing the theory of inherited trauma in my Japanese history classes. Oddly, I don't have this strong of a reaction to reading about what the Nazis actually did; I cry my way through the Holocaust museum, and Schindler's List, and other works intended to evoke emotion, but I can get through text books and even the flatter first-hand accounts dry-eyed.

I kick myself a bit for being put off by this, because I do think part of the role of fiction is to stretch you outside your comfort zone and force you to encounter new ideas. On the surface, the puzzle of "what might have been" is an appealing one. Digging deeper, though, I get stuck in the horror of it, too much so to follow the story that Dick wants to tell.

Perhaps I'll pick the book up later; perhaps I just need to read it in small pieces. In the meantime, I think I'll set it aside. I've had Yamashita's Leaves from an Autumn of Emergencies waiting for some time, and however horrifying some of its contents are, they have the comforting benefit of being real. I know the world keeps on spinning afterwards.