Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel, The Man in the High Castle, posits an alternative history, set mostly in a Japanese occupied San Francisco after the Second World War, in which Japan and its ally Nazi Germany have defeated the United States. The country has been split up by the two occupying powers, with a more or less autonomous area between them. Germany and Japan are now adversaries, in a Cold War of sorts, with the technologically advanced Nazis bringing pressure to bear on their erstwhile ally. The main narrative thread emerges as the characters encounter a popular novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which tells a counterfactual story of American victory. The author, Hawthorne Abendsen, is the “man in the high castle.”
Dick was a prolific if uneven writer, in the niche science fiction market of the era, who with the perspective of time now warrants three volumes in the Library of America series. Many of his novels and novellas have been made into films, including Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990), and Minority Report (2002). In The Man in the High Castle, Dick explored his interest in Tibetan Buddhism and the I Ching, and the nature of reality, through the device of alternative history.
Beginning in 2015 and concluding in 2019, Amazon produced a small screen series of the same name, based on Dick’s novel. Much of the action of the series is set, not just in Japanese San Francisco or in “the Neutral Zone” of the Rocky Mountains, but in an “American Reich” based in an alternative 1962 New York that is under the thumb of the Germans, who rely on homegrown fascists to run things. A major plot line in the series is the moral compromises made by Americans coopted by the Nazi regime (for instance, “Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith”), and their own complicity in its crimes. The connecting thread of Abendsen’s novel is updated to a series of newsreel films, from an alternative reality in a multiverse of many realities; this one recognizably our own, in which Germany and Japan were defeated.
The series itself gives a fascinating example of visual world-building: a sort of Mad Men meets Triumph of the Will (Riefenstahl actually gets a shout out in one episode, though her place is taken by a younger cinematic doppelganger). This aspect of Amazon’s project is particularly well-conceived, an implicit recognition that the fascism of the 1920s and 1930s was far more a cult of personality and an aesthetic than it was a uniform ideology or program. Much of its attraction lay in its appeal to the uber modern and the technologically advanced. As the release of Amazon’s series was overtaken by the Trump presidency, it also incorporated tropes that reflected “Black Lives Matter,” and the “blood and soil” and “tiki torches” of Charlottesville: an interesting double refraction of Nazi racialism from the 1930’s, through the alt-world of Amazon’s fiction, to the alt-right of our own present.
Alternative history, as a genre of “what might have been,” has long included not only fictions set in alternative worlds (like Dick’s), but also consideration by conventional historians. In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the historian Gibbon noted an alternative scenario in which Islam was strangled in its cradle by prior Christian domination of the Arabian peninsula (ch. 42), as well as another in which the Arabs swept to victory in the 8th century, and Oxford became a madrasa (ch. 52). Novelists like Kingsley Amis (The Alteration) and Robert Harris (Fatherland), and many others, have set their own fictional works in counterfactual worlds, holding up a mirror to our own.
Niall Ferguson, in his essential introduction to Virtual History (Pan Books: London, 2003, p. 86), writes that there is a difference between speculative scenarios involving wildly improbable past events, and those outcomes that were actually considered possible by participants at the time. There is the fantastic, and then there is the plausible: the “what might have been” more strictly conceived. By this measure, the world of The Man in the High Castle is a genuine counterfactual.
Taking up the theme, one notes that the outcome of the Second World War was not pre-ordained. Historian John Lukacs wrote that in May 1940, Hitler’s regime and ideas represented a rising tide that “seemed irresistible” to those in the West who were in its grip (Five Days in London, Yale University Press: New Haven, 2001, p. 7). Poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote in his memoir that none of his contemporaries in 1939 Poland believed that the Germans would be victorious, but then adds “Characteristic of Poles is the strong conviction that God intervenes personally in the affairs of history to side with the just, and therefore evil is doomed to failure” (Native Realm, Doubleday: Garden City, 1968, p. 205). Milosz himself was not as sure of God’s intervention as his countrymen seemed to be. For Milosz, Nazi victory was an all too disturbing and paralyzing possibility. As Ferguson puts it in regard to the counterfactual, “what actually happened was often not the outcome which the majority of informed contemporaries saw as most likely…” (88).
The Man in the High Castle, both book and series, actually offers one counterfactual wrapped in another, and therein lies its power. Dick’s imagined world of Axis victory is a counterfactual one, but the plot revolves around the existence of another narrative in which the Allies won the Second World War. In the television series, what drives the plot forward is the task of convincing people that the counterfactual films of German defeat and American victory are themselves real. The message of the films is that resistance is not futile. In the world of The Man in the High Castle, the counterfactual of “what might have been” is not a mere imaginative exercise but crucial to hope for the future.
Ferguson points out the challenge that counterfactuals mount against theories of historical determinism, which set forth the inexorable and unalterable progress of history. The class struggle of Marxism, or the racial struggle posited by National Socialism, are famous examples of systems built upon such theories. Embracing a historically determined theory of progress is not a crime, but in these cases, these theories did undergird the real crimes committed by various regimes. In the alternative world of the Amazon series, elegantly enough, the struggle against National Socialism’s brutality requires, at the same time, an embrace of the counterfactual and a struggle against the idea of historical determinism itself.
There are also, of course, progressive narratives built upon theories of historical determinism. J.C.D. Clark points out, in his essay in Ferguson’s collection, that American exceptionalism, with its idea of “manifest destiny,” is itself a form of historical determinism with progressive, revolutionary roots (“British America,” 126). This progressive narrative of yesterday is today widely discounted, not least of all by progressives. With a change in fashion, what was once considered to be on the “right side” of history is now consigned, in Trotsky’s evocation, to its “dustbin.”
The clear failure of grand theories of all sorts to forecast what will be the “right side of history” does not extinguish their attraction or their true danger, which lies less in their capacity to predict the future than in their ability to persuade people of its inevitable course. “Probably as many people have been killed by the unintended consequences of deterministic prophecies as by their self-fulfilling tendencies” (88). If we believe we are in the hands of fate or an unalterable historical process, whatever it may be, then our agency is eclipsed and we become powerless. Believing that a particular end is inevitable, it then becomes so. For Ferguson, “Virtual history is a necessary antidote to determinism” (89).
Christians ought not to accept the flim-flam of historical determinism, in any form. Historical contingency, reinforced by the counterfactual, is the handmaid to a Christian understanding of divine providence. Counterfactuals have the advantage of reminding us of the contingent nature of history’s unfolding: it is full of surprising events, in which what once seemed improbable or widely discounted is what actually takes place. At the same time, the forecast of the “right side of history” turns out to be premature. Our times are in God’s hands, not in the hands of historical process. God’s providence frees up our own agency, as well, as we seek to be faithful to God’s call. We live within the providence of God, who has indeed set a course for our times; but that course cannot be charted in advance, and only comes to fulfillment outside of history.
We can even go one step further in considering the value of historical contingency to Christian faith. If the counterfactual undermines belief in the determined course of history, then by this account the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the greatest counterfactual of all. Not in the sense that it was a possible result that lives on as an alternative; on the contrary, it bears all the marks of the impossible. Christians, however, believe that it is actual and real, a source of hope which (like the counterfactual) sets history itself on its head. Jesus’ resurrection is not just an alternative reality, a genuine counterfactual, but from our perspective the true reality itself.
The Rt. Rev. Dr. John Bauerschmidt is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee.