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surreal, mysterious and vague
on October 9, 2003
The nightmare of an alternate history in which the Nazis concquered the world? Unfortunately, the story dissappoints because it doesn't sound as nightmarish as it suggests.
For those who've never heard of this book, "Castle" offers an oppressed and subjugated America long since conquered by the Axis powers of the War. America is divided between the Japanese consolidated states of the Pacific coast and the German dominated eastern-American sphere - though Dick suggests the Nazis as the more ambitious of the two victors. Still a militaristic society, the Japanese themselves are comparatively benign - polite invaders who maintain their occupation from restricted enclaves while spending their time acquiring "Americana" (American swords, billboards, vintage clothes, jewelry, etc..) The Germans have been busier, and Dick hints early that, as far as Germany is concerned, the Earth isn't big enough for two empires. The horrors of the Nazi genocide aren't fleshed out - Dick stays deliberately vague - there are hints of a horror in Africa, while the futuristic Nazis share the racial ideas of the historical Nazis. Between the Japanese and German dominated territories, a vast no-man's land exists in which people try to survive by exploiting each side's distrust of the other, guided by the I-Ching. When the novel opens, we learn that the Nazis are on the verge of planning two new wars - one against their enemies, but firs a battle among their own inner circle. At the center of everything lives the man of the castle himself - a recluse who has penned an underground best-selling novel which brazenly exalts and America that actually won WWII.
As a straight novel, "Castle" is an incredible disappointment. It's way-out characters (who are dominated by I-Ching), unresolved and seldom co-mingling plot-lines and barely fleshed out tension will make you feel that you've read hundreds of pages of a novel that never starts. Dick was supposed to have written "Castle" under great tension himself - constantly revolted by the evils of history's Nazis, but you won't see that here. You'd think that a world largely dominated (or even populated) by Nazis would be outright horrific - dotted by death factories, criss-crossed by railways carrying fresh victims - but that clashes with the tone Dick offers, which is simply surreal. (according to Dick legend, the author was too horrified to follow up "Castle" with a sequel. Instead, darkly inspired by the Nazi vision of a world divided between humans and seemingly identical beings otherwise deprived of human rights, Dick gave us the novel that became "Blade Runner" - with illegal androids subbing for genocide's victims.) Even the focus on I-Ching is unnerving (once Dick has educated us as to what I-Ching is, it soon begins to appear as if he used it to finish this book).
On a deeper level, one can still appreciate the irony - not on Dick's alternate history, but on the alternate history created by Dick's fictional man in the castle. We learn of his novel, "The Grasshopper lies heavily" long before we get a look at what's on its pages. Knowing of its premise of a triumphant America, we're supposed to imagine that Grasshopper's America will look much like our own. Near the end, when one of our "heores" looks into "Grasshopper" we learn that its vision does not stay close to our own for very long, at first closer to reality than that of "Castle". The cracks form once the west wins the war and must confront what became the "cold war", and we're left wondering which alternative reality is really the alternative reality, and which is simply a funhouse-mirror version of our own - one in which an ambitious super-power has scarred the world with its costly mistakes, tears itself apart in internecine battles and seeks to spread itself into space, likely in order to escape the charnel house it has made of the earth. Dick gave this story no ending, probably thinking that the scariest way to close a cautionary tale of an alternate time is to show you how alternate it's not.