Television: Doubt and despair from a junkie genius

I hate sharing good things with other people. I was into Hannibal and Arrested Development long before anyone else was, and I felt a pang of regret when the rest of the world caught on.

So I’m in two minds about Amazon’s new series The Man in the High Castle (viewable on On the plus side, it’s very good. On the down side, it’s based on a book by Philip K Dick – and he belongs to me.

Dick was the junkie genius of American sci-fi. He wrote pulpy books for the mass market infused with his own drug-fuelled, beat-poet philosophy.

Dick was convinced that all of time existed simultaneously; and that the fixed present was an illusion. Hence High Castle is set in an alternate reality where the fascists won the Second World War and America is divided between Japan and Germany. So far, so linear. Until the Resistance releases a movie that shows how the Allies actually won – in present day. Folks start to wonder what’s truth
and what’s fiction.

Dick is all about existential crises: his characters are full of doubt and quiet despair. I once lent the High Castle book to a friend and he returned it with the observation that he’d never encountered such loneliness in a novel. He was right. The writing tears your heart right out.

Given Dick’s obscurity and occasional density of thought, it must have been tempting to televise High Castle as a camp romp in a parallel dimension. On the contrary, this series is bloody, depressing and exactly as confusing as it should be. His American “heroes” are imprisoned by the past and by false notions of fact.

And true to the book, the greatest hope for breaking through is offered, not by violent resistance, but by Japanese mysticism. The empire of the Rising Sun is, of course, thoroughly wicked. But its culture is superior to Western materialism.

Dick was, whether he’d admit it or not, a product of his time and the 1960s obsession with Eastern philosophy shines through. The result is a way-out trip that comes highly recommended.