Alternative Histories

I was recently fascinated by the premise of the pilot episode of a TV show based on notedthe_man_in_the_high_castle_frontcover American science fiction writer Phillip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. See here for an interesting little interview with show creator Frank Spotnitz where he describes some of his influences and how he is attempting to adapt Dick’s mesmerising narrative for TV. It’s set in a world in which the Axis Powers of Germany and Japan won World War II and subsequently became hegemonic empires (seen below in the geography the book describes), dividing up the remainder of the world with interesting consequences for the local populations. When the action of the story takes place (in the early 1960s) the Japanese occupied ‘Pacific States of America’ are deep in an intrigue-filled Cold War with the Nazi-occupied East coast.

Man_In_The_High_Castle_map

There are amusing touches to the setting such as the power of nazi times squaresymbolism in shaping people’s self-image: Nazi Times Square for instance, the replacement of the blue and white stars with a blue and white Swastika on the American Flag.

The theme that struck me as most relevant to my own research into the impacts social movements have on society, was how readily people adapt to social change and conditioning; quickly forgetting that things were once different (often very recently), and assuming the perspectives promulgated by the new system were some set of universal natural laws (the way Randian Neoliberals talk about “free markets”). To illustrate this, in the book’s Japanese-occupied San Francisco, the white population still speaks English, but with Japanese grammar and idioms. They bow, fret over “having place” by saying and doing exactly the right thing in their interactions with their Japanese masters, and adopt a hodge-podge of Eastern religious practices in much the way that African slaves took to Christianity during their own period of oppression. Thus, people who were as recently as 15 years beforehand, part of a democratic and progressive-libertarian American society quickly forgot what the allies were resisting for. The transition to totalitarianism took a matter of months within the book. The white-American character Robert Childan, whose business depends on selling Americana ‘antiques’ to exclusively elite Japanese clientele, in particular provides the perfect exploration of this. Memories from the war instilled in him a hatred for and explicitly white supremacist racism toward the Japanese, and yet in his interactions with a young couple of clients (the Kosoura’s), he is constantly fretting over how he is perceived, comparing his brutish ways to their effortless grace. His behaviour implies not only that he is comprehensively submissive in relation to the dominant Japanese occupiers, but that he accepts this arrangement (and totalitarian order) to be morally justified.

While I admit that this does feel a little ridiculous at this point (overthinking Japan and Germany winning the war…) the fate of the war hung in the balance of numerous battles and technological advances that could easily have gone the other way. For instance, it is widely known that the Nazis were working on an Atom bomb at the same time as the US, it is conceivable that they could have gotten there and utilized a first strike neutralizing their military opposition. Likewise the outcomes of the battle of Stalingrad when the Nazis arrived at the beginning of winter or the Battle for Britain when a planned ground invasion was cancelled in favour of diverting forces to the Eastern front.

As a meta recurring theme , throughout the narrative the various characters (who are only loosely connected to one another, each chapter focusing on a different perspective; a German spy with Jewish ancestry, a Japanese Trade diplomat pondering the Empire’s ongoing mission in the outer colonies, a white American store-owner who caters exclusively to wealthy Japanese clients etc), come in contact with this popular novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, by Hawthorne Abendsen, whose title, putatively, derives from the Bible verse: “The grasshopper shall be a burden” (Ecclesiastes 12:5). Thus, The Grasshopper Lies Heavyconstitutes a novel within a novel, wherein Abendsen writes of an alternate universe where the Axis powers lost WWII (1939–1947). For this reason, the Germans have banned it in the occupied U.S. Nevertheless, it is a widely read book in the Pacific and its publication is legal in the neutral countries.

The Grasshopper Lies Heavy postulates that President Franklin D. Roosevelt survives assassination and forgoes re-election in 1940, honoring George Washington‘s two-term limit. The next president, Rexford Tugwell, removes the U.S. Pacific fleet from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, saving it from Japanese attack, which ensures that the U.S. enters World War II a well-equipped naval power. Great Britain retains most of its military-industrial strength, contributing more to the Allied war effort, leading to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel‘s defeat in North Africa; the British advance through the Caucasus to guide the Soviets to victory in theBattle of Stalingrad; Italy reneges on its membership in the Axis Powers and betrays them; British armor and the Red Army jointly conquer Berlin; and, at the end of the war, the Nazi leaders—including Adolf Hitler—are tried for their war crimes; the Führer‘s last words areDeutsche, hier steh’ ich (“Germans, here I stand”), in imitation of the priest Martin Luther.

Post-war, Churchill remains Britain’s leader and, because of its military-industrial might, theBritish Empire does not collapse; the USA establishes strong business relations with Chiang Kai-shek‘s right-wing regime in China, after vanquishing the Communist Mao Zedong. The British Empire becomes racist and more expansionist post-war, while the U.S. outlaws Jim Crow, resolving its racism by the 1950s. Both changes provoke racialist-cultural tensions between the US and the UK, leading them to a Cold War for global hegemony between the two vaguely liberal, democratic, capitalist societies. Although the end of the novel is never depicted in the text, one character claims the book ends with the British Empire eventually defeating the US, becoming the world’s only superpower.

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