Halfway through the first episode of The Man in the High Castle, Amazon's newest and best drama, Joe Blake blows a tire on his truck. He pulls over by a cornfield somewhere in 1960s middle America. A friendly local police officer, red SS armband the only splotch of color in the scene, pulls up to check things out. We expect violence. Joe shot a Nazi officer on his way out of New York and is ready to fight again, because he's a member of the Resistance, ferrying a secret package to Canon City, Colorado. But the cop is friendly; he offers the use of his toolkit and gives Joe an egg salad sandwich, since the officer's wife had packed him an extra one. Joe asks him about his old US Army tattoo. The cop describes it, but shrugs, "We lost the war. Can't even remember what we're fighting for."
Ash begins to fall around the pair. "What is that?" asks Joe. "Oh, that's the hospital," the officer replies as he fiddles with paperwork. "Tuesdays, they burn cripples, the terminally ill, drags on the state." He hands Joe his papers and says, "You have a safe trip, son."
The Man in the High Castle is Amazon.com's and executive producer Frank Spotnitz's (of X-Files fame) first foray into alternative history. Both the show and the famous Philip K. Dick novel of the same name take place in a world ruled by the Axis, the victors of World War II. The Nazis control North America from the Atlantic Ocean to the Rockies. The mountains form a neutral, if Nazi-dominated, buffer between the East and the Pacific States, which the Japanese control. Meanwhile, the resistance is circulating a strange movie called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy (the name is a Biblical reference), which shows a world in which the fascists lost. Will it inspire revolution?
More things happen in nearly each episode of the new show than in the entire book, though that's not necessarily a criticism of either. While there is a plot to the book, the plot isn't the point. Dick wanted to play with notions of reality and authenticity. In his novel, the main characters obsess over a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which is about a third alternate reality (not our world), something closer to a utopia. There's one gunfight and one throat gets cut, but the big reveal at the end of the book is that The Grasshopper was actually written by the I Ching, a Chinese oracular technique. What's real—our world, the Nazi one, or this third realm? We're not meant to know for sure.
For many lovers of science fiction, The Man in the High Castle is required reading. Gerry Canavan, a professor of contemporary American literature and popular culture at Marquette, told me, "It's probably the best known and best regarded work of Philip K. Dick, with the possible exception of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which is better known as the film [Blade Runner]. It's also, probably, the best alt history novel of all time."
Alt history is a popular literary genre, perhaps due to the way it allows authors to play with the familiar and the strange. Author Andrea Cremer, who has a PhD in history, recently wrote about her foray into alternate history, "The allure of what if lay in its ability to reveal the very heart of history itself—its ability to define national and cultural identities, instill concepts of tradition and heritage, foster loyalty, and nurture sentiment. Those traits of history pivot around iconic events and figures. Anchors that keep the present linked to the past." That's the lesson of the Joe's encounter with the avuncular Nazi cop. It feels like a scene we've seen a thousand times, but then the ash starts to fall.
Why have so few TV shows exploited the power of alternative history? We've really only seen the genre as components of shows premised around time travel or dimensional travel (or both). Doctor Who, Star Trek, Sliders, and older shows like Twilight Zone sometimes send their characters to alternate realities. J. J. Abrams's Fringe may be the best recent example. Its first season ended with the main character in the parallel universe, the camera slowly zooming out to show the Twin Towers, a stunning revelation at the time.
But getting all the details right is hard. In our interview, Spotnitz emphasized the challenges of fully realizing this strange new past, pondering both what would be lost, but also what might be gained. He wanted to understand, and portray, what makes fascism so seductive. For him, the show is about what makes each of us human and how we might "preserve our humanity in an inhuman world."
He's not been wholly successful. Agness Kaku, a video-game localizer based in Japan, has noted that the Japanese language and signs in the show are frequently nonsensical. Kaku told me, "I think a Pacific States of America that looks and sounds true to its fictional history would disturb the hell out of the audience. I think it would inspire the actors to go to deeper places. I think it would provoke questions that are never asked." I agree. The show is at its weakest when the villains turn cartoonish in their evil, such as when the Kempeitai (the Japanese secret police) beat and threaten the secret Jew, Frank Frink.
Fortunately, such missteps are rare. Spotnitz knows that the standard genre pieces—gunfights, car chases, bad guys in hats, and so on—have less impact than simply depicting his version of Philip K. Dick's dystopia. Polite Nazi cops discussing the systematic massacre of the disabled. Jewish children watching cartoons in a room that we know can be filled with lethal gas at any moment. Happy families strolling through the streets of New York, while the Nazi flag billows proudly in the breeze.
Good alternate history pushes us to ask the question: Could it happen here? The Man in the High Castle answers the question with a disturbing "yes." Sure, some people resist, but they fail, are more flawed than heroic, and they get other people hurt. Most Americans, though, simply adapt to the realities of the new regime, painting their biases on the targets of the Reich, content to see the extermination of the Jews and the rebirth of slavery in the South. As our own society wrestles with terror and fearmongering for political gain, it's not so hard to imagine.
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The entire first season of The Man In The High Castle is out today on Amazon Video.