The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick is a science fiction piece about a world wear the Axis won World War II.
Take this as you will, but I read Crime and Punishment in three and a half months, and The Man in the High Castle in just under 3 days. Perhaps because it was a much more modern piece of write; perhaps because it reminded me of the science fiction I read when I was younger; perhaps because Dick (hee hee…sorry) wrote a story that was more complicated while being far less dense, but whatever it was, I found TMitHC to be a much more engaging and entertaining read.
The difficulty in any “high concept” (ok, it’s not exactly the most original twist, but it still counts) work of fiction is to make it more than just a “what if” story. Dick does give you the idea of the world as a whole, with the death and destruction that a fascist victory entailed being eased out in little bits of exposition over the first few chapters, but he doesn’t limit the story to just a glimpse at an alternate reality. The world still operates as if run by people rather than ideas, and the effects of governing culture on the citizens is noticeable and distinct, most markedly in the strange nature of the English language as it begins to mimic Japanese and the prevalence of the I-Ching in daily life. This is a book that takes a core concept and gives it a smothering bear hug of meta-textual commentary. It is a story about a world where Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany have won the war, but there is a book written in the book about what the world would be like if America and Britain had won, but it’s not the same as our world, and some characters are aware (or become aware) that they are living inside a fictional story. As confusing as that sounds, the writing actually does an admirable job of laying out these intertwining ideas without losing the reader.
What impressed me too was that PKD didn’t fall into the trap that most science fiction writers do of throwing out paper characters to react to his alternate reality. The characters in TMitHC are all fully realized and feel unique. When delving into their thoughts and following their actions each character seems natural and authentic rather than a mouthpiece for the author. Really the only time that the characterization feels off is when characters speak. I felt through most of the book that any conversation that went beyond simple formalities felt awkward and forced, with characters suddenly reacting with stronger emotions or in bizarre ways to what seemed to be very placid statements. This problem with interactions seems to actually get worse as the book goes by, with the last chapter feeling overwhelmingly strange and obtuse. It was usually a disappointment for me when the characters would emerge from a deep internal discussion to talk with someone in the outside world.
Despite this difficulty with dialogue and the rather vague and unfulfilling ending, I could not put the book down. It was engaging, and surprisingly clever with a great deal of detail rather than just a broad portrait of a “world gone mad”. It may not be a masterpiece of high literature or a life altering experience, but I don’t believe that genre or topic should preclude anything from being worth reading or consideration as art.