The AV Club over at the Onion once wrote an introduction to the writing of Dick, but for some reason they said to come in to this novel towards the end. I completely disagree. For those not familiar with Dick's writing 'The Man in the High Castle' is easily his most accessible book. It's the only novel of his I've read that follows a standard plot structure, there's nothing really crazy going on here, and without knowing anything about Dick one would just assume it was one of the more odd books written in the 60s. There are some of his more bizarre elements present here, but they are not nearly as pervasive as 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep' or 'Doctor Bloodmoney,' two other works that I'll soon be reviewing.
Dick is one of those authors that defy convention and placement within the genre. Especially in his later work it is nearly impossible to place the date or time in which Dick was writing. 'Dr. Bloodmoney' shows it's date in some of Dick's phrasing but High Castle could have been written today and it wouldn't read any different. Anyone who hasn't read any of Dick's novels needs to run out and start, and if it were me I'd use High Castle as my jumping off point, though be prepared for some difficulty, just not the same you would expect if you tried to read 'Ubik' without any idea what you were getting into.
Dick has gained a certain amount of celebrity in recent years as more and more modern authors claim him as an influence in their writings, and that is really a credit to how well his writing holds up over time. But also to just how weird and out there his writing is. Dick's personality has become in recent years one of the reasons people get in on his writing, the guy was absolutely nuts. He saw visions and believed that prophets spoke to him. There is an interesting story that after Stanislas Lem rebuked the SFWA and turned down an honorary membership he said the only American sci-fi writer he respected was Philip K. Dick, which in turn caused Dick to freak out, accuse Lem of being a front for Communism and write a letter to the FBI. The guy was crazy.
All that aside I tend not to consider the intent of the author when reviewing a novel. Once the work of art has left the hands of the artist it is the viewer who discovers its meaning. The intent of the author can be considered, but I don't believe it is important for the reader to know it. So, I will leave behind the crazy stories about Dick and his wild life to Wikipedia, and focus here on 'The Man in the High Castle.'
I like to consider myself a pretty savvy reader, and I pick up on most clues, but every now and then I miss something staring me in the face and I wonder just how dense I really am. I would never have realized that Goldman's frame story in 'Princess Bride' wasn't true unless a friend had told me, and when she did I'm sure she could see the "Oh, Ohhhh," in my face. The same is true of High Castle. The entire book Dick is talking about the I Ching, it's running peoples lives, they are using it to write books, the I Ching is just as much a character in the novel as any person. It was pretty late in the game when I realized that Dick himself was using the I Ching to dictate the decisions he made in the novel. Here was a story that included a fictional man using the I Ching to write a fictional novel being written by a real life man using the I Ching to write a real novel. I read this book when I was seventeen and it wrinkled my brain all to hell.
The novel contains a story within the story called 'The Grasshopper Lies Heavy' in which the author uses the Chines oracle to dictate every choice made about the story. The inner story, while set in an alternate universe where the Axis won the second world war, is about a world where the Allies won that same war, but not in the same manner as our world. It's complicated, but Dick uses these frames to question the very nature of reality and what is real. To read a novel written by someone who actually believed that there is no such thing as reality is pretty heavy. I don't feel I've done the best job of describing what's actually going on with this here but it's pretty difficult to write a synopsis of a Dick novel that isn't as long as the novel itself, you'd be better off just reading it.
Often you'll hear a Hugo or Nebula nominee lauded as being full of ideas that would have comprised three or four novels with another writer, this is doubly true of any novel written by Dick. A throwaway comment by almost any character would be more than enough to make up a novel today, and many authors are still borrowing Dick's styles and ideas, many aspects of the New Wave, and New Weird sub-genres of science fiction owe a direct debt to Philip K. Dick and his craziness. Add on to this that High Castle was one of the first alternative history novels, and really set the groundwork for a lot of the following 'what if the axis had won?' novels and there's no question why it won the Hugo award, or why Dick himself is still a large influence on the genre today.