This weekend, Amazon.com will release the entire first season of their television show based on one of the greatest works in the genre, The Man in the High Castle. The novel is one of the best known from Philip K. Dick, and its release helped to establish his career as a novelist and as one of the genre's more interesting authors.
Philip K. Dick was born prematurely on December 16th, 1928, in Chicago, Illinois: his twin sister, Jane, died just over a month later. Dick would later be haunted by the death of his sister. Throughout his childhood, his family moved across the country, eventually settling in California. He discovered books at a young age, reading fantasy tales such as J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, and L. Frank Baum's Oz novels, as well as magazines like Astounding Science Fiction and Amazing Stories. He taught himself to type and began writing stories of his own, eventually writing a novel before reaching high school.
In 1952, Dick published his first short story, “Beyond Lies the Wub,” in the July issue of Planet Stories, and soon after started to publish in other magazines like Imagination, If, Galaxy Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and others. He found representation through the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, and attempted to sell several books before Ace picked up his first science-fiction novel, Solar Lottery. It was published in 1955 as an Ace Double, along with Leigh Brackett's The Big Jump. Around the same time, Dick began to suffer from depression and paranoia, his symptoms exacerbated by a pair of FBI agents who came to question him (likely due to his wife Kleo's leftist activities). Despite this, Dick published a number of other novels throughout the 1950s: The Man Who Japed (1956), The World Jones Made (1956), Eye in the Sky (1957), The Cosmic Puppets (1957), Time Out of Joint (1959), Dr. Futurity (1960) and Vulcan's Hammer (1960).
By 1960, science fiction publishing entered a very rough period. Financially struggling, Dick began working in a store owned by his third wife, Anne, selling jewelry. He didn't enjoy the work, and ended up taking frequent trips to a family cabin, where he sat down to write. "I started with nothing but the name ‘Mister Tagomi’ written on a scrap of paper, no other notes," Dick said in his final interview with Rod Sterling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine. He started referring to the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination text, for help in figuring out the plot of a novel, which would eventually become The Man in the High Castle. In an interview with Vertex in 1974, he noted that at points, he used the I Ching in the same way his characters did: "In each case when they asked a question, I threw the coins and wrote the hexagram lines they got. That governed the direction of the book. Like in the end when Juliana Frink is deciding whether or not to tell Hawthorne Abensen that he is the target of assassins, the answer indicated that she should. Now if it had said not to tell him, I would have had her not go there." Dick was also aided by several years of research that he'd done at UC Berkley, reading up on German history and language, from which he incorporated details into the book.
Dick noted that relying on the I Ching was useful to a point, but was also frustrating: "That’s why the ending is so unresolved…I did throw the coins for the characters, and I did give what the coins got—the hexagrams—and I was faithful to what the I Ching actually showed, but the I Ching copped out completely, and left me stranded." He finished the manuscript, and showed it to his wife. "She said, 'It’s all right, but you’ll never make more than $750 off of it. I don’t even see where it’s worth your while to submit it to your agent,' " Dick mentions in the his interview with The Twilight Zone Magazine.
The Man in the High Castle depicts an alternate history in which the Axis Powers had triumphed during World War II. Franklin D. Roosevelt had been killed in an assassination attempt in 1933, leading to a continued depression in the United States: by the time World War II erupted, the U.S. wasn't able to defend itself against either the German or Japanese militaries. By the end of the war, Japan had conquered Western North America, while the Germans took over much of the East Coast, with only part of the Rockies dividing the two. As both Japan and Germany become dominant powers in the world, tensions between the two rise. With this as the background, several characters come into contact with a mysterious book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which depicts a world in which Germany and Japan lost the war, and glimpse the possibility that their world is not entirely what it seems.
Dick ended up selling the novel to Putnam for $1500, where it was then picked up by the Science Fiction Book Club. Upon its publication in October 1962, The Man in the High Castle earned overwhelmingly positive reviews. In 1963, it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. In 1964, Dick began writing a sequel to the novel, completing a couple of chapters, but ultimately abandoned the project.
The Man in the High Castle was one of the first examples of what would become Dick's signature style: his stories are complex, featuring regular characters altered by much larger events surrounding them, often influencing their perceptions on reality. Adam Roberts in his History of Science Fiction notes that Dick was "most celebrated for the complexity and thoroughness with which he interrogates the notion that reality might not be what it appears," while John Clute, writing for the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, notea that Dick's writing "became more and more fascinated by the various unreal worlds he created....Throughout, in this first entirely 'typical' Dick novel, an ontological insecurity—about one's physical being, about one's position in a complexly inimical world, about the ultimate nature of reality and appearance (see Perception)—abysmally interpenetrates all other concerns." This style continued with many of Dick's following books, many of which became famous only after his death in 1982, and only then due to the sheer number of adaptations of his works for other media.
In October 2010, the BBC picked up the rights to adapt the novel with Ridley Scott's production company, Scott Free Productions, and the project eventually drifted to the SyFy channel in 2013. Neither channel picked up the series, but in 2014, Amazon Studios picked up the show and filmed the pilot episode. They released it for an open vote from viewers in early 2015. According to Amazon Studios VP Roy Price, the pilot was the most watched episode that the company had produced, and a month later, they green lit the show for a first season of 10 episodes. The story that helped create Dick's career will find a new audience, who will almost assuredly be drawn in to his alternate world.