The Man in the High Castle and Alternate History

I recently decided to catch up with Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle series, based on the (excellent) Philip K. Dick book of the same name. Please beware: this post includes spoilers for the first two episodes and, to a certain extent (though not in any way I think would truly spoil it), the novel.

I’m really not sure what to make of The Man in the High Castle. It is, on the one hand, a skillful adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel for television, or at least the television format; I’ll leave you to sort the streaming model into your own personal categories of “television” and “something else.” On the other hand, it is a television show in 2015 about an America occupied by a victorious Third Reich on its eastern seaboard and by the Empire of Japan to the west. It navigates a tough line from the beginning, between direct engagement with the horrors of World War II and how they would play out in a conquered post-war America and seven decades of cultural production that has engaged with the Nazis since D-Day. We have, as a result, a broad and asymmetrical popular corpus of material on the Nazis and on Hitler himself, the personification of the movement. The Nazis present themselves in our fiction as the vile enemies of only a few years before that need little further explanation or evidence of calumny (Where Eagles Dare, novel and film in 1968); vestigial agents of an evil that refuses to be conquered and that denies itself the anonymity of refuge, that denies absolution not because of guilt borne from sin but convictman in the high castleion borne from defeat (The Boys from Brazil, novel in 1976, film in 1978; Marathon Man, novel in 1974, film in 1976); and more recently as comic book enemies, the hubristic and unassuming Adolf Hitler taking the document he seeks from out of Indiana Jones’ hands, signing it and handing it back in Steven Spielberg’s loving simulacrum of the pulpy heroes of his youth (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989) and Hugo Weaving’s portrayal of the Red Skull, a bonafide comic book nasty, nemesis of the same Captain America famous for landing a solid right hook on Hitler’s jaw.

This last example gets into potentially sticky territory in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, where the Red Skull’s Hydra organization reveals itself as the true evil within and behind the machinations of Nazi Germany. The idea, clearly, was to imbue this fake organization with the widely accepted face of human evil writ large in the twentieth century while allowing writers to branch off into other territory. There is though a rather significant risk of leeching some of that evil out of our interpretations of the Third Reich itself. The Red Skull trades in the currency provided by the Nazis as “bad guys.” Instant bad guys, free of all moral or ethical doubt. Trading in that currency opens the door, if only by just a sliver, to a popular memory of the Nazis as a Bogyman with one foot in the terrors and shame of human history and the other in public memory shifting as that figure lifts one leg to plant both feet on the side of human imagination, leaving the cold realities of Nazi crimes behind.

Still, there is little to no argument against the fact that Hitler’s Nazis were, indeed, evil. Their evil transcended, and continues to transcend, the natural impulse of academics and reasonable observers to weigh the historical context of various participants in conflicts against the moral certainty of the victors. The Allied Nations were on the right side of history in World War II, a seductive narrative that provides the clothing we seek to wear in all our conflicts since; Western society has split over Vietnam and Iraq but no one in their right mind (or, more appropriately a firm grasp of historical events) would counter the position that the US and its allies fought on the forces of good seventy years ago. Even taking aside the Holocaust, that horrific sin that exposed humanity to the potential of matching its cruelty fully to the advances of modern society in technology and human organization, the Nazis were a bad bunch. To put it mildly. The Man in the High Castle thus truly does have its nemesis pre-packaged, with a deep cultural understanding of that antagonist’s inhumanity. The catch is how you navigate that.

man in the high castleThe British have traditionally chosen to navigate this by making fun of the Nazis, or perhaps to be more (or less) specific, the Germans. Basil Fawlty’s concussion-driven insults to his German guests in Fawlty Towers begat one of the most famous scenes in British television comedy (“We did not start it! / Yes you did, you invaded Poland!”) but also played into the broader theme of that show. Fawlty Towers presented us with a thoroughly unlikeable character at its centre to mock the specific picture of Englishness that character celebrated and held dear. John Cleese’s genius (accompanied by his then-wife and co-writer, Connie Booth) was in the delivery of such satire in plain sight. The Corkonian comic Niall Tobin once insisted that satire and parody could be differentiated by whether or not the subject knew he was being mocked or understood fully how deep that mockery went; Cleese and Booth mocked the “little Englander” identity openly and sold it to many on the basis that the British have a dry and self-deprecating sense of humour. So it was with World War II; only Basil Fawlty could goosestep through the foyer of his hotel and have us laugh as if we are all in on the same joke. It remains a high point in British engagement with the animosity born of two world wars against their near-neighbours, a step beyond Mitchell and Webb’s entertaining explorations of the absurdity of being a Nazi in the first place (“Do you think we’re the baddies?”) and light years ahead of the gruesome ‘Allo ‘Allo’s tabloid parodies dressed up as bawdy humour.

A more recent comparison lies in MachineGames’ Wolfenstein: The New Order (2014), wherein the player-character begins the story confronted with the deep evil of Nazi predilections for genocide and human experimentation. Wolfenstein clearly owes a shared debt to Philip K. Dick’s novel, but skews off in a direction more inspired by a mixture of steampunk and mecha science fiction. As in the novel, the Nazis have reached the moon and boast an intimidating technological advantage over all other would-be global powers. The game chooses to raise and address questions of morality through representations of violence, including moments that the player-character can quite pointedly not interrupt. In the world of video games, where player control is, in theory, paramount within the experience it was a notable choice. The game also presents violence in terms of the violence that actually happened in the 1930s and 1940s, referencing ovens and the use of lethal gas but choosing to supplement the innate horror of historical reality with the figurative horrors of genre storytelling. All of this raises the issue of how writers should approach and engage with the morality of the Nazis in historical experience. I’m not sure how I feel about MachineGames’ decision to take the historical realities and perceived player/audience awareness of those realities as a foundation for escalating the absurdity of the alternate reality they created. It fits a clear leap into genre territory but one can be concerned at how far the game takes us from the real terrors on which it is in the high castle

Amazon’s show takes a different tack: no giant mechanized troops here. Setting the show in 1962, in addition to emphasizing a solid nod to the novel and obviating the awkwardness of portraying a Nazi America in 2015 (how could it have lasted so long? what would it look like? would everybody walk around with swastika-emblazoned iPads?), triggers the relatively recently discovered deep seated love among American television watchers for period pieces. The British have been on this for years, as have the Chinese, though they tend to reflect on their own imperial eras, very different times but still temporal sites of success. Americans are apparently enticed by the 1960s, and not just the protest-filled years at the end of the decade. That’s been an easy sell in film for quite a while, but the more recent success on the “small screen” (and screens smaller still) most typically embodied by AMC’s Mad Men continues to tap into a distinctly American hunger to both revel in the glory of the decades immediately following World War II while nodding our heads, sagely and in the collective, of the seemingly unlimited examples of behaviours and social attitudes considered regressive today.

The Man in the High Castle, thrillingly, is apparently not shying away from the flirting of exploration within the metaphysical that presents itself within the novel. I am genuinely excited to follow the show and watch how it approaches that particular aspect of the show, with its use of a forbidden film reel feeling thematically appropriate and a nice parallel to the novel’s use of a banned book. The show also partakes in some nifty creative license that shapes its main characters after characters in the book with enough there to cause fans of the book to smile a little bit but not enough ancillary information to render them inscrutable to the uninitiated. I’m not sure, you know, if we have become less grumpy as a society and less enamoured with harping at storytelling’s deviation from the original tale as it crosses mediums or if we’ve just chosen to trade in the pleasure of indignant accuracy for the sweet, smarmy warmth of being in on the joke.

Either way, two episodes in and the show is good, for the most part a nice balance between good storytelling and appreciably nerdy alternative history. It’s that level of fidelity (or, perhaps, faux-fidelity) that raises interesting questions. Dick’s novel made interesting distinctions between the Japanese and German occupiers, framing a general distaste among the Japanese for the Third Reich’s anti-semitism in an uneven power relationship whereby Tokyo effectively relied on the good humour of Berlin and the somewhat improbable possibility that the Nazi thirsty for conquest would be mostly slaked by the occupation of most of the United States and a (mostly implied, in the novel) genocidal trench through the continent of Africa. Dick’s execution of this dynamic was adroit, with leadership of both sides ambiguous enough not to simply whitewash the Empire of Japan’s war crimes but clear enough to amplify the horrors of Nazi Germany. In the novel, the Nuremburg Laws have been extended to the United States but pass mostly unenforced by the Japanese, the Final Solution so complete in its putridness so as to elicit disdain even from allies and fellow war criminals.

The show’s second episode touches on this dynamic, again with a willingness to tinker; I personally found it less effective. A member of the Japanese secret police, clearly presented to viewers as a chief antagonist, places family members (an adult and two children) of one of the main characters in a room with Zyklon B gas gently streaming in. It is new and improved, our Asiatic villain purrs, with no way for the victims to know they are being poisoned. Nevertheless, the adult of the three clearly figures out what we have been told. The last shot we see is of the children asleep on their mother’s chest, the implications clear but not confirmed until the end of the episode. “I am not a monster” the antagonist cooly states, his defence that the bereaved had simply failed to become an informer in time: an important complication of his character that nonetheless feels rote in a way that many other aspects of the show do not.

Perhaps I am being unfair, and I should stress here that I fully support the idea of creative control and am happy to hand the telling of the story over to the storyteller until all is concluded, but the notion the clash the show attempts to present in the mind of the bereaved character between his dignity and the lives of his loved ones seems unbalanced to me. What human being, at least a fictional one with whom we are expected to sympathize, would realistically risk allowing children to die, particularly members of his own family? In this moment, the subtle ambiguity of the Japanese position vis a vis that of the Germans is lost; I worry further that we will have all the evil of the Japanese poured into our evil antagonist, allowing other Japanese characters to elevate themselves beyond such acts. It seems that in this instance the intriguing balance the show strikes between exploration of Dick’s original work and twenty-first century standards in storytelling tips over towards the latter.

We will have to see. I am confident that the good will outweigh the bad going forward considering the fantastic ratio in that regard so far. I haven’t even mentioned the wonderful Rufus Sewell taking a role that could either be one of the best parts of the show or a catastrophically poor decision and driving it firmly in the right direction. Overall, the show benefits from extraordinarily rich historical context buttressed by decades of popular interpretations of these events but with plenty of room to explore: the Nazis were evil, yes, but the Japanese occupation of the western seaboard inverts the internment of those of Japanese descent by the United States government during the war. There’s a lot to play with here, thematically, and the show seems to understand that making the most of that opportunity will require judicious balancing of evoking some of the darkest moments in human experience and just having fun. A jarring contrast; perhaps the occasional bum note, at least for this viewer, is inevitable. I’m an historian. I should know to take the long view.

History Respawned: Bioshock Infinite and the Boxer Uprising

A few months ago my good friend Bob Whitaker approached me with an invitation to join him in producing his YouTube series History Respawned. Bob and I had talked for quite a while about how to further develop the field of video game studies; as historians (we went to graduate school together at Texas), we have been excited for years about what we believe we and our fellow academics can bring to an increasingly broadening conversation on video games as cultural forms and texts. Just over a year ago, Bob did something about it, and began producing History Respawned.

The series works as a form of the “Let’s Play” model of video game coverage already present on YouTube and Twitch; the idea was to show game footage to historians and have discussions about the content, historical context and thematic subtexts of games with historians familiar with the field discussed. Bob invited guests to discuss Assassin’s Creed IV and piracy, Shogun 2 and early modern Japan (with yours truly), Diablo 3 and histories of representations of demons and evil spirits… The series has turned out to be a lot of fun.

It also continues to have a lot of potential. A few months ago Bob invited me to sign on to help as he sought to expand content. I was thrilled to be asked to help, and I’ve gotten a couple of episodes under my belt, the most recent of which we posted at the end of October, wherein I discussed Bioshock Infinite and the Boxer Uprising with Jeffrey Wasserstrom of the University of California at Irvine.

I met Jeff last year, when he visited our campus here at Centre College as a visiting scholar courtesy of The Phi Beta Kappa Society. Jeff has been increasingly active in sharing historical work on China with people outside the academy, which is a great fit for History Respawned. He also gave a fun talk, discussing the role of the state in China today under an interpretative framework that contrasted George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. He is also, as luck would have it, working on a book on the Boxer Uprising.

I had been pitching the idea of discussing Bioshock Infinite and its depictions of the Chinese Boxers in an alternate 1912 for a while, since before Bob had asked me to become an associate editor for the series. Ken Levine’s game was flawed but full of ambition, and he sank his teeth into the idea of an alternate history that celebrated a very specific vision of American greatness, in this case as propagated by Zachary Comstock. Comstock’s vision of paternalism, religion and racial purity led to an unsanctioned intervention in the Boxer Uprising of 1899-1901 that, in part, led to the floating city of Columbia seceding from the United States. At one point during the game, the player leads protagonist Booker Dewitt through a “Hall of Heroes” that helps feed the people of Columbia the version of history that Comstock has chosen to disseminate. This history features heavily essentialist representations of Native Americans at the Battle of Wounded Knee and Chinese Boxers during the Boxer Uprising, terrifying alien threats to the otherwise placid and very Caucasian peace guaranteed under Columbia’s protection.

This Hall of Heroes fascinated me at the time, and this episode of History Respawned was a great chance to chat to someone about representations of the Boxers in the West both at the time and since. Bioshock Infinite is doing a lot of interesting things here: the fictional characters in the game have created a museum that intentionally seeks to shape historical narrative in a particular way, including using racial representations that would (hopefully) be shocking to the game’s main audience in 2013. Still, these representations in their own way reflected Western feelings at the time; there may not have been an intervention in the form of a flying city, but eight nations came together to put the Boxer Uprising down and they did so brutally.  Those who successfully shaped the broad narrative in the West did indeed see the Boxers as existentialist threats to Western civilization. Ken Levine accomplished something extraordinary here, with the representations of non-white peoples in the game both functioning within the fictional universe he produced and occupying a fascinating space for the player, who while distinguishing between the racist attitudes of the game’s antagonists and his or her own feelings on race and representation nevertheless participates in a modern repudiation of what only a century ago were values that people felt comfortable expressing in writing in a public forum.

Bioshock Infinite is far from a perfect game, but it interacts with historical theme in a way that I find extremely interesting. Alternate history immediately places works of fiction in an interesting location but there a number of ways this can go. The decision to include Wounded Knee and the Boxer Uprising and, crucially, to clearly link the two opens up a lot of possibilities for interesting conversation. That’s exactly what happened; Jeff pointed out that such linkages happened historically, with native American actors portraying the insidious Boxers in popular theatrical productions in the United States. I encourage you to watch the video to hear the rest of it.

I’m glad to have finally gotten the Bioshock Infinite and Boxer Uprising episode recorded, and I look forward to coming back to the game, perhaps with an American historian who could enlighten us further on Gilded Age views of race and the failures of Reconstruction. For now, we are always on the look-out for new games to discuss. Bob and I are also speaking at this year’s American Historical Association’s annual conference in Atlanta, where he will discuss History Respawned and I will talk about the “History & Video Games” class I teach at Centre during our intensive winter term. There is lots to do, and I do not see video game developers giving up on historical settings any time soon.