It’s America in 1962. Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In San Francisco, the I Ching is as common as the Yellow Pages. All because some twenty years earlier the United States lost a war—and is now occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan.
This harrowing, Hugo Award–winning novel is the work that established Philip K. Dick as an innovator in science fiction while breaking the barrier between science fiction and the serious novel of ideas. In it Dick offers a haunting vision of history as a nightmare from which it may just be possible to wake.
"This is the first novel I've read by Dick (well, second if you count the comic adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which transcribes Dick's prose verbatim), and in many ways it was the one that interested me least before I started. I don't usually find alternate-history stories terribly compelling; a lot of them strike me as pointless "what-if" exercises that are more concerned with the shuffling around of historical facts than with actually saying something about that history. Dick, however, says plenty. The book starts out as a fairly conventional alternate history, presenting a world in which the Allied powers lose World War II and the Pacific coast becomes a colony of Japan; before long, though, a book within a book is introduced, a kind of mirror image of The Man in the High Castle that posits a world in which the Axis lost the war (though with details different from our own, "actual" history). Finally, late in the novel, we are even given glimpses into a third history, which may--but may not!--be our own. The result is wonderfully dislocating. By refusing to settle on a single alternative, Dick demonstrates how all understandings of history are necessarily contingent and far from inevitable: not just in the usual, "butterfly effect" sense of cause and effect, but in a deeper moral sense as well. The most unsettling, and important, message in this book is not that the roles of "winners" and "losers" in history could have been reversed, but that the roles of "heroes" and "villains" could have been as well; some of the most sympathetic characters in the novel are Japanese, and some of the most reprehensible are American (the Nazis, of course, are assholes in every dimension). Stylistically, I do think the book somewhat suffers a bit from its more realistic setting: Dick's sparse, detached dialogue is perfect for androids and denizens of dystopian wastelands, but when it's being spoken by regular "contemporary" people it...still sounds like it belongs to androids and denizens of dystopian wastelands. In a way, though, maybe that's the point. In this vision of the 20th century, our own world is the wasteland, and we are the androids. I can't say I disagree."
Zach (4 out of 5 stars)