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Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Man in the High Castle: some thoughts from a reader of the book who hasn't seen the series

This article about the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle makes me want to watch the series, but also provokes some reflections on ways in which the series appears to differ from the book (which is one of my favorite sci-fi novels, indeed one of my favorite modern novels period).
1. In the book, the metaphysical speculations about alternative reality are front and center. The book does not feel, to me at least, primarily about "what would the world be like if the Nazis had won" but more about living in a tragic world with faith and hope. I found it striking that the article says that Tagomi's sections are "slow." I think I may have reacted that way on the first reading too, but I now find Tagomi to be the real heart of the book. Similarly, it sounds as if the I Ching, which is a central device in the novel, is absent from the series. High Castle is Dick's greatest book precisely because it balances incisive alternate-history sci-fie with the metaphysical and religious themes that would come to dominate his later books.
2. At least one of the worlds envisioned by Tagomi, as well as the world described by Amundsen, does not actually appear to be our world. The book is not so much about imagining a dystopian world in contrast to our (presumably better) world, but rather about parallels between the nightmare "primary world" of the novel and our own somewhat less nightmarish but still quite awful world. The capacity to imagine a better world than the one we live in is, in the novel, a key part of being a virtuous person capable of resisting the evil in which we live. It's not so much "how wonderful it is that we live in a world in which the Nazis didn't win" but "whatever evil exists in our world is not inevitable and should be opposed with imagination and compassion." Fundamentally, it's a novel about contingency and free will.
3. In the book, Amundsen is a novelist. I see why one might turn the novel into film footage for a TV series, but I'm not sure it works as well. Again, in the book the messages from the "other world" come through visions and imagination, mediated in many cases by the Chinese divination manual the I Ching. The big reveal about Amundsen at the end of the novel is that he actually wrote his alternate-history novel (depicting an Allied victory) by consulting the I Ching for every plot point. Thus, the novel is a kind of divine revelation. It looks as if the series turns this into a more conventional kind of alternate history.
4. The article says that the Japanese characters are WWII tropes. In the novel, they are somewhat culturally stereotypical, but they read much more like Japanese people as Westerners encounter or imagine them in the modern, post-WWII world. That is to say, there is actually little trace of imperialistic arrogance in them and they behave in conquered America essentially as Japanese tourists do in our world. This is very funny (and, in fact, quite stereotyping), but actually lets the historical WWII Japanese off the hook, I think. The Japanese in High Castle are fairly clearly the "good guys," mostly because the Japanese person we see most of is Tagomi, who is the most virtuous and compassionate character in the novel. So I'd fault the novel for its white-washing of the Japanese record. But, again, in the novel this is partly about challenging our assumptions about good guys and bad guys. Characters in the novel casually refer to the terrible atrocities committed by the Allies, especially the British. In a world in which the Axis won, it is conceivable that the Japanese might have developed into a relatively benign civilization and might have sought to cover over their past atrocities, while of course the atrocities committed by the Allies would not have been excused or covered over as they often have been in our world. If we take the point-of-view characters in Dick's novel to be entirely reliable, then the book gives a very naive picture of the Japanese. But the novel uses a limited third-person point of view (from the perspective of multiple characters) precisely, I think, in order to force us to think through the differences between their perception of the world they live in and the reality, and then to apply that same critical thinking to our own perceptions of our own world.
In summary, I hope to see this series at some point, but I would strongly urge people to read the book, which is one of the greatest sci-fi novels (and probably the single greatest alternate history novel) ever written.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Uncircumcised in heart and ears: St. Stephen's Practical Guide to Making Yourself Obnoxious and Disliked

The 1979 Episcopal BCP's lectionary reading for today excerpts St. Stephen's long sermon in Acts 7 so as to read: "Then the high priest asked him, 'Are these things so?' And Stephen replied, 'Brothers and fathers, listen to me. You are forever resisting the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do."

This misses out the long historical summary in which Stephen details all the ways in which the ancient Israelites had resisted the Holy Spirit, culminating in the denunciation: "You stiffnecked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears." But the lectionary, by cutting as it does, makes crystal clear just how the first Christian martyr got himself killed.

When I used to teach Religions of the World at Huntington University, I took my students to a Conservative Jewish synagogue, where (on one occasion) one of the members gave us a lecture about Judaism including a summary of the Exodus and the wandering in the wilderness. One of the students commented to me afterward that this lecture differed from the standard Christian narrative in that it didn't highlight the sins and failures of the Israelites.

Thanks to Stephen's sermon and other early Christian texts, we have a tradition of reading the OT primarily as a story of God's people messing up. Unfortunately, Christians have often read this as "the Jews messing up." The only way to redeem our narrative from the implications of anti-Judaism (and the only way to read it that is healthy for our own souls) is to read it as a narrative about our messing up.

One of the healthiest impulses in Christianity is the impulse toward self-criticism, which comes out of the basic structure of the Biblical narrative. Unfortunately, when Christianity is turned into an ideology, the basis for "Western Civilization," an instrument to make our ethnic or political group feel good, then we begin rewriting the narrative to be about a holy remnant under pressure from external enemies. And we can get that narrative from the Bible too. Stephen's persecutors thought they were the holy remnant. They thought he was a traitor.

They killed Stephen because he subverted a narrative that they thought was supposed to be about triumphalism and turned it into a narrative about the failure of God's people to be God's people. And it is our duty as Christians to walk in Stephen's footsteps, challenging the self-serving narratives that "our" group (whatever that may be) comes up with--and resisting the demonic temptation to turn Stephen's sermon into a narrative about some other group's failures.

Of course there is a huge spiritual danger here. Our "prophetic witness" against "our" group's misdeeds may easily turn into a self-righteous rant in which we imagine ourselves to be standing over and above the group. But there is no avoiding spiritual dangers.

Furthermore, at some point the group will decide that we aren't really part of it any more. And this may be reasonable given our actions. That is a difficulty that I face, myself, with regard to evangelicalism--but I'll write more about that another time.