The Man in the High Castle and Cat’s Cradle in Trumplandia
At the very naive age of 21, I fell in love with Blade Runner (1982), unaware at the time that it was a film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? My formative years had been spent on science fiction B-movies my mom adored and Marvel comic books, but I remained then still only engaged with genre as a fan.
Many years later, I read Electric Sheep, and was mostly underwhelmed with Dick as a novelist while recognizing his gift for ideas*, much of which was mined by what would become a Ridley Scott modern classic and cult hit.
I just finished my second Dick novel, having begun several of them over the years but finding it difficult to stay connected. The Man in the High Castle has gained a new life with the amazon serial adaptation, and I decided to give his work another shot.
Similar to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale being resurrected through serialization, Castle seems perfect for our time in Trumplandia. Many in the U.S. fear the rise of totalitarianism, but there also is an important new recognition of the fragility of truth and facts.
I must admit that once again I was underwhelmed with Castle as a novel; the central idea — an alternate history in which Germany and Japan win WWII — however, is incredibly compelling as a thought experiment.
The characters, I feel, aren’t themselves very compelling, and the main woman, Juliana Frick, especially felt superficial, even trite at times. Yet, about a third of the way into the novel when Germany is suffering a crisis of leadership, an exchange between Juliana and her mysterious lover, Joe Cinnadella, essentially solidifies why this novel speaks so powerfully now:
It is here that I read Castle as a much more political and economic narrative version of Albert Camus’s The Stranger captured in Meursault’s musing in prison:
Afterwards my only thoughts were those of a prisoner….At the time, I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowering overhead, little by little I would have gotten used to it. I would have waited for birds to fly by or clouds to mingle, just as here I waited to see my lawyer’s ties, and just as, in another world, I used to wait patiently until Saturday to hold Marie’s body in my arms. Now, as I think back on it, I wasn’t in a hollow tree trunk. There were others worse off than me. Anyway, it was one of Maman’s ideas, and she often repeated it, that after a while you could get used to anything. (p. 77)
Dick forces the reader to see that any of us can easily see our side as always in the right and the other side as always in the wrong; this Nazi/communist duality framed in the novel ultimately is revealed as a false dichotomy in the sense that no option had any real moral superiority.
When is war, or even politics, not a gruesome real-world version of the ends justify the means?
And that thematic element prompted also in my mind Kurt Vonnegut.
“‘When Bokonon and McCabe took over this miserable country years ago,’ said Julian Castle, ‘they threw out the priests. And then Bokonon, cynically and playfully, invented a new religion’” (p.172) — opens Chapter 78 of Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.
Bokonon has created a religion “‘to provide the people with better and better lies’” (p. 172), foma, and a central aspect of that strategy involves the orchestrated war between the government of San Lorenzo and the religion, Bokononism:
“But people didn’t have to pay as much attention to the awful truth. As the living legend of the cruel tyrant in the city and the gentle holy man in the jungle grew, so, too, did the happiness of the people grow. They were all employed full time as actors in a play they understood, that any human being anywhere could understand and applaud.” (pp. 174–175)
The false choice between McCabe and Bokonon in this other world created by Vonnegut happens to represent well the delusion of choice that exists in the U.S. McCabe/Bokonon reflect the false choice currently in the U.S. between Republican/Democrat; it’s a fake fight, and a false choice.
However, I must qualify that it has been a fake fight and false choice until the era of Trumplandia.
The policy and ideological differences among Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama are quite small — even as some of those policies have profound consequences for individuals in the U.S. and abroad.
The partisan political arena, like McCabe and Bokonon, have been compelled for political reasons to make those small differences seem dramatic, often resorting to the sort of hyperbolic language that stretches credulity.
Obama, for example, is no socialist, no communist. Obama is a centerist, a bit moderate and even liberal in his rhetoric, but he is not so far away from George W. Bush that they couldn’t reach out and dap.
This false chasm between Democrats and Republicans has perpetuated a standard cultural and political ideology for decades, a state of perpetual war and an economic system that feeds the wealthy on the backs of workers and the demonized poor.
The norm of hyperbolic partisan rhetoric now has dire consequences as some seek to confront a new norm in Trumplandia, a more insidious assault on truth with even more far reaching negative consequences for much of the U.S. and even many beyond our borders.
Evoking words such as “Nazi” and “fascism” are no longer vapid hyperbole, but those markers fail to resonate among many who have been numbed by partisan hyperbole and hate-mongering along party lines.
George W. Bush was mostly mainstream U.S. politics and ideology, despite the histrionics from the Left. Obama was mostly mainstream U.S. politics and ideology, despite the histrionics from the Right.
There is almost nothing mainstream or normal under Trump, although we are hesitant to admit that this new extreme has most of its roots in mainstream Republican politics that has depended on racism and misogyny for decades.
As a former high school English teacher, I am now deeply concerned that it will not be fake news that sinks this ship, but our inability to distinguish between hyperbole and honest but blunt language.
* I can draw a parallel with a difference here. I love Milan Kundera as a powerful philosophical author, but I find Kundera a much more compelling storyteller.