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26 March 2016

John Gray on Philip K Dick: lost in the multiverse of history

In The Man in the High Castle – now a hit Amazon series – Philip K Dick imagines a Nazi America and a world of infinite realities.

By John Gray

In Philip K Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle, first published in 1962 and now the basis of a series being streamed by Amazon, history deviates from the recorded path when President Roosevelt is assassinated in 1933. The Great Depression continues, and Roosevelt’s successors are isolationists who fail to prepare America for war. The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union proceeds according to plan, while imperial Japan conquers the Pacific. In 1947, the US surrenders. By 1962 the US has been divided up by the Axis powers into the Pacific States of America, with Japan controlling the west coast, the Germans the east and a lawless Rocky Mountain buffer zone in place between them. But relations between the two powers are strained, as the Japanese rightly suspect that the Germans are planning a surprise nuclear attack on Japan’s Home Islands. Many of the events in the novel turn on the struggle by Nobusuke Tagomi, a high-ranking Japanese trade diplomat based in San Francisco, to counter the Nazi threat. While making his attempt, Tagomi repeatedly consults the ancient Chinese oracle the I Ching for guidance.

Because the action takes place in a counterfactual world, The Man in the High Castle has been read as a novel of alternative history, and it’s true that it has some affinities with this genre. Dick is known to have read Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee (1952), in which the Confederate states have won the civil war and America is a backward country. Some have seen parallels with Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004), in which the pilot Charles Lindbergh becomes president, signs non-aggression treaties with
Germany and Japan and imports European-style radical anti-Semitism into the US. Yet these similarities are misleading, because Dick’s book does not portray a single alternate world. A major strand in the book concerns a banned novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Written by Hawthorne Abendsen, who lives in fortress-like isolation in fear of assassination by the Gestapo, this book presents a world in which the Second World War was won by the United States and the British empire – a pattern of events that is not replicated in either our world (where the upshot of the war was a bipolar order dominated by the US and the Soviet Union) or the world depicted by Dick. Abendsen’s novel reflects not the real-life course of events, but another alternative history.

Clear in The Man in the High Castle, this is also explicitly stated in unpublished chapters he drafted when, in 1974, he considered producing a sequel. Here he has the Nazi high command discussing a parallel world in which the US and the USSR are the victors in the Second World War, and divide Germany between them. In these chapters – published in The Shifting Realities of Philip K Dick (1995), edited and introduced by Lawrence Sutin – Dick shows a Nazi commando group crossing over into the parallel world and returning with documentary evidence of its history, including a copy of The Rise and Fall of the Third ­Reich (1960), by the American war correspondent William Shirer.

Dick dictated cassette tapes in which Abendsen is tortured in order to discover which of the worlds is “true”, but he cannot tell his interrogators. As the Nazi intelligence chief Reinhard Heydrich observes in the unpublished chapters, the parallel universe the commandos entered is not the one depicted in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy: “There are other possibilities. At most they have been able to reach several other worlds, of which Abendsen’s is one.”

Rather than being in the genre of Moore or Roth, The Man in the High Castle more closely resembles the metaphysical fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, whose story “The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941) envisions a labyrinthine world that contains every possible chain of events. By choosing a particular path, human beings may eliminate one future; but that future, along with others, possibly infinite in number, will still be realised in some other world. Dick’s novel suggests a similar view but differs from Borges’s story in the central role played by the I Ching. The oracle works through a random process. Using yarrow stalks, turtle shells, coins or other devices, readers generate hexagrams that correspond to lines in the text; these lines reveal a meaningful pattern in events. Dick used the millennia-old divination practice while writing The Man in the High Castle; several characters resort to it at crucial junctures in the story; Abendsen employs it when writing his banned book. Dick had recourse to the ancient text throughout his life, at times using it so intensively that he had to buy new copies to replace old ones he’d worn out. But he never entirely trusted the oracle, more than once observing that the I Ching “speaks with forked tongue”. This ambivalence was one reason why he failed to complete a sequel to the novel.

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Unlike Borges, Dick was not by nature a sceptic. Essentially religious, he needed to believe there was meaning in events beyond the flimsy constructions that human beings have made. Between February and March of 1974, around the time he was attempting to write the sequel, he had a number of extra­ordinary experiences that led him to think he had made contact with another order of things, more real and more meaningful than the shifting human world. Struggling with such a revelation, he produced a vast text of about two million words, published much later as The Exegesis (2011), in which he ­developed a highly personal cosmogony. In this quasi-Gnostic world-view, the human world was not ruled by chance but guided by what he described (in a one-page “final statement”, written some months before he died in March 1982) as a “hyper-structure” hidden from ordinary perception.

It is a view of things in which Dick seems sincerely to have believed, but it brought him no peace. He realised that his experiences could have been nothing more unusual than a psychotic breakdown. Many years of experimentation with drugs had left him all too familiar with epiphanies that proved to be hallucinatory. The situation was worse if the experiences were authentic. A world guided by a higher intelligence satisfied Dick’s hunger for meaning, but it also fed his paranoid tendencies. If events are scripted by a hidden power, the human sense of freedom may be no more than a malign deception. Dick explored these contradictions in what he intended to be a trilogy, beginning with Valis and The Divine Invasion, both published in 1981, featuring an alien mind, alternative realities and a sense of cosmic malevolence. The series was never completed.

Compared to these later works, The Man in the High Castle radiates a calm and sceptical sanity. The story begins in a San Francisco antiques shop specialising in Americana, some of which are fakes manufactured by the Wyndam-Matson Corporation. An employee of the corporation, Frank Frink, is secretly a Jewish veteran of the Second World War. Frink’s estranged wife, Juliana, manages to meet the mysterious Abendsen at the close of the novel. Seemingly no longer afraid of the Gestapo, he is living in a single-storey house surrounded by shrubs and roses. He tells her his novel was mostly written by the I Ching. Consulting the oracle, Julian gets a hexagram that signifies ­“Inner Truth”. Abendsen asks if this means his novel is true. Juliana replies that it does, but he tells her he isn’t sure of this, or anything. Juliana leaves, looks for a cab to take her back to her motel, and the story ends.

To my mind, this inconclusive finish is the book’s most impressive feature. Nothing is resolved because nothing can be. They are enmeshed in multiple realities, and so Dick’s characters must live in a condition of perpetual uncertainty. Incapable of living this way himself, Dick was unhappy with the open-endedness of the novel. But it gives the book some of its most powerful moments, as when Tagomi accepts that he cannot know which paths are opened or closed by his choices, or whether these choices are real, and yet feels obliged to act.

A compelling scene shows him called to the Japanese embassy for a briefing after the death of the German chancellor, Martin Bormann. An official describes the candidates who will be competing for the succession, including Joseph Goebbels, a rabid figure whose perspective on life suggests a “medieval Jesuitic standpoint exacerbated by post-Romantic Germanic nihilism”; Baldur von Schirach, the former head of the Hitler Youth, who has drained the Mediterranean and reclaimed it as farmland while allowing remnants of the Slavic peoples to linger on in reservations; an unnamed subordinate of Heinrich Himmler (who has died in unexplained circumstances in 1948) – a career SS man “most modern in mentality”, who displays “the peculiar quasi-scientific detachment found in certain technological circles”; and Dr Seyss-Inquart, a former Austrian Nazi now in charge of Reich colonial policies, who plans to sterilise the entire Russian population and exterminate the peoples of Africa.

Listening to the briefing, Tagomi suffers an attack of vertigo:

There is evil! It’s actual, like cement.

I can’t believe it. I can’t stand it [. . .]

It’s an ingredient in us. In the world. Poured over us, filtering into our bodies, minds, hearts, into the pavement itself.


We’re blind moles. Creeping through the soil, feeling with our snouts. We know nothing. I perceived this . . . now I don’t know where to go.

Tagomi is baffled. Yet he continues his campaign of covert resistance to the Nazis, ready to kill and die in the struggle while accepting that he may not be able to prevent their eventual attack on Japan. Towards the end of the book, sitting in a park in San Francisco, he finds himself briefly in another San Francisco where Japan is not a victorious power. But he has only a tantalising glimpse of this other world, and returns to his own more uncertain than before. The mystery he has tried to penetrate through the I Ching has not been dispelled, but deepened.

Adapting Dick’s inexhaustibly rich novel for the screen is bound to be a forbidding enterprise. Frank Spotnitz, the former X-Files writer who has written and produced the Amazon Studios series, is reported to have commented that the project was too dangerous (and too expensive) for conventional television networks, which rejected earlier versions of the show.

Watching the first season, one can see what he means. The series does not follow Dick in every detail. The banned novel becomes samizdat newsreel footage – for 21st-century viewers, a creative adaptation. New characters are invented, such as Obergruppenführer John Smith, an all-American Nazi played with great finesse by Rufus Sewell; and Juliana’s relationship with her husband is altered and developed.

Critics have complained that after an arresting start the series becomes slow and baggy, but it is the inconspicuous accumulation of unnerving details that makes Spotnitz’s series so compelling. The visual texture of a Nazified America – gigantic swastika-draped public buildings and bustling pedicabs amidst a scene of backwardness and dereliction – is conveyed with tremendous artistry. Illustrating the horrible normality the Nazis have created, the routine medical murder and incineration of disabled people appears in casual conversation as an unremarkable fact. Smith faces a dilemma when his own son is found to have an inherited disability, but until then has no doubts about the policy. In one of its more questionable innovations, the adaptation features an underground American resistance movement in which Juliana’s sister (another new character) is active, whereas – perhaps more realistically – no movement of popular resistance appears in Dick’s novel. Maybe the Spotnitz series should be viewed as picturing one more possible world.


What remains to be seen is whether the second series follows the novel in ending in mystery, or satisfies Dick’s yearning for a conclusive resolution. The power of the book – Dick’s most accomplished work – lies in its unwavering acceptance of uncertainty.

In a cosmos containing multiple realities, no human action can be definitive. We may strive to realise some vision of a better world, and for a time succeed; yet in other worlds, no less real, the evils against which we have struggled will continue or grow stronger. Dick’s multiverse does not become better or worse, but merely proliferates in a process that has no direction or endpoint. If the I Ching cannot be trusted, it is not because the oracle is deceptive: it may reveal a genuine order of events, but this is only a subset of unfathomably many such patterns that exist.

The final episode in the first series closes with Tagomi (played with exquisite subtlety by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) finding he is in a San Francisco different from the one he glimpses in the book – a city like that of the Sixties, with cigarette advertisements featuring Ronald Reagan and posters for the 1962 film of Lolita. The episode is entitled A Way Out. Yet in the novel there is no exit from the labyrinth, only an unending succession of forking paths. This multiverse may be a metaphysical fiction, but the mystery it embodies is not imaginary. In truth, we know very little about why we act as we do, or what the consequences may be. It is the linear history we think we are making that is fictitious. By fashioning alternative realities, Dick is bringing us back to the elusive world in which we live. 

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This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue