Science fiction is one of those genres everyone thinks they know, but seems to find it difficult to pin down in terms of a definition. It’s such a porous genre, that is, one that can bend and stretch and absorb other genres so easily that sometimes it goes beyond simple genre hybridization into a loose collection of generic texts. There’s a wonderful story about James Cameron pitching The Terminator, way back at the beginning of his career, and to his shock hearing it called “not science fiction.” “Not science fiction?” he apparently replied, “But it has robots and time travel!” “Yeah,” supposedly said the producer, “But it’s not in space.” Such is the case with a great deal of science fiction prose writing, which is still the most fertile and imaginative manifestation of that medium (comics a close second).
Philip K. Dick is a perfect example of a writer of science fiction who disregarded the conventions and the constraints of the genre, and simply set out to tell imaginative stories, with intriguing settings. It’s only in retrospect that much of his work is considered science fiction, because some of it even lacks the afore-mentioned robots and time travel, let alone ships gliding through the vastness of space. But his well-regarded alternate history book, The Man in the High Castle, recently released as a 10-part TV series by Amazon, is certainly sci-fi, despite nary a robot, alien or spacecraft in sight.
To be fair: there are spacecraft mentioned in the actual novel, which takes place in an alternate 1962 in which the Axis powers won World War II. But the action is squarely on earth, dealing with the concerns of people and their relationship to their sense of national identity and history. Like most great science fiction, it was about the time in which it was written as much as anything speculative, drawing on fears of a rapidly changing world, and the quickening maturity of a then-new generation (the baby boomers), who were rocketing ahead into the future without pausing, sometimes, to absorb the lessons of history. Dick’s novel reminds us that history is a story, and it’s important that we tell the right story, and remember why we tell it that way.
The current Image comic Invisible Republic, by Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko, covers some of the same ground and touches on some of the same themes. It even shares a strong female protagonist with the earlier Dick novel. But Hardman and Bechko are writing in the year 2015, with decades of visual science fiction reference to guide them. Dick, on the other hand, was writing from a deep understanding of literature, and a deep appreciation for the masterpieces of science fiction literature (most of which, with the exception of a few titles such as Dune, were already classics when Dick wrote his novel). His imagination was less informed by visuals and more by ideas, and his own contemporary sense of history. That makes The Man in the High Castle thoroughly singular speculative fiction.
The novel adopts a very loose and diffuse narrative structure, allowing stories to simply pass each other in the proverbial night, rather than march steadily towards a climax with a protagonist-antagonist showdown. Rather than having a single protagonist, Dick gives us a wide selection of heroes, such as Frank Frick, and anti-heroes, including Nazi agents with shifting morals. A major plot line involves a character high-up in the Japanese-occupied western states who, like many Asian characters in Dick’s novel, throws the I-Ching every five minutes. Putting the I-Ching together with the propensity of characters to smoke “marijuana cigarettes”, we have a veritable picture of an alternate future told through the eyes of an early sixties hipster, fresh from the Beat years, with the hippie culture right around the corner. In fact, Dick’s innovative fractured narrative style is also thoroughly in keeping with the progressive, post-modern style of contemporary American novels, a distinction not shared by some (if not all) of the other major science fiction literary figures of the day. Asimov was prolific and imaginative, but his prose is simple, conventional storytelling stuff. (This, of course, works perfectly for his sort of philosophical world-building.) Dick, on the other hand, is right up there with Ken Kesey and Norman Mailer.
The most haunting and post-modern element of Man in the High Castle is the novel-within-the-novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which takes the shocking approach of recounting what we, the readers, know as the true history of World War II. (Or, at least, close to it.) This subversive novel is fiction, but Dick masterfully manipulates the very concept of fiction vs non-fiction by calling into question, in some sort of mystic way, whether Grasshopper’s history or High Castle’s history is the true record. In yet another layer of innovation, Dick extends the Grasshopper version of history to the early 1960s, giving us a third history (for those keeping count) in which the British Empire didn’t collapse and eventually claims the world for itself through industrial might, besting even the United States. Layering reality upon reality, building history from dreams, and spinning it all into a hallucinatory whole is a Philip K. Dick speciality, and this is the main stylistic through-line connecting Man in the High Castle with his other, more easily identifiably “science fiction” work.
That brings us back to the question of genre definition. As we mentioned from the top, the term science fiction has been much misunderstood in many quarters. One reason is the inclusion of the word “Science”, which appears to lead many to believe that the genre must include some sort of advanced technology, or deal with the world of the plausible future. This has led some to suggest “speculative fiction” as a more apt term, but we in comics know better than most that when a literary term enters the popular lexicon, it’s almost impossible to change it retroactively. (Case and point: we still call our favourite medium “comics”, not “sequential art”, at least in casual conversation.)
But the fact is that science, at least its spirit, is firmly embedded in the genre. Contrary to popular belief, scientists are not a bunch of amoral eggheads out to wreak havoc upon the world. But they are all intellectually rigorous, don’t suffer fools gladly, and most of all, curious about the world. Curiosity is the essential quality of any scientist (and really, any person who fancies themselves an academic). A scientist always wonders, “Why are things the way they are? Why can’t they be some other way?”, and in that sentiment is the spirit of science fiction. By that standard, Man in the High Castle is actually pure science fiction. It engages with its subject material with intellectual heft and consistency, experiments with the form and answers questions with more questions, leaving its ending (which I wouldn’t dare spoil) open to further exploration. That’s almost a complete description of the scientific process.
Man in the High Castle is my second recommendation for science fiction week for those, and many other reasons. But just as in my previous piece about The Stars My Destination, I’m presenting it as something of an antidote to the space adventure of Star Wars The Force Awakens. Don’t mistake that for being a grumpy gus about Star Wars. Like everyone else, I’ll be at some theatre this weekend by hook or crook (let’s hope neither), gobbling up the candy. Let’s not forget, though, that science fiction contains all the proverbial food groups, and has a deep literary tradition that covers a lot of ground. I love the genre, and I love the whole genre, not just space adventure.