Nazi Germany and Japan won the Second World War. The USA is divided into three: the west coast a puppet state controlled by the Japanese, the east coast a Nazi dominion and a central buffer zone. (One's first impression is that the buffer zone is poor and down at heel but later in the novel it appears quite affluent and it is difficult to understand why all the miserable people in the West don't move to it.) Most of the action takes place in San Francisco. The characters are all interconnected although Juliana never meets any of the others (she was once married to Frank).
A book has been published in this dystopian world which explores the what-if future had the Allies won WWII. This book is subversive (banned in Nazi controlled areas) but a cult classic. Perhaps one of the themes of this book is an exploration of what is reality (later another character is transported into a different reality San Francisco).
The Bible in San Francisco, however, is the I Ching. A number of the characters base the decisions they make in their lives on their interpretations of the commentaries on the patterns they obtain by throwing coins, or yarrow stalks. Again, Dick seems to be suggesting that there are multiple different future realities and they can be accessed by the random tossing of coins or yarrow stalks. Perhaps here he is exploring the Many Worlds hypothesis of quantum physics.
A third theme is racism. The Nazis have exterminated the Jews and most of the blacks in Africa. In San Francisco, the whites feel inadequate compared the the Japanese although they try to copy their behaviour and their I Ching and they even think like Japanese: their interior monologues are stilted and light on articles to sound more like Japanese speech: eg, "Stupid inability on their part to grasp alien tongue .... But such is way it goes." But this sometimes got in the way of the fluent reading of the book.
I was a bit ambivalent about the racism because I felt that Dick was not above racist stereotyping. There are times when you might feel his racism is ironic, such as when he describes Jews ("ugly. Large pores. Big nose.") and "drunken, dull-witted poles". But the Nazis are the baddies and there is no irony evident when "He felt, strongly, for a moment, the unbalanced quality, the psychotic streak, in the German mind." Not just Nazi mind but German mind.
I was not very happy with the use of interior monologue. There were a lot of occasions when you were told what the character was thinking, sometimes almost as in a rather stilted and jerky stream of consciousness, rather than deducing their thoughts from their dialogue and their actions. Perhaps because of this, I found many of the characters flat.
One of the problems with the genre is that Dick needs to spend a lot of time explaining the background. There are a lot of details; for example. we learn that Hitler went insane, that Roosevelt was assassinated, that Churchill lost power after the Nazis captured Malta. Many of these details are irrelevant. Had Dick sketched out a few broad outlines, the reader would have been happy filling the rest of the detail in themselves.
The plot bumps along but nothing is properly resolved. Presumably Dick was deliberately leaving the ending open so that every reader could consult the I Ching and construct their own version of the future.
I don't think this is written well. For it to be a Penguin Modern Classic astounds me. To call it "one of the very best science fiction novels ever published" is ridiculous: War of the Worlds, Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos, Stranger in a Strange Land, Dhalgren, Never Let Me Go, Brave New World, 1984, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea are just a few of the books that knock Dick's into a cocked hat.
Unsatisfying. September 2013; 249 pages
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57