1. The surface story
Set in 1962, fourteen years after the end of a longer WW2 (1939-1948). The victorious Axis Powers (Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Italy) carved up the world at the end of the war. The Nazis have turned the Mediterranean into a huge agricultural area, killed the entire population of Africa, and most of the Soviet Union, and are sending spaceships to colonise Mars. The Nazis and Japan, the superpowers, are in a Cold War situation.
'The Man in the High Castle' takes place on the West Coast of the USA. In the book the USA is split into The Pacific States of America - a region run by Japan, and the rest of the US run indirectly by the Nazis. The story follows a collection of characters based in San Francisco who are linked either directly or indirectly and who are getting on with their lives.
I really enjoyed the story, and thought Dick's imagined post-War world was interesting and credible. The narrative is occasionally a bit confusing but always stimulating, particularly the detail of daily life. For example the way Japanese culture and customs have come to inform daily life for indigenous Americans.
There is also another story within the story. A bestselling book called 'The Grasshopper Lies Heavy' - a populist Science Fiction novel in which America and the Allies win the Second World War. This book has become successful and so the Nazis want the author killed. This secondary story hints at some of the themes below the surface of the main narrative.
'The Man in the High Castle' made me think about history, and how it is written by the victors. For example, in the alternate world of this book, Churchill is cast as a war criminal. The book also asks other questions about history. Some of the characters collect, sell and create (or forge) historical memorabilia. Is history innate in memorabilia or just in the mind? As one of the book's characters explains, if we believe that a lighter was in Franklin D. Roosevelt's pocket when he was assassinated it becomes more valuable to a collector despite being just another lighter. Another character claims to be an Italian who fought in North Africa. His account doesn't convince his female companion - rightly so as it turns out. The suggestion is that all history is relative and we can't rely on any single account.
The parallel world of 'The Man in the High Castle' also explores the possibility that there is no single reality. That there exists a multiverse rather than a universe that is at odds with the generally accepted view of just one linear history. None of the characters in the book, like ourselves, are able to perceive it. Although, at one point Nobusuke Tagomi, a Japanese official in Japanese-run San Francisco, finds himself momentarily in another San Francisco in which Japan was defeated by the Allies.
My favourite Science Fiction writers (e.g Phillip K Dick and Kurt Vonnegut) re-imagine our world and consider alternate futures and histories, that offer the reader new perspectives. This book is a great example of how effective this is when done well. It's a really interesting book that succeeds on both levels: the "surface" plot that kept me interested throughout, and the more provocative and profound questions that Philip K Dick poses.