The novel asks the question: What if the Axis had won World War II? In that world Joe Zangara succeeded in his assassination attempt on FDR and the US stayed out of the conflict for too long. The result is Europe falling to the Nazis, opening the door open to an Axis conquest of the world. Fifteen years later the US is divided with the Pacific Coast states under Japanese rule, and the East Coast under Germany, while border states like Colorado and Wyoming fall into a gray area.
As the novel begins, the Nazi Führer Bormann dies, initiating an internal power struggle between Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring and others who wish to succeed him as Reichskanzler. This event creates ripples across the world. The story weaves together several loosely connected characters who bounce around on those ripples. All but two of the fifteen chapters are broken into sections, usually so that the action can move from one character to another.
There are three main paths paths of characters, loosely intertwined but strongly interdependent. Frank Frink, an ironsmith in San Francisco, loses his temper and is fired, and subsequently tries to start a new business making modern-American jewelry. Frink, a Jew in hiding from the Nazis, has the skills -- he previously created fake antique pistols as a side-job for his employer -- but doesn’t know how to market this new jewelry to the Japanese, who are the only customers with money. His main market is through R. Childan’s antique store where his forged guns were also sold. Robert Childan is an antiques dealer who specializes in selling pre-war Americana to young upwardly mobile Japanese, and is especially distraught when he learns from a mysterious customer that much of his inventory may be fakes.
And the final path is that of Frink's ex-wife Juliana Frink who meets an Italian ex-military turned truck driver and decides to ride with him to visit Denver. On the way they discuss Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” a science-fiction novel portraying the alternate world if the Allies had won World War II, and they ultimately decide to pay him a visit at his house in Wyoming.
Many of the characters are pretending to be something else. While each appears as one thing: a Gentile, a Swedish businessman, a truck driver, an honest salesperson, or an elderly tourist, reality almost always brings treachery. Even Childan has pretended to be subservient to the Japanese for so long that he doesn't realize he has given up. He has been false for so long that he thinks it is true, just like the antiques in Childan's shop are replicas of authentic pieces, yet still have the authentic craftsmanship.
This is Dick’s ninth published novel, but he seems to pull out all the stops in this one to explore the multiple ways of false reality. The most literal take on this theme are the fake and forged antiques found in Childan’s shop. A couple years later, in “Now Wait For Last Year,” Dick creates a character that’s an expert in pre-WWII Americana who’s hired to purchase authentic antiques by a millionaire who wants to recreate his childhood. In MITHC there are two key passages discussing fakes and forgeries. The first is when the stranger visits Childan’s store.
Laying down a leather and felt box he said, "Here is exceptional Colt .44 of 1860." He opened the box. "Black powder and ball. This issued to U. S. Army Boys in blue carried these into for instance Second Bull Run."The second, however, calls into question whether it matters if the item is true or false.
For a considerable time the man examined the Colt .44. Then, lifting his eyes, he said calmly, "Sir, this is an imitation."
"Eh?" Childan said, not comprehending.
"This piece is no older than six months. Sir, your offering is a fake. I am cast into gloom. But see. The wood here. Artificially aged by an acid chemical. What a shame." He laid the gun down.
Childan picked the gun up and stood holding it between his hands. He could think of nothing to say. Turning the gun over and over, he at last said, "It can't be."
"An imitation of the authentic historic gun. Nothing more. I am afraid, sir, you have been deceived. Perhaps by some unscrupulous churl. You must report this to the San Francisco police." The man bowed. "It grieves me. You may have other imitations, too, in your shop. Is it possible, sir, that you, the owner, dealer, in such items, cannot distinguish the forgeries from the real?"
"Well, I'll tell you," he said. "This whole damn historicity business is nonsense. Those Japs are bats. I'll prove it." Getting up, he hurried into his study, returned at once with two cigarette lighters which he set down on the coffee table. "Look at these. Look the same, don't they? Well, listen. One has historicity in it." He grinned at her. "Pick them up. Go ahead. One's worth, oh, maybe forty or fifty thousand dollars on the collectors' market."Of course he only knows which is the one with “historicity” because it has a scratch on one side. Other than that, the two lighters are equal. Dick even seems to twist reality again when Tagomi uses a forged antique gun to fight off some attackers. In the end, does it matter if the gun is authentic as long as it can shoot?
The girl gingerly picked up the two lighters and examined them.
"Don't you feel it?" he kidded her. "The historicity?"
She said, "What is ‘historicity'?"
"When a thing has history in it. Listen. One of those two Zippo lighters was in Franklin D. Roosevelt's pocket when he was assassinated. And one wasn't. One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. As much as any object ever had. And one has nothing. Can you feel it?" He nudged her. "You can't. You can't tell which is which. There's no ‘mystical plasmic presence,' no ‘aura' around it."
"Gee," the girl said, awed. "Is that really true? That he had one of those on him that day?"
"Sure. And I know which it is.
Another way that Dick plays with reality is through false identities. The best example of this in Dick’s writing is in “A Scanner Darkly” where the lead character wears a scramble suit that hides his identity even to his employers. Through a strange twist of fate, he’s assigned to investigate himself because he has been acting suspiciously. In MITHC the scenario isn’t as extreme, but there’s a strong undercurrent of self-deception in many of the characters.
Robert Childan is living a lie by thinking he can sell pieces of America to the Japanese invaders and make a living. He discovers his pieces are fake, so what is he selling? Is it America, or the idea of America? As we see in the dinner scene the young Japanese couple don’t respect him when he acts subservient to them, and this is because they want the idea of America -- not someone who’s trying to imitate the Japanese manner. But, later, they don’t understand him either when he decides to be true to his American heritage and begins selling modern American jewelry. Among all the characters, I think the two who grow the most are Tagomi, who sees the world of “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy”, and Childan, who decides to take a chance on an idea and an innovation. I guess that’s what Dick must have considered the best of the American Dream.
Martin Baynes is deceptive on purpose. He’s a spy, bringing an urgent message. But even then he’s not very covert. Nearly everyone he encounters, from the passenger on the rocket from Sweden, to Tagomi in the San Francisco office, to the local Nazi police, recognizes him as a spy. By the time he delivers his message no one considers him to be a Swedish businessman. Unfortunately, Baynes only has one level: his secret message. Once that has been delivered he loses most of his depth. He assists in a shootout, and then fades off.
Hawthorne Abendsen, the so-called “Man in the High Castle,” is an interesting character, but we don’t see much of him until the end. When we finally see his house we learn that he doesn’t live in a castle any more, so that’s a lie. Also, his story is a fiction in three ways: 1) It’s a novel in a novel, but 2) we, the readers, know there is no actual complete book called “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy”, and 3) Abensen believes his book is fiction, but when they consult the I Ching it says that it’s reality. So, Dick has set up a sort of ping pong game of realities.
Aside from the themes, TMITHC is science fiction, so Dick literally plays with reality in the scope of the book, but does it with tact. In the novel Joe Zangara succeeded in his attempt to assassinate FDR, but the premise of "Grasshopper" is that he failed, just like he did in our world. In the novel “Grasshopper” provides some sort of hope for the people of the US. This hope sparks Frink’s dream to create modern American art, which comes to infect Childan as well. They stop looking to the past, and look to the future, and at this point the Tagomi sees the break in the world.
TMITHC also showcases two of Dick’s recurring topics. He seems to be infatuated with re-fighting and reimagining World War II. Many of his books include the remnants of Nazi Germany and German characters such as Krupp und Sohne or Dr. Blutgeld. In this book the Nazis here are occasionally stereotyped, shown as being insane, racially interbred, obsessive compulsive, but I think he’s trying to understand how they came to power. He revisits this idea in “The Simulacra”, “The Unteleported Man”, “Dr. Bloodmoney” and other books. I see Dick’s infatuation with the Nazis, particularly Adolf Hitler, to be hand in hand with returning to the theme of a cult leader such as Jones, Der Alte, or Yancy in “The Penultimate Truth.”
And the I Ching plays a large part in this story. It used by many of the characters including Tagomi and Frank Frink, but in a foreword Dick says he consulted it many times when creating the story itself. I’ve wondered in other reviews whether Dick used the I Ching to create names, such as “Pretty Blue Fox” or “Green Peach Hat”.
So, would TMITHC would make a good movie? As it stands, I’d have to say, not really. The story doesn't easily translate to a studio blockbuster, but more like a Robert Altman film. But it makes an excellent novel. The plot and characters go hand in hand, like a tablecloth draped over a table, or a shroud over a face.
My opinion on Dick’s conclusion is that even if the Axis had won WWII, it would not have ended the war. It would have continued, on a smaller scale. The American urge to create and recreate itself would fight against any totalitarian or fascist state. The creativity put into the jewelry by Frink and McCarthy is described by Paul Kasouras as “wu.” It’s this wu which briefly transports Tagomi to the alternate San Francisco where the Allies defeated Germany and Japan. Through the piece of jewelry he is shown that possibility, a world which isn’t better for him, but impresses on him the power of the American Dream and of the American people.