Set in the 1960s, The Man in the High Castle takes place in an alternative America, one in which the country has been divided by Germany and Japan following an Axis victory in the Second World War. The North East is run by the Germans, the South is a Nazi-controlled puppet state and the west coast is controlled by Japan. The unwanted Midwest and mountain states remain autonomous, a buffer zone between the two powers. The book has no central plot and is instead populated by a series of characters whose stories overlap in small ways. Frank Frink and Ed McCarthy start a business making jewellery in San Francisco, leaving behind their lucrative career faking historical artifacts. They try to sell the jewellery to Robert Childan, a store owner who makes his money selling Americana to affluent Japanese. His faith in his stock is shaken when a visitor points out that a pistol he is selling is a fake.
Then there is Nobusoke Tagomi, an official at the Japanese Trade Mission who already owns a pistol from Childan and is later talked into buying a piece of Frink's jewellery. Both items, the fake and the authentic, will have a profound effect on his life.
Touching all their lives is The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a bestselling novel set in a world where Britain and America won the war. This is not our reality but a third possibility, in which Britain keeps its empire after the war and eventually comes to dominate the US.
Alongside the San Francisco plot is the story of Julianna Frink, Frank's ex-wife, who lives in Colorado. She has an affair with a war hero who introduces her to The Grasshopper. Despite her distaste for his fascist politics she agrees to travel with him to meet the author - who is the man in the high castle referred to in the title.
Several of the characters use the I Ching to help them make decisions in times of crisis. In reality, Dick claimed that he used the I Ching to write the novel.
The characterisation is excellent. Dick brings the inner life of his characters onto the page expertly. Childan, for example, who is torn between resentment and admiration for the Japanese, is given speech rhythms and even patterns of thought that echo those of his conquerers.
The novel, which is slimmer than my longwinded description makes it sound, is filled with contrasts between the real and the fake: several of the characters use assumed names or lie about their pasts; the fake but lucrative historical artifacts are juxtaposed with the authentic but unwanted jewellery; and the book contains two realities - both of which contrast with our own.
Dick leaves the stories of all the major characters unresolved. Each has a greater sense of purpose than they did at the start of the novel but we don't necessarily know what they will do. It doesn't matter: the author wants us to ask bigger questions.