Philip K Dick’s The Man In The High Castle is the most distressed I have been with a work of fiction since I last rewatched Neon Genesis Evangelion, and for the opposite reason. Whereas that show visualised what I saw when I looked inward, TMITHC showed me what I see when I look out at the world. One of the ways I had been sold on the novel was that it’s an alternate history novel that has almost no interest in the genre’s usual focus. It doesn’t go into the procedural aspect of the Nazi victory of WWII – we never find out exactly how the assassination of Roosevelt let the Nazis get the upper hand in the war – and in fact, almost all of the novel takes place outside the areas of the US occupied by the regime. We do hear bits and pieces about the political situation in Germany – Hitler has been consigned to a sanitarium and, at the start of the novel, Boorman has taken his position as Chancellor – and we’re given hints as to what the Nazis are doing after two decades of winning the world, but it’s as fuzzy and far away as the events in the White House are to me. Instead, the novel focuses on a few individual Americans living ordinary lives in a Nazi state, and what horrifies me is how much it feels like my life now, here in 2020.
Spoilers for the book follow.
The story is a work of literature – not so much a plot as a series of questions, held together by a vague sense of wrongness, and I think it was that wrongness I was responding to. Characters frequently use the I Ching to make important decisions, and the book ends with a character realising that the book has been trying to warn them all that their world is fake – that, in reality, Japan and Germany did not win the war and do not occupy the US. On this plane of reality, something I have felt and that I know almost everyone else has felt is how goddamned weird the past five or six years has been. Some of it has been fun, and some of it has even been good, but it’s also been like living in a cartoon or some bizarre Grand Theft Auto spinoff, where all the old rules have been thrown out of the window. People made a big deal out of The Simpsons ‘predicting’ that Donald Trump would become POTUS, but to me, it simply sells how strange the world is that it now resembles a throwaway absurdist joke from a cartoon. The Man In The High Castle, in showing people go about their day in a reality that isn’t real – that can’t be real – is already a familiar enough situation before you throw the fact that Nazis are running around the place freely.
After reading one too many galling, barely literate rants online, I vented to a friend that what I hate about fascists – not what I recognise as philosophically incompatible with my views, not what I recognise as dangerous to myself, the people I care about, and the innocent and marginalised, but what brings out a visceral rage and disgust – is that they’re boring. Their ideology is completely incoherent, which makes its simplicity all the more infuriating. Its as if the fascist can only hold so many symbols in his head and they can only have so much complexity, and of course these symbols are all very self-serving and based on the individual fascist being given enormous power, respect, and the license to indulge their pettiest and shallowest emotions. People of colour, the disabled, Jews, queer people, all become a single Enemy to that power; the only women who are allowed to exist are those subjugated into serving the fascist. The fascist imagines himself as, if not the king, then a spiritual extension of the king. Honestly, I end up thinking how much fascist ideology reminds me of the bad fiction I’ve seen – I went to write something like “the fascist sees many worlds but refuses to acknowledge more than a few of them” before remembering that was basically what I wrote about Stargate. Fascism is a lazy ideology for lazy thinkers. Not one day later, I read this section of The Man In The High Castle, in which a white character has just met a full-blown Nazi and puzzles over whether Nazis are insane:
He thought, It is something they do, something they are. It is their unconsciousness. Their lack of knowledge about others. Their not being aware of what they do to others, the destruction they have caused and are causing. No, he thought. That isn’t it. I don’t know; I sense it, intuit it. But – they are purposelessly cruel… is that it? No, God, he thought. I can’t find it, make it clear. Do they ignore parts of reality? Yes. But it is more. It is their plans. Yes, their plans. The conquering of the planets. Something frenzied and demented, as was their conquering of Africa, and before that, Europe and Asia.
Their view; it is cosmic. Not a man here, a child there, but an abstraction: race, land. Volk. Land. Blut. Ehre. Not of honourable men but of Ehre itself, honour; the abstract is real, the actual is invisible to them. Die Güte, but not good men, this good man. It is their sense of space and time. They see through the here the now, into the vast deep beyond, the unchanging. And that is fatal to life. Because eventually there will be no life; there was once only dust particles in space, the hot hydrogen gases, nothing more, and it will come again. This is an interval, ein Augenblick. The cosmic process is hurrying on, crushing life back into the granite and methane; the wheel turns for all life. It is all temporary. And these – these madmen – respond to the granite, the dust, the longing of the inanimate; they want to aid Natur.
And, he thought, I know why. They want to be the agents, not the victims, of history. They identify with God’s power and believe they are godlike. That is their basic madness. They are overcome by some archetype; their egos have expanded psychotically so that they cannot tell where they begin and the godhead leaves off. It is not hubris, not pride; it is inflation of the ego to its ultimate – confusion between him who worships and that which is worshipped. Man has not eaten God; God has eaten man.
It was so shocking to see Dick had somehow ripped a thought out of my brain from over fifty years in the past and took it further than I did (of course, I can’t go on about how fascism is a simple philosophy and be surprised that it’s basically the same now as it was in 1962). Dick saw what I said and responded: it isn’t just that they only see a few archetypes, it’s that these archetypes are all they can see. I love thinking about, talking about, and occasionally trying to invent archetypes, but when I’m on my a-game, I’m responding to the reality of the situation and applying archetypal power to it – I see someone turning up to work late, dressing brashly, playing by their own rules, and doing accounting really well, I call them a Rock Star Accountant. Fascists have created the image of the Rock Star Accountant in their heads, expect to see the Rock Star Accountant every day, and are outraged when they come across an accountant in a suit and tie, showing up to work on time every day (they’re also worth comparing to Quentin Tarantino, who sees movie archetypes everywhere all the time, but happily – gleefully – watches people shift from one archetype to another all the time). Fascists are boring, and they want to warp the world around them to be as boring as they are.
And what’s distressing is that they’re succeeding. Ten years ago, Nazis were as mythical to me as pirates; they were a universal symbol for irredeemable evil so clearly established that people complained about the cliche of making them video game antagonists and contrarians enjoyed talking about their humanity or ironically playing with their iconography for shock value. They were an abstraction to me, an idea without much weight; even Neo-Nazis were their own smaller category, simply one kind of violent gang. Nazis have now forced themselves into my worldview, taking on the weight of lived experiences and observations that now have space in how I see the world. I know how they think and act, and how that connects with my understanding of human behaviour in general, and I’m better at spotting, avoiding, or confronting a Nazi, and what I recognise in The Man In The High Castle is how fucked that is. This world was never supposed to have Nazis in power. Dick thought he was having visions of another world, but he was having visions of the future.