The Viewer In The High Castle

February 1, 2019 (2469 words) :: Thoughts on the TV adaptation of The Man In The High Castle. Plus: a previously unpublished essay on why this sort of dystopian science fiction is important.
Tags: the-man-in-the-high-castle, david-foster-wallace, cultural-criticism

This post is day 32 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Today’s blog post is a bit light on original content, mostly because I’ve been catching up on various life things and haven’t had really time to write. Instead, the bulk of this post will consist of a previously unpublished essay about The Man In The High Castle, which is a TV show based on a book by Philip K. Dick. The show - which triggered some controversy over its immersive advertising campaign in NYC subway cars - is set in an alternative timeline where the Axis Powers had won WWII. In that world, 1960s America has been carved up by the Nazis on the East Coast and the Japanese Empire on the West Coast.

Having just finished the third season (there’s a fourth in production), I maintain that it’s a brilliant show, and worth sticking with all the way through. There are some episodes in the first two seasons that are a bit slow, and some of the storylines drag on unnecessarily, but if you make it to the third season, it’ll be worth it. Especially recommended for anyone who thinks fascism is bad (everybody reading this blog, I assume).

The essay, embedded below, was written sometime in 2017 when I was still trying to figure out what it meant to write and pitch and get published in, like, real publications. I mean, I’m still learning, but back then I had absolutely zero clue. I pitched it to a bunch of places that were not at all appropriate venues, and got no response from any of them. I don’t want to talk about it.

As a result, the essay languished in a stray Google doc somewhere, and I sort of forgot about it when I found my niche in writing about tech. But then I started this blog post challenge midway through watching the third season, and realised I could use my blog posts as an excuse to write about the show, especially the third season which was so exhilarating to watch. The implicit political bent of the show feels more overtly radical in season 3 than in previous seasons, too; sometimes it’s a slow burn, but there are also some moments that expose the show’s political intentions in a way that just shatters you.

I’ve been taking notes for each episode, but instead of writing basic episode recaps, I’m going to spend maybe 5-10 posts exploring the themes in the show, drawing on theory as well as real-life political events. You could call it “hermeneutics”, or, if you think that’s pretentious, “fan theories”. So expect a bunch of blog posts about the show in the future. They’ll probably only be relevant to people who’ve already seen the show, or who haven’t but are curious and don’t mind spoilers. No idea how large that potential audience is; sorry in advance if you’re not within it. (On a related note, I’ve decided to add in tags for these fragments, so all High Castle posts will be grouped by a tag called “high-castle” or something similar. There will be other tags for other topics I frequently write about, like tech worker organising, startups, ideology, etc.)

Anyway, I thought I’d start off this series by posting this old essay, which I started writing sometime in 2017. Around that time, I had been reading lots of literary criticism, discovered through the gateway drug of David Foster Wallace & associated criticism thereof. I had found myself completely head over heels in love with the way criticism could make me feel - not only could it unfurl a story, helping me to grasp things I’d missed on my own, but it could also be about so much more than just the story. I was starting to get why people took the time to write and read this stuff. Sure, it was writing about fiction - coming up with fan theories, if you’re being flippant - but no piece of fiction is ever just fiction. Even the most escapist fiction contains something of our reality within it, and an astute critic can pierce through the illusions of that fictional world in a way that helps you better understand the real world.

So this essay was a personal attempt at making sense of The Man in the High Castle, written after the end of season 2. Some of it feels quite dated once you’ve watched season 3 - one of the characters actually makes explicit the “another world is possible” stuff I allude to near the end (that paragraph is vocalised with only slightly different words), and the reference to Nazis on our streets is actualised in the show through an homage to the Charlottesville rally. Still, there are things about this essay I really like, even if I never got it to a point where it was publishable. I’ll be building on this essay in future posts about the show.

The Viewer In the High Castle

The best dystopian fiction plunges us into a world that is both terrifyingly alien and yet uncannily familiar. By forcing us to consider the horrors of an imaginary world, it opens up a space that allows us to realize the horrors of our own.

The Man in the High Castle, a dystopian television series that premiered on Amazon in 2015, might just be the apotheosis of this genre. Loosely adapted from Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel of the same title, and currently in production for a third season [which has since aired], the series imagines a world in which America has lost World War II. This America has been divided into two zones of influence, East and West, in a way that parallels the fate of post-war Germany as we know it. Of course, in this alternative cold war, the hegemonic powers are not America and the Soviet Union, but Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan.

It’s this fictionalized depiction of Nazis in particular that, in our current political climate, may make the show seem gratuitous and tasteless. Why, after all, would we want to see imaginary Nazis on our screens when there are real Nazis on our streets?

Yet that may be precisely why we need this show.

The show, like the novel, is set in 1962, allowing it to skip past the mechanics of how the Axis Powers won the war and instead move on to far more interesting hermeneutics. As the first episode opens, the fighting has been over for 15 years: resistance elements in America are deep and desperately underground, while both the Japanese regime in the West and German regime in the East are stable, held together in a fraught alliance that mirrors U.S.-Soviet relations during the real-life Cold War. We follow an ensemble cast, drawn from various parts of this divided America. Some characters are ordinary citizens who have been pulled into the resistance, while others are directly complicit in the Nazi and Japanese regimes. Plot-wise, the show is typical of the genre: intrigue, liberal use of cliffhangers, and various twists and revelations, all of which the viewer may or may not find cliched. What makes the show worth watching is less its plot and more the way it responds to the question behind its premise: what if the Allies had lost? How would the world be different?

The answer is revealed scene by scene, in a triumph of incredibly lush (if chilling) verisimilitude. It’s not for nothing that the series has won an Emmy for cinematography: the visuals are stunning and carefully plotted, weaving together various tricks of color, historical nods, and strategic placement of well-known symbols. We are shown an America that, at times, seems very recognizable, which makes it all the more shocking when we see something out of the ordinary. An unremarkable yellow school bus drops children at their school, where they recite a modified Pledge of Allegiance that culminates in a collective Sieg Heil. A group of women chat while arranging white and red roses for a funeral, and it’s only as the camera pans out that we realize the roses are arranged in the shape of a swastika. A police officer explains that ash falling from the sky comes from a local hospital: “Yeah, Tuesdays, they burn cripples, the terminally ill.”

It’s hard for the contemporary viewer to not to feel uneasy during these scenes. The conclusion of each episode is the only thing that offers relief, allowing us to leave the pall of this fictional world and return to the pale sunshine of our own world.

But to draw such a clear distinction between this world and our world would be to miss the point. Once we start to consider the show as an allegory—as a way of holding up a dark mirror to our own reality—a truly frightening possibility emerges: perhaps our own world isn’t that much better after all. Is the idea of hospitals euthanizing the sick that foreign to current-day America, in which people are condemned to death because they can’t afford healthcare? Are the ever-present swastikas that much more jarring than the Confederate monuments that remain in the real-world American South? And what about the obvious parallel in the recent resurgence of neo-Nazi groups? The swastika is starting to reappear in our world—graffitied onto walls, stitched onto armbands, seared into flesh—and we can see its shadow in the flames of the tiki torches and the anger of those who carried them at Charlottesville. The difference may be less Manichean and more a matter of degree.

The show itself contains a speculative, world-bending element that incorporates references to our own world in order to undermine our preconceived notions of our own superiority. One of the main characters, Japanese trade minister Nobusuke Tagomi, has inexplicably developed the ability to physically transport himself into another world, simply by closing his eyes. The visual effects shine here—this new world is rendered as luminous and vivid, whereas the Axis-ruled one is grey and dull—and when we see John F. Kennedy talking about the Cuban missile crisis on television, we realize that the trade minister has somehow found his way into our world. He, of course, has no clue where he is, and has to refer to a history book. As he turns the pages, and the lacuna between his knowledge and ours becomes clear, we realize with a jolt that we know exactly what’s going to happen: this man, who is probably the most sympathetic character on the show, is going to find out that in our world, his country lost the war, and that it took two atomic bombs to secure an Allied victory.

We viewers know the fact of this, of course, but it isn’t until he turns to a page with photos of the bombings that we see things through his eyes. Its unadorned poignancy makes this scene one of the most haunting in the entire series: confronted by the trade minister’s anguish, it’s difficult not to look at the crimes of our own world in a new, disturbing, light. In a world inextricably shaped by America’s victory in the war, it’s easy to see the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as merely something that happened to Them; sad, but ultimately necessary to save Us. It’s only when we’ve followed the trade minister from his world into ours that we begin to fathom the horrors of being Them.

If the show provides any chance of redemption, it’s in the title role: the man in the high castle. For the entire first season, this character is no more than a hushed name on the lips of Resistance members trying to procure films for him, a shadowy figure lurking in the background. His main role is to set the plot in motion, and even when he does appear onscreen, neither his personal backstory nor that of the films is explained. All the viewer knows is that the films somehow show glimpses of other worlds and flashes of insight into what could have been; where they come from remains a mystery. The job of the man in the high castle is to watch these films, analyze them, and use what he’s learned to help the Resistance. As a result, his character provides us hope—not just for his world, but for our own.

Because the man in the high castle is us. Or at least, what we could be. His function is to watch images on a screen that present alternate realities of the past, present, and future. Is that not what we do when we watch shows like this? When we, in fact, watch this show? All the magical universe-hopping physics can be seen as an allegory for the imaginative powers that are set in motion when we watch dystopian fiction like The Man in the High Castle. Through fiction, we know what other worlds could look like. We know that the world we live in isn’t the only possibility, and that there are innumerable worlds that might be better than ours. And if we can imagine them, perhaps we can envision ways of getting to them. Perhaps we viewers, in our own sort of high castle, can remember what we’ve seen of this dystopian world, and use it as inspiration to change our own.

If there’s one thing we should take away from the show, it’s that the world we inhabit is not that much better than the one we see on the screen. The biggest difference is that for the world on the screen, we have faith in the conventions of the genre: our plucky protagonists (or at least some of them) will emerge victorious in the end, and things will get (at least somewhat) better.

But we are not characters in a TV show; no authorial teleology will save us. There is no guarantee that our world will end up as anything other than a giant charnel house filled with the cold grey ashes of an eternal nuclear winter. And the horrors of our own world cannot be escaped by turning off the TV. If we desire a better world, we’ll have to build it ourselves, here and now.

The outcome of The Man in the High Castle is to immerse us in a world that is incredibly broken while reminding us that it’s not so different from our own. When the credits start to roll, and we become aware of this bouquet of horror and revulsion that has bloomed within us, we need to hold on to it. We can’t let it wilt away. We’re going to need it, if we want the strength to right the wrongs of our own world.

We must remember the core message of the magical otherworldly films: that another world is possible. It’s on us to create it.

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