Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Reviewing the First Season of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle

I’ll open this review by saying that I liked Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. While not a one-to-one retelling of the landmark 1963 Philip K. Dick novel it’s based on, it’s a very faithful but loose adaption. I’ll explain this in a minute. The show’s producers, Ridley Scott and Frank Spotnitz have succeeded in painstakingly creating a realistic and by turns, terrifying world where the Axis won the Second World War. It’s a monumental work.

As I said, while the series is faithful to the spirit of Dick’s novel, it a well-done but, again, loose adaption. The novel and the series both take place in 1962 in an alternate America that some 15 years previously had surrendered to Germany and Japan. The Axis powers divided the country into three parts: The Japanese – dominated Pacific States of America on the west coast, the Nazi- ruled rump of the United States on the east coast, leaving the Rocky Mountain States, which serve as a neutral buffer between them. As in the novel, in the series, a cold war exists between the two former Axis partners (Italy doesn’t seem to rate a mention). Most of the novel takes place in the Pacific States of America and in the Rocky Mountain States. In the series, the action is spread across equally America, giving us an interesting chance to see life in America under Nazi control. In the series there is mounting concern over what might happen once Hitler who were are told has Parkinson’s disease, finally dies, which mirrors a similar plot element in the novel. 

Characters from the novel, such as Robert Childran and Nobusuke Tagomi are present. Some, such as Julina Frink, have had their roles revised extensively. A whole slate of new characters has also been added, including SS Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith, who is in charge of fighting the Resistance in the east, and The Marshal, a bounty hunter who stalks the neutral zone. I can’t decide whether the latter character comes out of a Stephen King novel or a Sergio Leone western. I enjoyed the fact that the characters are not black-and-white stick figures, but are, by and large, well-fleshed out individuals who struggle to get by just like the rest of us. I even found myself feeling for Obergruppenfurher Smith at one point, which says a lot.   

While the original novel was more of a meditative piece, television demands some kind of conflict, and so, the Resistance – never mentioned in the book – is given prominence in the series.  Another point of difference between the novel and the series – I’m not knocking the series mind you – is that The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the book within Dick’s book, which showed that the Axis had really lost the war, has become a series of newsreels that, in the spirit of Dick’s book –  still show a world, but not necessarily ours – where the Allies won the war.  Perhaps because television is a visual medium, this can be both again expected and forgiven.  But interestingly, as of the end of the first season, we have not met the titular man in the high castle and the author of Grasshopper, Hawthorne Abendsen. Or have we? 

I can assure you that even if you had never read the original book, you would still enjoy the television series. If you’ve read the novel, you'll find this, as I said, a faithful adaption of a masterwork of the genre.  In doing this, the producers have created a masterwork of their own. 

Like the best of the alt-hist genre, The Man in the High Castle holds a fun-house mirror up to our own imperfect world. After finishing my binge watching of the series, I found myself wondering if indeed we did live in that best of all possible worlds. Maybe we do. We should count ourselves lucky.

As of this writing, a second season of ten episodes of The Man in the High Castle is in production, and is due to premiere on Amazon Prime December 16th, 2016. If anything, we can expect the second season to cast a wider net in exploring its alternate universe and introduce some new characters.  Hopefully, sometime during the next few months, I’ll be able to review it for you.

What’s Next?

I’m halfway through reading Harry Turtledove’s first book in paperback of his The Hot War series, Bombs Away – I hope to have a review for you soon. I can report, that so far, I’m enjoying it. I’ll also have forthcoming reviews on Peter Tieryas’s United States of Japan and Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long Utopia.

Meanwhile, you can help out a poor unemployed writer by purchasing Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.

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