Author Abraham Josephine Riesman on Philip K. Dick’s ‘The Man in the High Castle’

Hosted by

Abraham Josephine Riesman. Photo credit: Bethany O.

Journalist and author Abraham Josephine Riesman specializes in examining power and the nature of our reality. Having previously written about the rise and fall of Marvel visionary Stan Lee, Riesman’s latest book, “Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America,” chronicles the parallels between McMahon’s rise in the entertainment wrestling world and Donald Trump’s ascension to becoming the 45th president. 

Riesman’s cites one of her favorite books of all time, Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle,” as a major influence on her critical and expository lens. 

The 1962 alternate history novel imagines a world in which the Axis of Power (Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan) won World War II, and Americans live in a partitioned United States under the rule of both empires. In highlighting the work for The Treat, Riesman explains why it’s a reminder that “we're always living in a dystopia” where one has “to find meaning within that context.” 

The following has been edited for length and clarity. 

I read [“The Man in the High Castle”] for the first time when I was in eighth grade and proceeded to understand virtually none of it, but it completely amazed me.

It's a story of an alternate world. In fact, it was one of the earliest mainstream depictions of an alternate universe where the Nazis and the Japanese Empire won World War II. It's set in the United States of that alternate world as of 1962, when the novel was published.

Dick was such a pioneer in that he understood sci-fi works best when you fixate on the mundane, the quotidian. Sci-fi is not, “And then the space cavalry rode into battle and 1000 ships fired their lasers.” It's always, “My friend killed herself yesterday, and my ‘mood organ’ is on the fence, and that means I've been really depressed.” And that brings you in. You're like, “Okay, who's this friend? What the hell is a mood organ?” And now you're really interested.

You're not the same after you finish a Dick novel, or even a Dick sentence sometimes. He really understood that language is a virus in a good way: If you have a good aphorism or a good phrase, it can throw its way into a person’s head, and he used that power for good.

What I love about “The Man in the High Castle” is, it's a thrilling adventure ride that is ultimately about the fact that no matter what happens in history, no matter how much you might fantasize about a pivot point where if things had gone differently, the world would be all sunshine and rainbows, we're always living in a dystopia. We're always living in a bad timeline. We're always living in a place where there are challenges and life is hard and short. But that's the nature of being, and you have to find meaning within that context.

“Their eyes, warm not only with human bond but with the shared enjoyment of the art objects he sold, their mutual tastes and satisfactions, remained fixed on him; they were thanking him for having things like these for them to see, pick up and examine, handle perhaps without even buying. Yes, he thought, they know what sort of store they are in; this is not tourist trash, not redwood plaques reading Muir Woods, Marin County, PSA, or funny signs or girly rings or postcards or views of the Bridge. The girl's eyes, especially, large, dark. How easily, Childan thought, I could fall in love with a girl like this. How tragic my life, then; as if it weren't bad enough already. The stylish black hair, lacquered nails, pierced ears for the long dangling brass handmade earrings.

"Your earrings," he murmured. "Purchased here, perhaps?"

"No," she said. "At home." – a passage from Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel “The Man in the High Castle.” 



Rebecca Mooney