Can Man in the High Castle Be Updated? You know, if they made a movie about it or something...

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Summary: Man In the High Castle is a classic combination of meta-history what-if and strange playings about fortune tellings and questions of what is supposed to happen versus what does happen. The Nazis won World War II, America is a divided country between the Nazis and the Japanese. In the middle of all of this, though, are a handful of personal dramas. People seeking justice and what have you. Could Man in the High Castle be updated to more recent wars if we tried making an adaptation of it? Does it require the "global grandeur" of WW2? I muse on this...

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

(12:48:01 CST)

Can Man in the High Castle Be Updated? You know, if they made a movie about it or something...

If you have not read Man in the High Castle, I do not know if I can recommend it to you. If you do like Philip K. Dick (PKD) and like some of his drier, less surreal, and more philosophical reads then you will probably like this. If you like meta-history (the great "what-if" genre of SF, where you wonder things like "What if WW1 had not started?" and almost invariably conclude that Liebniz was right and all the supposed suffering is really just the realization of the best of all possible worlds) then you might like it. If you like the I Ching, then you should like it, because a lot of the plot deals directly with it. At least, you will find parts of it curious. At the same time, the language in it is strange, almost broken. It carries the mood. It conveys the ideas. It just...well, it has its own rhythm. I've noticed PKD having these "chimera" rhythms in other works; both Crack in Space and Clans of the Alphane Moon have a weird effect upon my reading them. It sets my teeth on edge, but in a good way. And VALIS, his depressing and strange, surreally autobiographical book, very much so conveys mental collapse, rebuilding, and recollapsing in just the tone and rhythm it sets.

The plot of Man in the High Castle has both simple and complex strokes. As the background, Germany and Japan won WW2 after the United States were tossed into chaos upon FDR's assassination. America is a divided state (spoils going to the two victors, with the Rockies being the middle ground). Africa has been largley purged by racial politics (and all that implies), as has Russia; and the Jewish people are greatly destroyed. Now Japan and German are in some prolonged Cold War, space exploration is getting an early start, and the survivors are making out the best they can. The current leader of Germany dies (Hitler had already died and been replaced) and a Civil War might be brewing. You have a series of personal plotlines taking place in this background. There is a guy who sells antiques, whether or not they are fake is part of the plot; a generally kind-hearted Japanese man who has profited by the war but seems to opposed any continued suffering; a spy who is trying to stop a master stroke set out by one of the German factions to start war with the Japanese; and a woman up in the Rockies, going to see the man who wrote The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a science-fiction book about what happened if Germany lost WW2 (not the same time-line as what happened, mind you). The characters are in a book about a book, in other words.

It makes for an interesting read if you can get into the rhythm of the prose, and it is one of those books you kind of want to reread just to see if you can pick up all the strange clues about what is really happening, assuming it is really happening. In the midst of all of it, is the I Ching. Many of the characters use it to predict what happens next, and follow its predictions even when they shouldn't. Which is one of the big themes by the end, whether they are living reality or living a reality that they created by using a random device to predict the future. Maybe if they had faced reality this whole time, maybe they would have ended up in a better life.

What I was thinking about, this morning, is whether or not Man in the High Castle could/should be updated if you made it into a movie or whatever. Kind of an out-of-the-blue question, and I am one of those who tends to prefer the book over movie anyhow and so partially irk myself with the question, but still I find it curious to wonder about. World War II had a certain glamor to it, for better or worse. It is hard to see how it could be topped for a story about the nobility and desperation of human existence. Hitler was not merely some crackpot dictator who waved his hands about, he actually motivated people to overcome their own morality, to put it all aside for the sake of a future glory that could be years, generations, down the road. Everyone who did not fit into a certain genetic profile was suspect, even though the majority did not. How do you swing that? You have, in the midst of this, giant bomber plans, bigger-than-ever ships, the computer being more-or-less invented as a war-time effort, all the big speeches and food rations and sneak attacks and kamikazes. It was an epic series battle, something that has not really been seen since, despite the constant attempts by war mongers to cite Hitler (and, confusingly, Stalin, as though they were both our enemies and had identical beliefs during WW2) whenever they are "fighting the good fight" (read: posting to the Internet). It has been declared the "last just war" by both war-buffs and anti-war folk (well, some have fought the "just-war" status, but many let it ride). In America, it even has our thanks as practically ending the Great Depression (though the GD ended a couple of years before the war, but I know what they mean). It made America, we say, and it did. It established as the world power we are, today. It changed how globabl politics work. If it had gone differently, the world as we know it would likely not be around.

Over the next 60-years or so, it is hard to imagine any of our many conflicts really having that much of a world changing effect (mind you, the "What if" genre probably has tons of stories explaining exactly how they would change everything). Korean War, the War in Vietnam, the 1991 Iraq Invasion. In the 90s there were a couple of strategic sort of conflicts, not really of the war-type per se, but something like cousins. Had any of those went south, who knows? The obvious answer would be to update the story with 9/11, probably. Maybe the towers didn't fall. Maybe they did, and the plans were bigger than that and the White House and Pentagon and other places were also fully destroyed. Maybe America was broken? It might be more compelling for the disaster to be mostly avoided (say, all but one plane was shot down) and so our reaction to it was considered too extremist by many, and World War III was us versus the world who took as being too big for our britches. You can say a lot about goodness and nobility in a storyline like that, and come up with unexpected answers.

The problem with the obvious choice is that it's too new. WW2 is too old for us, now. What we need is something that is just old enough to have become almost banal while still being a regular part of our conversations (not that Ww2 ever went away, it's just "the past", now). Something that took place in the 1970s or early 80s. Vietnam seems more and more likely, but how could you update that? Maybe it sprawled more. Sprawled so much that about the time the Middle East started churning in the late 70s, the whole thing melded together. A series of conflicts with so-called third world countries stretches the US too thin. No, all of these scenarios has the US has an agressor. The US did not become involved in this novel, and so became a passive victim. We would have had to stay out of conflict after 9/11 (or Vietnam or whichever). Maybe we did not attack back. This was a sign of weakness, perhaps, and we were attacked again and again. That doesn't feel right either. I don't know, maybe it cannot be updated. Or maybe, because it initially feels like it can be updated, it will end up being updated and like most of PKD's adaptations will so severely miss the point as to be essentially another story altogether.

At any rate, feedback is welcome. To finish it off, I have tried to bring up the most basic elements of the story. My interpretation of the key-elements is as follows:

  • An American people under siege, but a siege that has become part of everyday life. The war building up to it is old hat enough to be somewhere the background, but still new enough that most people alive have some memory of it.
  • A series of main characters use some form of divination to make decisions, so much so that they are not living their own life, properly. The I Ching works nicely, but others could be possible (I'm thinking bibliomancy could have an interesting effect).
  • There is a conflict between what is real and what is fake both in the sense of everything, and specifically in cases of artifacts or everyday technology.
  • An uneasy truce has to be at the brink of falling.
  • Some enemies are not so bad, some friends are not so good.
  • The state of the world, and beyond, has to be implied rather than brought up in detail.
  • There needs to be a free stretch of territory, a place where people are more free to act.
  • Finally, there needs to be an "plot within a plot". If this is made into a movie, possibly a movie about another world.

That's a lot of weird random musing, but there you go.

Si Vales, Valeo


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