Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle (1962)
Philip K. Dick is generally classified as a “sic-fi” writer, but this book, beyond a few references to Mars rockets, doesn’t have a lot of the conventional trappings of science fiction. It’s really an “alternate history” – a novel that imagines the United States of the 1960s as it might have been if the Allies had lost the Second World War. In Dick’s vision, Nazi Germany and Japan divided the defeated United States between them: the Nazis control the eastern U.S., while the Japanese control the west coast. In between are the so-called “Rocky Mountain States,” controlled by neither Japan nor Germany, where some approximation of pre-War American life is able to continue.
This set-up, of course, leaves one burning question in the mind of every reader of Dick’s novel…
What About Canada?
There are three references to Canada spread over the course of the novel, and each one, to my reading at least, gives a slightly different view of the fate of our country in Dick’s alternate future.
As background to this reference: since winning the war and taking over the west coast, the Japanese have become obsessed with “Americana,” especially objects of American culture from before the war, such as Civil-War-era pistols, Mickey Mouse watches, and so on. In response, a large counterfeiting industry has sprung up, which mass-produces replicas of genuine Americana to sell to wealthy Japanese collectors. Wyndam-Matson owns one such counterfeit factory, and in this scene he is attempting to seduce a young woman, before getting sidetracked into a conversation about the meaning of a “genuine” artifact versus a fake. He has just presented her with two seemingly identical cigarette lighters and told her one of them is the one FDR had in his pocket when he was assassinated:
“Gee,” said the girl, awed. “Is that really true? That he had one of these on him that day?”
“Sure. And I know which it is. You see my point. It’s all a big racket; they’re playing it on themselves. I mean, a gun goes through a famous battle, like the Meuse-Argonne, and it’s the same as if it hadn’t, unless you know. It’s in here.” He tapped his head. “In the mind, not the gun. I used to be a collector. In fact, that’s how I got into this business. I collected stamps. Early British colonies.”
The girl now stood at the window, her arms folded, gazing out at the lights of downtown San Francisco. “My mother and dad used to say we wouldn’t have lost the war if he had lived,” she said.
“Okay,” Wyndam-Matson went on. “Now suppose say last year the Canadian Government or somebody, anybody, finds the plates from which some old stamp was printed. And the ink. And a supply of -”
“I don’t believe either of those two lighters belonged to Franklin Roosevelt,” the girl said.
Wyndam-Matson giggled. “That’s my point! I’d have to prove it to you with some sort of document. A paper of authenticity. And so it’s all a fake, a mass delusion. The paper proves its worth, not the object itself!” (66)
As you can see, the characters are speaking at cross-purposes: he wants to give his example about stamps, whereas she is more interested in the authenticity of Roosevelt’s lighter. As a result, the thought regarding the Canadian stamps is never completed, though you can see more or less where it was going.
The first thing we notice is that the reference to “the Canadian Government” comes up in the context of stamps from the “early British colonies.” This ties Canada back to the more distant past: not just before the Second World War, but to the colonial period, when Canada was simply a foreign possession controlled by Great Britain. (We might, if we tried, convince ourselves that we detected an almost wistful note here, as if Wyndam-Matson missed the days when Britain was a colonial power rather than Nazi Germany – though that would be an odd thought for an American, given their revolutionary history.)
And then come the words “last year.” If the Canadian government could have found the plates for an old stamp last year, that indicates that in the world of the novel, the Canadian government still exists in some form. This could, admittedly, be some sort of Nazi puppet state, but the reference at least raises the possibility that Canada has somehow managed to remain an independent nation – either through resistance to Nazi Germany, or by virtue of simply being too insignificant for the Germans or the Japanese to bother about.
The passage is too vague to reach a definite conclusion, but Canada appears in a similar light again.
A Haven for Hope
The second reference comes in the thoughts of Juliana, a character who lives in the Rocky Mountain States, on the periphery of German and Japanese influence; “Hope” means, not the thing with feathers, but the comedian Bob Hope:
Maybe that’s it, she thought as she put the magazine back on the rack. The Nazis have no sense of humor, so why should they want television? Anyhow, they killed most of the really great comedians. Because most of them were Jewish. In fact, she realized, they killed off most of the entertainment field. I wonder how Hope gets away with what he says. Of course, he has to broadcast from Canada. And it’s a little freer up there. But Hope really says things. Like the joke about Goring…the one where Goring buys Rome and has it shipped to his mountain retreat and then set up again. And revives Christianity so his pet lions will have something to – (80)
The phrase “a little freer up there” develops even further what seemed to be the implication of the Wyndam-Matson passage: that Canada remains an independent nation that has somehow kept itself outside the realm of Nazi influence, at least to the extent that Bob Hope can get away with saying things there that he could not say in the U.S. (“has to” makes clear that what he is saying from Canada would not be tolerated in the U.S.). In a sense, then, Canada plays a role in whatever resistance continues in the U.S.: by providing a safe place for Hope to broadcast, Canada ensures that at least some information critical of the Nazis makes its way into the U.S. to be heard by American citizens.
And yet the third reference to Canada undermines this; in this scene, Reiss, a German consul in San Francisco, receives a phone call from the new Reichschancellor:
An unfamiliar voice said, “Consul, this is the Ausland Fernsprechamt at Nova Scotia. Transatlantic telephone call for you from Berlin, urgent.”
“All right,” Reiss said.
“Just a moment, Consul.” Faint static, crackles. Then another voice, a woman operator. “Kanzlei.”
“Yes, this is Ausland Fernsprechamt at Nova Scotia. Call for the Reichs Consul H. Reiss, San Francisco; I have the consul on the line.”
“Hold on.” A long pause, during which Reiss continued, with one hand, to inspect his mail. Kreuz vom Meere watched slackly. “Herr Konsul, sorry to take your time.” A man’s voice. The blood in Reiss’s veins instantly stopped its motion. Baritone, cultivated, rolling-out-smooth voice familiar to Reiss. “This is Doktor Goebbels.”
“Yes, Kanzler.” (179-80)
Here we see that, when high-ranking Nazis need to make transatlantic phone calls, they do so through some sort of switchboard (“Ausland Fernsprechamt” means something along the lines of “foreign telephone exchange”) located in Nova Scotia, which indicates that that part of Canada, at least, is firmly under Nazi control. Goebbels would hardly be patching his phone calls through a country that was not controlled by Germany.
Maybe We Just Don’t Matter That Much
Overall, I think it’s fair to say the references to Canada in The Man in the High Castle present conflicting images of our country, particularly the second and third, where we appear first as a bastion of safety for anti-Nazi Americans like Bob Hope, and then as simply a convenient location through which the Nazis route their long distance phone calls. Perhaps we could try to convince ourselves that the eastern seaboard (Nova Scotia) is under Nazi control, but that the central part of Canada is still free (or “freer”), and that it is from here that Hope makes his broadcasts. But there’s no indication in the novel that that’s the case … and indeed, the sketchiness of the references to Canada raises another, slightly gloomier possibility, which I think we must confront: that the author just isn’t that interested in Canada.
Dick’s novel, after all, is not about how the Allied loss of World War Two affected Canada; it’s about what would have happened to the U.S. if the Allies had lost, and even then, it’s almost exclusively a vision of California under Japanese control – even the Nazis are largely peripheral. Given that, I think the most reasonable conclusion we could reach is that Dick’s portrayal of Canada changes to suit events at different points in his novel: when he needs somewhere for Bob Hope to be broadcasting his anti-Nazi jokes, he thinks of Canada; when he’s trying to imagine where a phone call from Germany would come in, he thinks of Nova Scotia; but there’s no reason to think that he expended any effort on trying to resolve the apparent contradiction between these two references, or even that he was aware of it.
Canada just wasn’t that important to him.
Since “prestige television” seems to be the dominant cultural form of the moment – you can’t go online without being bombarded by recaps of last night’s episode of this or that – it’s not especially surprising that The Man in the High Castle (like another book we looked at recently) has been made into a television series. I couldn’t find a trailer for the show as a whole (I confess I didn’t look that hard), but here’s a scene:
Just doing my part to keep you up to date with the new novel, serialized television. (I wonder if the TV version mentions Canada?)