"Paul Levinson's It's Real Life is a page-turning exploration into that multiverse known as rock and roll. But it is much more than a marvelous adventure narrated by a master storyteller...it is also an exquisite meditation on the very nature of alternate history." -- Jack Dann, The Fiction Writer's Guide to Alternate History

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Man in the High Castle 2-10: Timely Alternate History Par Excellence

There couldn't be a better time to see The Man in the High Castle - actually, any time would be great - but recent events make this weekend an especially chilling and resonant time to see the 10-part television series on Amazon, based on the Philip K. Dick justifiably lionized novel of the same name. The United States and the civilized world are involved in a 21st century version of a world war, this time against DAESH aka ISIS, with the latest atrocity committed in France last week; Donald Trump is calling for registration of Muslims in the United States, a move that recalls how Nazis began their persecution of Jews; and DAESH regularly releases videos which show what they expect to be doing to the world in the near future.

The Man in the High Castle debuted its pilot in January of this year, and I thought it was superb.  My review is here.   I found the rest of the season in some ways better than the pilot, in a few ways not as good, but altogether also superb and deserving of being called a masterpiece.

Since this isn't a comparative media paper, I won't get into the differences and similarities between the novel and the television series,* other than to say there indeed significant differences and similarities, I liked most but not all of the changes, and you can 100% enjoy the television series without having read the novel, if that's what you'd like to do.

Germany and Japan winning World War II and splitting up the United States remains a brilliant alternate history tableau, as is the peek into the alternate reality of that alternate reality in which we won after all - i.e., the reality which you and I inhabit.   The attention to alternate reality detail is riveting, ranging from 1962 American hit records sung in Japanese in San Francisco, to the Nazi celebration of "VA Day" as in a nightmarishly twisted 4th of July, firecrackers and all, at the Long Island home of Obergruppenführer John Smith, well played by Rufus Sewell (Alexa Davalos was also especially good as Juliana, as was Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as Tagomi - and Rupert Evans was strong as Frank, so was Luke Kleintank as Joe - there wasn't an off-key note in any performance, even the minor characters were memorable).   The palpable impact of these details is more than enough to make you suspend your disbelief and contemplate how profoundly horrendous it would have been had we lost the war, and those words don't even scratch the surface.  Any American who isn't shaken to the core by these details has ice water in his veins.

There are lots of unexpected but motivated twists in the plot, which works well on both the macro and micro levels.  The tension between Germany and Japan - worried about the Nazis now dropping the a-bomb on them - provides a plausible backdrop to the narrative.   Germany is more advanced than Japan - with not only atomic weapons but rocket passenger planes - and this flows logically out of the technological sophistication in our own reality.

But the ultimate backdrop and mystery is the source and content of the newsreels that everyone - including an aged Hitler (played by Wolf Muser, who looks an aged Peter Graves) - is intent on getting in their hands.   The source is not revealed, and the content ...

Well, it starts off showing the Allies winning the war (what the book does in the novel - I'm making just this one comparison), with the implication that ours is the more prime reality, a very cool Philip K. Dick ingredient. But the newsreels morph into a selection of alternate realities - also interesting in its own way (and disturbingly reminiscent of what Donald Trump has been saying about seeing videos of Muslims in Jersey City cheering as the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, which didn't happen in our reality).

And, in the end of The Man in the High Castle-- well, that's the part - the very end - which I thought was not too good, and not really explained, and even could be interpreted as everything we've seen in the narrative being a given character's bad dream.  But see it yourself.  Whatever you think of the ending, you'll be treated to what has set a standard for alternate reality brought to television, in the same way the novel did that for alternate reality in writing.

Hats off not only to Philip K. Dick, but Frank Spotnitz, who created the series - and presented a visual tableau in many ways evocative of Hitchcock - and Ridley Scott, one of the executive producers, who even put in an origami-making character, a nice shout-out to his other masterwork, Bladerunner.

*Ok, here's a very significant difference between the novel and the television series - which is actually the second comparison I'm making, if you've read this far in the review and are keeping track.  In the book, the alternate history which is our reality is told in a book - a secret book, like Goldstein's in 1984 (and this device in the Philip K. Dick novel was likely inspired by Orwell's).  In the television series, however, the alternate histories which start as ours are in movie reels - news reels - and this gives them a chilling verisimilitude, especially when the characters themselves begin appearing in them near the end.   Seeing yourself in a newsreel, doing things you didn't do, or didn't do yet, is the ultimately effective way of telling an alternate history narrative.   (Read here for further analysis, with spoilers.)

What if the Soviet Union had survived into the 21st century 
and Eddie and Cruisers were a real band?

more time travel and alternate history

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