Monday, February 02, 2015

Is Detectives Beyond Borders turning into a Dickhead? plus another question for readers

I've never had much patience for science fiction, fantasy, or alternative history, and the few books in those fields that I've tried include some highly regarded titles. I generally find that once I get the (exceedingly) high concept early on, I keep waiting for the concept to turn into a story, and it never does.

But I have a feeling I may like Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle better. Its concept is high, and therefore simple: The Axis powers have won the Second World War, and Japan and Germany have divided up the former United States, ruling them as puppet territories. But already in the first chapter, Dick begins to have sly, subversive fun with the concept: An American named Robert Childan sells American antiques, offered as ethnic exotica much as Asian art is peddled to non-Asians in the real world.

Childan speaks in clipped cadences, something like the way Asian characters stereotypically do in mid-century American popular fiction. (The Man in the High Castle appeared in 1962.) He even bows obsequiously a time or two. And, most daring of all, Dick reverses in one paragraph every social, racial, and power stereotype you can think of about about sexual dynamics between men and women in which one partner is of Western descent and the other from the East:
“But it was known,” thinks Childan, “relations between Japanese and yanks, although generally it was between a Japanese man and yank woman. This . . . he quailed at the idea. And she was married. He whipped his mind away from the pageant of his involuntary thoughts and began busily opening the morning’s mail.”
I’ve read just chapter, but Dick has already demonstrated that he can go beyond the concept and explore what that concept means for his characters. It’s a hell of a start.

Now, your turn: What are your favorite fantasy, science fiction, or alternate-history novels and stories, especially if that is not your usual reading? Why do you like those novels for stories?

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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12 Comments:

Blogger John McFetridge said...

Does James Ellroy count as alternative history?

And, something came up a while ago and got me wondering, if Quebec had remained a French colony would it have fought a war of independence in the 1950s and 60s like Algeria?

February 02, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

James Ellroy is something like fantasy, yes. I'm not sure I'd call them alternate history, though, because he's a lot more interested in warped characters than he is in history or politics, I think.

I don't know that Quebec would have fought a war in the Algerian manner. For one thing, it would not have been flanked by potentially sympathetic neighbors, the way Algeria was by Tunisia and Morocco. For another, France would presumably not have made the decision to try to administer Quebec as part of metropolitan France rather than as a colony. Doing so with Algeria did not work out too well.

February 02, 2015  
Blogger Rick Ollerman said...

I like Len Deighton's "SS-GB" where the story takes place in a London after Great Britain falls to the Nazis in World War II. It's like an every day sort of life, but under the kind of dangerous government of Hitler's cronies. Kind of similar to Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther series, though only superficially: Deighton's vision is much quieter, more mundane if that's a good word, and all the more sinister for the sort of repressed evil atmosphere.

I haven't read Dick's "The Man in the High Castle" but it won a Hugo and the pilot that's available for viewing on Amazon's Originals as a prospective series seems to be the best of that current lot. They're giving us "Bosch" from last year, "High Castle" might be in the future.

February 02, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mundane makes sense especially by comparison with Philip Kerr's wide-cracking Gunther. That everday-life aspect seems like it will be one strong current (among many) of Dick's book.

February 02, 2015  
Anonymous Jim Benn said...

I read the Classic Comic Book of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court when I was a kid (I was the literary type, obviously). It actually made such an impression on me that I can still see some of the artwork. The whole idea intrigued me. As for The Man in the High Castle, I did read it decades ago and enjoyed it - but not enough to recall how things worked out. I did watch the Amazon pilot and thought it dreary, depressing, and uninteresting. Some of the events were unbelievable even for an alt-history piece.

February 03, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Jim, and you even wound up living in Connecticut (Did you grow up there?).

I'm not deep enough into The Man in the High Castle to judge the plausibility of the events. But the first chapter is enough to show that Dick thinks about his subject deeply, about how his scenario would affect characters on a micro and not just a macro scale. It's an impressive performance and, in the matter of the American taking on behavior and attitudes more stereotypically associated with Japanese people, pretty amusing, and even darkly funny. I'd call it one of the more impressive chapters I've read in a while.

February 03, 2015  
Anonymous Jim Benn said...

Yes, I did - wonder if that's what attracted me to the book? I do recall being very impressed by the book; probably read it in college. I'll have to revisit it - if only to expunge the memory of the Amazon version. Did anyone find it of interest?

February 03, 2015  
Anonymous Mary Beth said...

Lady Antonia Fraser comes to mind for me. Carrying around her Mary Queen of Scots was like toting around a 4 pound dumbbell while I read it. I'm not sure I ever finished it, but I do remember her history read like fiction. Was she one of the first to put words in the mouth of historical characters?

February 04, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Shakespeare put words into the mouths of historical characters, and the ancient Greek historians did it all the time. But I don't know who the pioneers of modern-day historical fiction were.

I did read that alternate-history fiction did not appear until just a few years before Dick's book appeared in 1982.

February 04, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Jim: Amazon version of The Man in the High Castle, or of A Connecticut Yankee?

February 04, 2015  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I've read a lot of these books and I'm working on a little blogpiece primer on the good and the bad. If I ever finish it I'll send you a link. High Castle is generally in the good although its quite weird and a little static. SSGB, Fatherland, The Plot Against America are all ok but High Castle was the first, strangest and probaby still the best.

John

Ellroy definitely counts as AH. What if the mob had killed JFK...

February 05, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I once took an online writing class from a woman who I think won an Edgar for a novel called Pacific Empire. I have not read the book, but I'll give you a spoiler: Japan won World War II.

If your piece discusses what makes for good alternate history (in addition to historical plausibility, of course), I hope you will suggest that the author should be able to write convincingly on a micro or human scale as well as on a macro or geopolitical scale. That's what impressed me most about the opening chapter of The Man in the High Castle.

February 05, 2015  

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