I've just read Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle for the first time - indeed it's my first encounter with Dick on the page. It's no spoiler to say the novel is set in an alternate 1962, where Germany and Japan won the Second World War and have divided what was once the USA between them.
Alternative versions of our own world and its history create a challenge. Not only does the author have to show us the world he's created, he also has to deal with our existing knowledge of what really happened, however uninformed that might be. As readers, we have to unlearn what we have learned, navigating our way through the constant tension between what we know about the real outcome of the war and what happened in Dick's universe. Dick handles his alternate reality beautifully, letting the details emerge through conversation between his characters and their internal monologue. There are no jarring, 'Explain to me again how the Nazis won the war?' moments.
Of course, this is half the joy of alternate histories, whether it's The Man in the High Castle, His Dark Materials, or any one of tons of fantasy/ steampunk/ werewolf novels. We see our world reflected back at us, follows people like us, finding a route through societies distorted by this mirror. Dick's alternative history sustains the book's big themes about where we place our faith and and how much control we can exert on our own lives. But Dick doesn't stop there. The narrative features a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Banned by the Nazis but tolerated by the Japanese, this novel-within-the-novel tells a story set in a world where the USA and Great Britain won the war. Resisting the temptation to use The Grasshopper to portray what actually happened in our reality - to loop back from the novel's alternative world into our own, to make our world the fiction - the author instead offers an alternative-alternative. The winners might be the same as our world but the reasons for that victory and its outcomes are very different - 'Britain wins... US dwindles.' Dick plays beautifully on these wheels within wheels, with extracts from The Grasshopper that comment on the book you hold in your hands:
How that man can write, he thought. Completely carried me away. Real. Fall of Berlin to the British, as vivid as if it had actually taken place. Brrr. He shivered.
Amazing the power of fiction, even cheap popular fiction, to evoke.
I loved this. Dick doesn't smack you over the head with his cleverness - he's too caught up in his own objectives - but he lets these elements emerge naturally. Still, some elements of The Man in the High Castle left me cold. It was intellectually engaging, particularly that gleeful meta-textuality, yet I found it emotionally unsatisfying. Like a lot of high-concept science fiction, it seemed more like an exercise in intellectual or philosophical exploration. Much of the dialogue is rather flat and some characters struggle beyond two dimensions but in way that's not the point. Dick's meta-textual games are a way to explore how history moves people, forces us to make choices or, faced with a world of awful complexity, to relinquish responsibility and merely follow orders, whether those orders come from our superiors or from consulting the I Ching. There are few resolutions here. Dick uses his alternative world to argue that reality is too complex for these binaries, even as his characters long for the simplicity of 'cheap popular fiction.'
On some other world, possibly it is different. Better. There are clear good and evil alternatives. Not these obscure admixtures, these blends, with no proper tool by which to untangle the components.
There are too many admixtures, too many worlds to find a simple route through. We may see ourselves as complex individuals but that doesn't mean we have existential control. And here's the lesson for those of us who invent our own worlds. Inventing a world, even an alternate of our own, brings with it the lure of a simplistic moral landscape. We can make the goodies good and the baddies bad, personifications of extremes, of the 'clear good and evil alternatives' where the choices are clear even if carrying them through is an ordeal. Just because we're writing about magic swords and fire-breathing dragons doesn't mean we can dispense with the complexity of human experience. We might detail every last inch of our invented world but if its inhabitants are not truthful human beings, humans formed by their world, finding their way, then what story are we telling? Is the novel just an excuse for showing off our world building expertise? Or are we doing what Philip K Dick does and using this alternate reality to argue something more profound?