I recently finished viewing all 4 seasons of THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE and loved it. Also…I know I’m a little late to the game, but it’s hard to keep up, especially if you’re trying to read and watch scifi! There’s a lot of good content out there in the multiverse. I give this story a PG 13 rating, so be warned, parents.
THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE is not a new story, but it was imagined anew by creator Frank Spotnitz for our era. It is based on Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name (which I have not yet read, but will soon because I enjoyed the series so much). Dick’s daughter was involved in the production of the tv version, overseeing her father’s vision.
This story is less science fiction in the traditional sense and more alternative history. Dick wrote THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE after being inspired by the novel Bring the Jubilee, by Ward Moore, whose novel is an alternative history of the US where the Confederate States win the Civil War. In Dick’s novel, the Axis powers win World War II. First, the short review:
5 Reasons I Recommend THE MAN IN HIGH CASTLE
- Superb storytelling…I was surprised at how well the writer(s) kept me engaged, including the pacing over 4 seasons. Bravo!
- Spot-on performances. A brilliant portrayal of John Smith, an American/Nazi leader, by Rufus Sewell. Also, a powerful female hero in Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos)
- A satisfying enough ending (will say no more lest I spoil)
- Pushing characters to their limits and not turning away from human dilemmas like: How far would you go to protect your family? Would you kill a person in cold blood if you know they will be responsible for death and mayhem in the future?
- Finally, if you find history a bore, consider jump-starting your learning via consuming smart fiction, like THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE. World War II was a fascinating and dark time in world history with reverberations reaching into our current era, more than we might think. THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE gives the audience an intimate view into the characters of the day, many of whom are real historical people, but if not real, the fictional characters help the audience understand the zeitgeist of the time.
I appreciated and enjoyed all four seasons of THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, but my favorite seasons were 3 and 4. Seasons 3 and 4 put forward the more complex moral and philosophical questions around Nazism, occupation and the kind of determination that it takes to defeat evil. I still appreciated season 1 and 2. The moral framework was being laid, the true heroes were being defined, but by season 3, defeating evil in our midst becomes the clear goal. It will require dedication, resilience and the broader community…something I feel to be true throughout history. Unlikely allies come together to defeat evil.
In that sense, I found the series remarkably relevant. Dick is playing with alternative histories in this story and Spotnitz (credit for the screenplay/creator goes alone to Frank Spotnitz on the show’s Wikipedia page) was able to put forward a world that in many respects, felt as real as the news I see on my screen on any given day. Before Covid19 and George Floyd protests…in this series (in the book, I assume as well) memorials, monuments and statues are blown up, taken down, destroyed. That was interesting for me to ponder.
In THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, those taking down the monuments are Nazis, determined to wipe out American history and recreate their own version of history that will be imposed on Americans. One character spells out the reason, “Once we wipe out their narrative, it will help them accept our narrative, the Nazi narrative.” The Nazis empower the young people in the US to riot and do violence to any who try to protect the monuments.
I would hesitate to make a moral statement about those who have defaced monuments in our cities in these last months, but I did find it fascinating to see this portrayal, non political, I assume because the screenplay was written long before our recent protests. How would those scenes be written today? I wonder…
To counter that narrative that “good ‘ol America just needs to be reclaimed”, the Black Communist Rebellion becomes an important power in the final season. Those characters are drawn in a way that is multi-faceted and dignifying. The series touches on Civil Rights era injustices while highlighting the Nazi take on black skin, which is horrifying and includes the sterilization of young black women. The audience sees the “graded” evil of racism.
THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE does not justify white supremacy. It tries, I think, to highlight its evil and does not let white America off the hook. Like I said…this is a complex narrative and, to give Dick credit, it was written in the early 1960s.
In the series, the Axis powers have split the US into three zones. The Japanese rule that which is West of Rockies. The East is ruled by the Nazis and in an attempt to keep these powers from eating each other, the middle of the US is neutral. Juliana Crain is a San Francisco native, so plenty of Northern California sites on screen, including the supremely gorgeous Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.
I was gratified to get a view into the Japanese Imperial rulership over the Western US in a way that capitalized on few or no stereotypes. One sees and feels the brutal nature of the Japanese occupiers, but also the complex politics between Japan and Germany (both superpowers in this universe) and the grace and gentleness of some aspects of Japanese culture. There are Japanese who brutally murder and there are Japanese who feel deep compassion to the point of aiding the rebellion. That is a helpful juxtaposition and I believe a true one when it comes to human dynamics during a time of war. Building an empire leads to big messes and horrible violence. It also drives human beings to act with sacrifice and heroism. THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE does not shy away from the complexities of warfare and empire building and for that reason, it deepened my understanding of a complex historical time.
Grit, hope, despair and horrible evil are all captured in this story, but what emerges most prominently in narrative are deep truths about what is right, just and good. This story is one for our time. I encourage you to start watching today.
I love science fiction, dreaming about the future, imagining what our life in outer space might look like someday, but my passion for the genre has as much to do with the past as it does with the future. Science fiction shows us the future but also has the ability to teach us about our past and often does so without the baggage of politics and biases. The stories below are launch pads. Their portrayals of history through story are not by any means comprehensive, but rather snapshots into the lives of people encountering challenges that may be imagined by the author, but mirror history.
Here are a handful of scifi stories that bring the reader face to face with the past:
- Superman Smashes the Klan
- The Man in the High Castle
- An Excess Male
History Lesson #1. SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN. Launch a discussion about the Ku Klux Klan (it’s inception and impact on US race relations).
In this three-issue Superman Comic, Gene Luen Yang gives historic tidbits at the end of each issue. You can read my review of the series here.
In issue 1,Yang highlights the 13th amendment to the constitution (abolition of slavery) and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act
Following issue 2, Yang discusses the Jewish immigrants who created Superman.
Following issue 3, Yang discusses the challenges of his own parents, both of whom were immigrants from Taiwan
History Lesson #2. Watch or read, THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE (book by Philip K. Dick. The Amazon Prime TV series was produced by Dick’s daughter, Isa Dick Hackett). Discuss and learn about World War II.
This series is a great way to understand the Axis powers and that tentative alliance that almost took over the globe. You’ll find yourself or your student understanding the world that was inhabited by those who lived under occupation during that war. The French, The Koreans, and many others were forced to survive under Nazi or Japanese rule. Some made compromises, others rebelled. Can you imagine who you would have become to survive an occupation? That question is a great way for students to enter into and understand history.
History Lesson #3. Watch COLONY on Netflix to begin to grapple with the reality of living under occupation.
In the case of COLONY, the true enemy is an alien race that has invaded Earth, but some of the darkest villains are the human beings who have allied themselves with this conquering force.
Living under occupation, whether under the Greeks, Romans, The Islamic Caliphate, the Brits, the USSR, it requires turncoats, or those who will help to subdue the masses for the sake of the little bits of power and privilege that are doled out by the occupying power. The tv series COLONY does an amazing job of capturing this reality. A longer review can be found here.
History Lesson #4. Read AN EXCESS MALE, by Maggie Shen Chen, to begin to understand 20th century Chinese history.
Although this book imagines a future China, this story highlights what is perhaps the most disastrous public policy mandate of all time, THE ONE CHILD POLICY. For my review of this novel, click here. To read my guide for educators, click here.
History Lesson #5. KINDRED, by Octavia Butler. Read this book (fictional) and one of the other historic slave narratives like, MY LIFE AS A SLAVE, by Frederick Douglass. Discuss the ways slavery dehumanizes all those who participate in its reality.
KINDRED, by the late and great Octavia Butler, gives the reader a taste of the slave-inhabited South of yore. The brutality is evident and palpable. Lessons are brought so close…it’s hard to read this book, yet it is valuable for those trying to understand slavery in 18th and 19th century US. Here is my longer review of Kindred