In a phildickian world, much is familiar, but much else is different, knocking us off-balance, surprising us, but more importantly challenging us, to re-examine our own world and our agency within it. It is this demand that we be defined (wherever we find ourselves) not by who we are, but by what we do, that underpins many of the ideas that weave in and out of Philip K Dick’s writing and the growing number of adaptations of his once easily dismissed works. The most succinct statement of this quasi-religious aspect of Dick’s thinking is this famous scene from Total Recall; the most thoroughgoing is found in the sublime short story, Human Is.
There’s plenty of this stuff (and more recurring Dick enthusiasms such as the I Ching, paranoia and non-reality) in The Man In The High Castle, an Amazon Prime adaptation of an early novel, unusually for Dick not science fiction, but alternative history. This follows the basic plot of the novel (with some significant changes), includes many of the same characters and, of course, explores Dick’s uneasy relationship with perceptions and truth. It is set in a eerily authentic post-War world in which the United States is divided between the triumphant Axis Powers (after Heisenberg had won the race to build the H-bomb and the Nazis had dropped it on Washington DC). Films are emerging of an alternate reality in which the Allies won, the Resistance running them to the mysterious Man In The High Castle avoiding the SS who, acting on Hitler’s orders, will stop at nothing to intercept these reels.
Dowloaded as ten one hour episodes, there are inevitably spells when the plot drags a little and is over-complicated (but so is the novel, to be fair) but the series remains compelling as a result of two key storytelling elements that television may now deliver more consistently than film.
The ensemble acting is excellent, the standouts being Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as the Japanese Trade Minister who carries sadness in his soul and is guided by the I Ching but also his understanding that men can shape their own fates within their destinies. There is a beautiful stillness to much of his performance, the tilt of his eyes telling us all we need to know about what’s going on behind them. Rufus Sewell may begin as a caricatured ruthless SS Officer, but, though he never loses that frightening overarching power, Sewell manages to make us empathise with him as he wrestles with his competing motivations: love for The Reich and how it feeds his ego and love for his family, an apparently picture-perfect Nazi unit.
But the real stars of this show are the production designers who have created a chilling, yet strangely beautiful world in which the delicate structures of traditional Japanese design are being overwhelmed by German technology exemplified by its rocket-planes, its huge buildings and rooms and (off-stage, but ever present) its bomb. Even the beiges and browns of the dinghy homes and workplaces of “the Whites” are lit wonderfully well and nothing is grimy, even if it doesn’t exactly sparkle. I’ve never enjoyed CGI, but watching it in HD on a small screen, it complements rather than overwhelms the action. (There are lots of in-jokes too with references to Taxi Driver and The Stand and some drolly deadpan re-workings of events like the Kennedy Assassination to keep the viewer on their toes).
There are plenty of the twists and turns one can expect in a thriller, but there’s an underlying intelligence and depth to the big ideas that are ever-present just below the surface and, more often than expected, bubble upwards to drive the story forward. This Amazon Prime Original Series (watch it with the free 30 day trial) is not afraid of pushing its audience, who will be rewarded with something not quite unique, but richly rewarding in its otherness. And, like all the best dystopian works of art, it makes our own world feel that little bit fragile – and that little bit more worthy of protection.
(The photograph is my 25 year old paperback, the cover design of which falls somewhat short of 2015’s standards!)