The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle is Amazon's latest streaming video production (and for many, I suspect, its only video production that's garnered interest), and it's a great show—based on one of Philip K. Dick's novellas and produced by Frank Spotnitz of X-Files fame. I'm both deeply curious to learn how it ends, and worried that it remains faithful to the book's length and will end after 12 episodes. (I've not read the book.) The series takes place in an alternate reality where Nazi Germany dropped the atomic bomb on Washington D.C. and ultimately won the war. In the aftermath, the Axis Powers split the continent, with Japan gaining control over the west coast and Germany seizing the east. (The very middle of the continent is a neutral zone evocative of the Wild West.) All of this makes for compelling viewing, and that's before you get to the haunting, hypnotic presence of Obergruppenführer John Smith—what juxtaposition!—played by actor Rufus Sewell, who brings to the role a subtle intensity not seen on film since Al Pacino in the 1970s.

This is a weird thing to type, but as of the season's midpoint, one of the underlying tensions of the plot involves the health of Adolf Hitler. He's not even a character in the show, really, glimpsed only for seconds at a time on television and posters, and yet he is central to the story. Everyone fears that if Hitler dies, Himmler or Goebbels will ascend to power and mount an atomic war against Japan. In other words, the show in a discomfortingly plausible way makes Hitler—the most evil human being to ever live—the safe choice. The one you want to stay in power. The sane one of the group. To be sure, his America is a thoroughly horrible place, and Nazi Germany's abhorrent race laws and disregard for, well, everything good, remain in full force. But life has gone on in America. People have jobs, watch television, and go to diners. And here we are, hoping Hitler holds on a little longer so that none of that is lost. It's unsettling in true Philip K. Dick fashion.

The show feels especially relevant with the nightmarish situation in Syria unfolding around us. That, of course, is a hallmark of great science fiction, allowing us to find some understanding of the world in which we live. Nonfiction, meanwhile, provides fuel for such explorations, and World War II has proven to be a kind of literary uranium. If for no other reason, I hope historians never finish writing about the Second World War. There should always be a little more to say about the depravity of which man is capable, and the courage necessary to defeat it. Things worked out well enough in the end, but they didn't have to, and books come out every year with new details revealing how close we came to catastrophe, and how civilization was brought back from the brink. (Operation Long Jump and Church of Spies are the two most recent that I have read. One reveals Hitler's very real plot to kill Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill at the same time. The other reveals Pope Pius XII's very real plot to kill Hitler.)

In the mean time, I will continue to pace my viewings of The Man in the High Castle, and continue to dream about the world we were spared. That's science fiction. As Philip K. Dick wrote in 1980: "It's not just 'What if—'. It's 'My God, what if—.'"

(Image credit: Amazon)