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Friday, July 13, 2007

Philip K Dick's Universe: What if the Allies had Won the War?

How is your summer reading going?  My fiction quota (true, not very large) is taken up at the moment with The New American Library's recent release of Philip K. Dick's writings; Four Novels of the 1960s (edited by Jonathan Lethem).  I'm savoring one of my favorite "college" reads, Dick's The Man in the High Castle, published in 1962.  The novel circles around Dick's presumptive alter ego, the novelist Abendsen, who from his  mountain cabin near Denver is writing novels about a world where the allies won World War II.  In the real world of the novel the Axis powers had triumphed (after a series of unfortunate events that begins with Roosevelt's assassination in Miami a few months after his election--in fact a near miss). 

In this world Abendsen's novel, The Grasshopper, is circulating legally in the Japanese governed west coast "Pacific States of America."  Its also a hot read, but illegal, in the Reich governed remnant of the United States of America as well as its close ally, the Confederate States of America.

The novel is resonating with me on two fronts.  I'm about to take my family to Germany for three weeks, and everything I've read about the contemporary nation, contrasts with the technologically advanced but psychotic and murderous Third Reich that Dick describes in his alternative 1960s (see the story in today's NYT about the resistance of Germans to a war on terror).

The other front is thinking about what a renewed New Deal in international relations, to follow our disastrous war on terror might look like.  Elizabeth Borgwardt's fabulous, A New Deal for the World: America's Vision for Human Rights , (read Carol Anderson's review here) is fueling my imagination as well.  A few of us (David Caron, Laurel Fletcher, and Kirk Boyd)  here at Berkeley are cooking up a conference and a website that will try to imagine what 2048 might look like in human rights terms (more on that soon). 

In The Grasshopper, the post war world is one where the New Deal is being implemented, like the Marshall Plan, but way beyond, on a global basis.  Annoyed, one of the novel's friendly fascists snarls about Abendsen:

"You know what he's done, don't you? He's taken the best about Nazism, the socialist part, the Todt Organization and the economic advances we got through Speer, and who's he giving credit to?  The New Deal.  And he's left out the bad part, the SS part, the racial extermination and segregation.  Its a utopia!  You imagine if the Allies had won, the New Deal would have been able to revive the economy and make those socialist welfare improvements, like he says?

Sadly we know that answer to his question and Abendsen's vision of American cities brimming with economic activity

.... And these markets, the countless millions of China, set the factories in Detroit and Chicago to humming; that vast mouth could never be filled, those people could not in a hundred years be given enough trucks or bricks or steel ingots or clothing or typewriters or canned peas or clocks or radios or nosedrops.  The American workman, by 1960, had the highest standard of living in the world...

  is as much a fiction to our post New Deal America as it was to Dick's fictional Axis dominated '60s.

Posted by Jonathan Simon on July 13, 2007 at 08:22 PM in Culture | Permalink


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Liz recently sent me a book by Jay Winters -- Dreams of Peace and Freedom -- with a very provocative and stimulating chapter on the Universal Declaration. I recommend it.

Posted by: David D Caron | Jul 19, 2007 11:36:04 AM

I, too, just read it for the first time a couple of months ago. Very thoughtful novel.

Dick definitely sanitized some aspects of Imperial Japan in order to set up his contrast with the Nazis, but there is a literary payoff, in the great scene with the gentle trade representative Mr. Tagomi and his vintage Colt .44 revolver.

A provocative reflection on the idea of Americanness, or so I read it.

Posted by: Mike O'Shea | Jul 14, 2007 6:48:30 PM

Whaft a coincidence -- I just read The Man in the High Castle a few weeks ago (picked it up in an airport). A great short read that I highly recommend. By the end my head was about to explode trying to figure out what the heck was going on ("uhh, so it's a fiction book about an alternate reality with a fiction book and an alternate reality..." -- it's even trippier than that, but I don't want to spoil it)

Posted by: Scott Moss | Jul 14, 2007 12:11:54 AM

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