The shock and awe of Amazon’s new series The Man in the High Castle comes mostly from stuff and settings. It depicts an alternate 1960, in which America lost World War II and is occupied by the Nazis (the Northeast and Midwest) and Japan (the West Coast), with a strip of neutral territory surrounding the Rocky Mountains running down the middle. Struggling to animate some fairly weak characters, it leans heavily on the disorienting impact of its rich, meticulous visual design: swastikas emblazoned on everyday objects like cigarettes; familiar San Francisco street scenes with the signage all in kanji; a happy, wholesome, Cleaver-esque family sitting down to breakfast with a son in a Hitler Youth uniform. In the threadbare neutral zone of the series, you can still glimpse a bit of Americana among the shuttered and peeling storefronts—a Chevrolet sign, for example—all of it so rundown, grimy, and obviously defunct that it’s already half fossil.
This is the world Philip K. Dick created for the series’ source, what’s widely considered his best novel, published in 1962. But the new TV series is so alien to the book in spirit that it would be a shame if it came to supplant our understanding of what is also one of the best mid-20th-century American novels about colonialism and its corrosive effects on the human psyche. The Man in the High Castle is a strange, mournful story in which not very much happens to people who have very little control over their lives and even less inclination to do anything to change that. It ought not to be engrossing, yet it is. The series’ creators have tried to pump up its premise into something that can sustain a 10-episode season (or more) by giving Dick’s dystopia an element that it utterly lacks in the book: an insurgency dedicated to fighting the twin fascist regimes that control the former United States. The people in Dick’s novel never consider resistance. They’re not heroes, and that, paradoxically, is exactly what makes them so arresting.
Link to the rest at Slate and thanks to Matthew for the tip.