Digital Streamside Report: The Man in the High Castle

The Missus doesn’t like The Man in the High Castle. A good bit of that has to do with the opening credits. Which are artistically delightful, engaging…and depressing.

Now, if you are not familiar with The Man in the High Castle, it is an Amazon Studios series, based upon Philip K. Dick’s eponymous novel, with a simplified premise as follows (Spoiler Alert):

  • The Nazis get the atomic bomb before the Manhattan Project succeeds.
  • Washington D.C. gets nuked.
  • The US Navy loses in the Pacific to the Imperial Japanese Navy.
  • The Axis powers win WWII.
  • The US gets divided between a Nazi-controlled “Greater Reich” and an Imperial              Japanese controlled Pacific States. In the middle is the “Neutral Zone.”
  • Weird stuff involving the time-space continuum within the narrative, involving films          produced by a mysterious “Man in the High Castle.”

Now, if trippy alternative-histories is your genre, you’ve probably already watched it. If you haven’t, but you are such a fan, and/or you are a fan of Philip K. Dick’s work (whose works served as the basis for Blade Runner, Minority Report, and Paycheck), or if you liked Clancy’s Red Storm Rising or Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War, you have likely given some serious thought to watching it, and you’d probably really enjoy it. Though it does require having Amazon Prime membership (so be warned).

To me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the show, set in a worm-holed variant of the early 1960s, is how the popularized mythos (and to some extent, the banality) of the1950s and 1960s gets a new coat of horrific, surreal varnish.

On the East Coast, instead of Father Knows Best, der Fuhrer knows what’s best for American families. You get the kitsch suburban perfection and expectations skewered in the progressive song Little Boxes (There's a green one and a pink one /And a blue one and a yellow one,/ And they're all made out of ticky tacky/And they all look just the same), but instead painted in deeply held views of National Socialism. The portrayal of 60s era ladies’ group tea-time table-talk, including positive and accepting discussions of eugenics and forced euthanasia of so-called “useless eaters,” is disturbingly horrific in how it is considered as normal.

On the West Coast…well, getting to see San Francisco portrayed under foreign occupation was really unsettling to someone who lived in Northern California as a child. Got to hand it to the producers - they really, really know how to make you recognize certain trappings of the USA, while also making the viewer feel like a stranger in a strange land.

Being an American, the most powerful, and radically uncomfortable story-element is how the plot-line attempts to compel one, at moments, to actually start pulling for certain characters who are Nazis or Imperialist, as evils and evil doers become opposed to one another, in a grappling of moral dilemmas. In a recent exchange, a fellow Kindler pointed out the following: an SS officer is actually the most interesting character in the series.

Oh, and might as well mention that this officer - he’s an American. With the everyman name of John Smith. Which may be a little on the nose, but makes a frightening case as to how an otherwise good, American family man can be sucked into supporting something so antithetical to what we hold to be our traditional American values, such as they are. Or at least, as they were thought to be.

Now, please, don’t get me wrong. Truth be told, while such plot lines are meant to confuse and jar the viewer, the show does a great job of condemning the atrocious viewpoints put forward by the story’s antagonists and anti-heroes alike. Especially in assigning significant emotional investment to the direct and collateral victims of such views.

As for those characters who actively resist the Empire of the Rising Sun or the Third Reich as part of The Resistance…they’ve got some tough sledding, both in terms of military opposition and moral choices. Be warned: the characters we might otherwise view as “good guys” are not necessarily the cowboy-with-a-white-hat-wearing types.

Additionally the very power of cinema (or visual media) to influence reality itself is actively considered by a multitude of characters, from Resistance fighters to Adolf Hitler. This consideration is easily one of the most intriguing concepts in the entire series. It’s also a rather timely consideration for our contemporary American society, when notions of “fake-news,” and the potential regulation thereof, are a real topic of discussion. In this fashion, The Man in the High Castle attempts to conjure up a meta-level paean to its very own art form, and to a significant extent, succeeds.

Now, as a history teacher, the genre of alternate-history has always been at least an interesting and entertaining one: What would have happened if Lee had won Gettysburg? What if the carriers had been at Pearl Harbor? What if Bonnie Prince Charlie had quickly advanced on London after Prestonpans and Falkirk and reestablished the Stuart Dynasty as rulers of England?…What if…wait, what was that last one???

I’ll admit, there are a clear number of pitfalls associated with entertaining such hypotheticals. Not to mention the lack of sleep which can ensue in useless debates between armchair generals and history buffs about What Ifs. After all, history actually happened differently. Also the number of detailed webpages and Wiki entries devoted to alternate-history sagas (Henry Turtledove comes to mind) is hard to fathom.

Of course, like other artistic and literary forms, alternate history can provide moral instruction, thought-provoking and entertaining narratives, and so on. Still, there seems to be something that alternate histories can do particularly well, namely, lend a special kind of appreciation by contrast, though not necessarily an approval, for the way things actually happened, and for the human beings who actually did make history.

Which leads me to give a plug for a book which explains, in part, why we don’t actually live in the world of The Man in the High Castle.

The book is The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb, by Neil Bascomb. By far, it is one of the most gripping military-history accounts I have ever read.

And it actually happened.

The title gets to the heart of story: The Third Reich had a nuclear weapons project - little did I know, before reading this book, that they got as far as actually undertaking a (semi-) controlled nuclear reaction at one point in the project.

Turns out though, that one of the crucial components they needed was, deuterium-oxide, aka, “heavy water.” However, the only place which came under the control of the Third Reich that could even come close to producing the required amounts was located in Vermork, Norway.

Nevertheless, for all the Reich’s efforts, they did not fully factor in the Norwegian resistance members of Operations Grouse and Gunnerside, with men such as Leif Tronstad, Knut Haukelid, Einar Skinnarland, Jens-Anton Poulsson (and other members of the Kompani Linge), who risked everything to play their part in halting the Reich’s atomic program.

There are plenty of hair’s-breadth escapes, with accounts of surviving in the Norwegian winter while on the run, scaling mountain cliffs bare-handed, and breaking into military complexes without getting caught - just to name a few of the adventures.

Bascomb also does a splendid job of putting the scientific nomenclature into understandable layman’s terms (which was quite helpful for me), while also crafting the narrative of the events in a way that leaves you hoping you can set a new record-time in getting the kids to pipe-down and go to sleep. Our house-record may have actually set by The Missus, once she had the opportunity to read the book for herself (now that’s an endorsement!).

In considering both The Man in the High Castle and The Winter Fortress together, I’ll readily admit the vast differences in media between the two does make it hard to make certain kinds of comparisons. Nevertheless, I found that both narratives served to strongly remind me of something that Warren Carroll states in his introduction to A History of Christendom, that “Christians do not see men as primarily shaped or dominated by extrinsic and nameless forces, structures and trees. They see the drama of human life as primarily composed of personal thought and action, above all by the working of the will.” (Carroll, Vol. I, 12)

Both works are very well-crafted, and are close to the top of their relative media-genres - but I would not recommend The Man in the High Castle for everybody - it gets really, really dark at a lot of places along the way (and be warned, there is a measure of adult content, though slight overall); viewing such a dystopian alternate-reality might not be worth it. Still, if you are up to it and you are on the fence, but are looking for an Amazon Prime show that won’t simply melt your brain, but actually shows depth of narrative and jarring thought while also serving as entertainment, well, go ahead and watch the pilot episode, and see what you think.

But if you have any space on your bookshelf for another military/historical narrative, I mean, any space at all, I would heartily recommend filling it with The Winter Fortress, for, while I really enjoyed watching The Man in the High Castle, and am actively wondering what will happen in Season 3, it is still true about actual history, that “Man’s past is full of events more dramatic than any ever put on stage.”(ibid. Vol. I, 13). Good luck at Bookmans!

Will Bertain