NYRoB on PKD’s The Man in the High Castle

I haven’t picked up an issue of THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS in many years. On the one hand, it has been characterized in my reading life by the Harlan Ellison story, “The New York Review of Bird”, which dismissed and excoriated it as being snobby and up-tight; on the other hand, I do occasionally see references to some essay or review from it that covers some issue of interest to me; its contents are always very intellectual and comprehensive. I bought an issue a few weeks ago at the newsstand in Alameda and flipped through it this afternoon, and as I suspected, its contents are almost entirely about politics, culture, and art, with little or nothing about the bigger issues. (Which I generally am concerned with in this blog.)

(I do see that according to the online TOC of the Feb 25th issue, here, there seems to be a comprehensive piece by Tamsin Shaw covering numerous books about current psychological takes on various issues, including books by Jonathan Haidt, Steven Pinker, and Joshua Green, which are on my shelves. That I would read.)

So I bought the Jan. 14th issue a few weeks ago, and first of all, my impression is all the full-page ads from mostly university presses about the books they have published… books you don’t see advertised anywhere else, let alone featured on Amazon or stacked on the front tables of the few physical bookstores you might visit.

Aside from that: there is one piece of interest: a review by Adam Kirsch of the Amazon TV series The Man in the High Castle. The NYRB website offers only the beginning of the piece to nonsubscribers. I will offer a few passages quotes below.

Despite the recognition by Gary K. Wolfe in his recent lecture series about SF, that mainstream cultural magazines and reviews have mostly gotten over their snobbishness about SF, this Adam Kirsch essay evokes some familiar, snobbish themes. Kirsch begins by citing a NYT Magazine readers’ poll from last October about killing the infant Hitler, and describes the Twitter response as a “mockery of the entire idea”, and that the notion of “the idea of changing history” is “seen as a not quite respectable fantasy”, which is a blend of “fascination and condescension”; tales about alternate history “have been regarded as mere genre fiction — pulp sci-fi or mysteries”.

He mentions the works by Robert Harris and Len Deighton, Philip Roth and Michael Chabon, and then turns to the Philip K. Dick book, which — in a turn — he describes as a “masterpiece”, and then goes on with seemingly informed and insightful comparisons between the book and this TV miniseires. (I say “seemingly” because I haven’t watched the TV version.)

He charactizes the novel as “mainly internal — the story of how (white) Americans, so used to independence and supremacy, learn to think of themselves as subservient and second-rate”, while the TV series “focuses on resistance, which means that the action is mainly external”. And, “The result is that the TV version of The Man in the High Castle is much more conventional and melodramatic than the book it is based on, even as the two share many characters and scenes”.

Kirsch goes on to consider the historical variations, inside or outside of the book:

But ours is also a world in which the Holocaust took place and the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The happy ending of World War II was a forty-four-year cold war in which the world stood constantly at the brink of nuclear annihilation. Perhaps, Dick leads us to wonder, we see true history only because it is the one we are used to. Seen from another perspective, we ourselves inhabit what be called “bad history”– a reality in which things occurred that ought not, by any standard of sanity and justice, to have taken place.

So: this is a very insightful essay, despite the initial dismissive remarks about genre. I don’t think I’ll subscribe to NYRoB just now, but I will look at it on the newsstand (where I buy my fresh, unmolested by USPS copies of Asimov’s and Analog every five weeks), to see if there is something of interest, and when I do, will report about it here.

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