For 53 years, since the day of her burial, Jane Charlotte Dick – the twin sister of Philip Kindred Dick – waited beneath the headstone that bore both their names. The two were born six weeks prematurely; Jane died on the very day on which they were supposed to have been born. But her spirit continued to whisper in her brother’s ear all his life, rendering him paranoid, creative, schizophrenic, homeless, a junkie, a prophet, a genius. By the time he joined her, on March 2, 1982, he had under his belt 121 short stories, five failed marriages, 44 novels, three children and one divine revelation. What if Jane had not died? Would the twins’ parents have stayed together? Would Philip’s childhood have been studded with fewer obsessive anxieties? Would he have written his great reality-bending works? Would reality itself have changed?
“What would have happened if...” is one of the fundamental questions asked by the human animal. The literary answer is known as the genre of alternative history. As early as 25 BCE, the Roman historian Livy wondered what would have happened if Alexander the Great had lived into old age. Alternative history seeks watershed points, or “Jonbar hinges” (a concept derived from Jack Williamson’s novel “The Legion of Time”) moments at which a single choice can change the course of history as we know it. That acknowledgment is a basic condition of the genre, which generates tension through the collision with our prior knowledge. For without knowing the “real” history, how will we notice that it has changed? The hinge itself can be a minor event turning left instead of right, a nail dislodged from a horseshoe, a missed train which, like a stone thrown into the pond of time, creates ever widening ripples in the past and the future.
Alternative history is a close relative of stories of time travel, since this is how the opportunity for change is created in many works of the genre. In Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” a traveler from the 19th century arrives in Camelot, transforms it into an industrial city and gets all the knights to ride bikes. In the film “Back to the Future,” Marty McFly disrupts the course of time when he goes back to his parents’ high-school days and has to ensure that they will meet so he himself can be born.
The potential latent in time-travel tales nourished dozens of episodes of television series such as “Star Trek” and “The Time Tunnel.” In them the challenge was always, in Hamlet’s words, to set right the time that is “out of joint,” to get events flowing on their proper, familiar course.
When Hitler won
But there are also alternative histories that do not have recourse to mechanical means. They do not explain themselves, but assault the reader with all their weirdness and atmosphere of inbuilt alienation. Examples are the writers Michael Chabon, Yoav Avni and Nava Semel, who without a time-traveling DeLorean car establish the Jewish state in, respectively, Alaska (“The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”), Uganda (“Herzl Said”) and Niagara Falls (“Isralsland”).
Alternative histories tend to wrap themselves around crisis periods such as wars, the fall of empires and crucial political decisions. Many of them describe a melancholy, depressing, dystopian reality. It is therefore not surprising that one of the most popular themes of the genre is a victory by the Axis powers in the Second World War. The first to imagine a world in which Germany won the war was a Hungarian writer named Laszlo Gaspar, whose book “Mi, I. Adolf.” was published within months of Hitler’s death. There have been many since. In his sophisticated novel “Making History” (1996), Stephen Fry uses the time-machine device to send a young student and an elderly physicist on a mission to prevent Hitler’s birth, but with their own hands they bring about a far worse result. In Robert Harris’ effective 1992 thriller “Fatherland,” a German police detective is sent to uncover the crimes his country perpetrated years earlier, during the war it won. And Philip Roth, in his jolting novel “The Plot against America” (2004), intertwines genuine autobiography with alternative history to tell the story of the United States under the rule of the pro-Nazi Charles Lindbergh.
But the most significant, and in many senses the most horrifying work written about this dark horizon in the skies of the past, is by a different Philip, the one whose grave awaited him while he embarked on a prolonged journey of self-destruction: Philip K. Dick. “The Man in the High Castle” (1962), Dick’s masterpiece, is set in an America that is divided between the two major victors of the war, Japan and Germany, with a buffer zone between them, the “Rocky Mountain States,” now the only independent region. Trapped between the murderous Germans and the enigmatic Japanese, the book’s protagonists are swept along on a current of events that become increasingly furious as they flow toward catastrophe. An antiques dealer who is dazzled by the cultural superiority of his Japanese rulers; a worker who conceals his Jewishness and dreams of regaining his wife; the wife, a judo instructor, who finds herself under the influence of a mysterious Italian man; and a senior Japanese official who has to cope with harrowing revelations about a German conspiracy aimed at his country. Africa, strewn with bodies, has become a vast and appalling field for experiments conducted by the worst of German scientists. Germany has taken control of the solar system, and an underground book, “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” which is passed from hand to hand, contains an alternative history of its own or is it the real history? Overlaying all this is the ancient spirit of the “I Ching,” the Chinese “book of changes,” whose puzzling advice the characters, and perhaps reality itself, obey.
“The Man in the High Castle” (which is currently being adapted into a TV series by Ridley Scott’s production company) is a labyrinth of reflections, apparent contradictions and logical rings. One of its plotlines, for example, deals with the counterfeiting of antiques. The counterfeiter shows his girlfriend two Zippo cigarette lighters. One of them was in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pocket at the time he was assassinated (according to the novel); the other is fake. Which is the real one? Neither. In fact, they are both counterfeit at a far deeper layer, by being part of “counterfeit” history. They are souvenirs of an imagined past, copies without an original, mere simulacra, because “This whole damn historicity business is nonsense,” as the manufacturer of the fake objects says.
The questioning of the very existence of reality is a recurrent theme in Dick’s works. Indeed, “Dickian” has become synonymous with works that loosen our hold on the familiar, like “Kafkaesque” or “Orwellian.” His nightmares became our visual landscape, and his broken mirrors integrated perfectly into the industry that arose on smoke and mirrors: the cinema. He did not live long enough to see the film that was made from his 1968 novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” However, he did manage to visit the set of the film which we know as “Blade Runner,” released a few months after Dick’s death and was overwhelmed and frightened by what he saw. “I recognized it immediately. It was my own interior world. They caught it perfectly,” he said.
The success of the stylized futuristic film noir paved the way for other works by Dick to be turned into Hollywood scripts: “Total Recall” (a remake also hits cinemas this summer); “Minority Report”; “A Scanner Darkly”; “The Adjustment Bureau,” and others. Dick’s shifting states of consciousness and his worldview have influenced leading filmmakers such as David Cronenberg (“eXistenZ”), the Wachowskis (the “Matrix” trilogy), Christopher Nolan (“Memento,” “Inception”) as well as postmodern thinkers and cyberpunk authors.
Dick’s work was not acclaimed in his lifetime. His books did not breach the science fiction ghetto and his visions did not breach the mainstream wall. Frequently broke and hungry, he was rescued by writer friends such as Robert Heinlein (“Stranger in a Strange Land”). However, Philip K. Dick, perhaps more than any other writer, succeeded in imprinting on the world in which we live his fears, doubts about the solidity of life, suspicion about the veracity of experience. “The Man in the High Castle,” despite, or perhaps because of the baseless character of its point of departure, remains as threatening as it was, as harrowing and far more relevant.
“Many books are actually alive. Not in metaphoric fashion. Spirit animates it,” one of the characters in the novel says. He is right. This book is one of them.