Ridley Scott, director of the cyberpunk classic Blade Runner, returns to helm another Philip K. Dick based project, this time as executive producer of the television series The Man In The High Castle. The show is based on Dick’s 1962 dystopian alternate history novel of the same name, depicting an alternative universe wherein the Allies had lost World War ll, and Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan rule over America.
David Semel (American Horror Story, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hannibal, and The Strain) is directing and to tweak the geek quotient yet another notch, Frank Spotnitz of X-Files fame is on board as writer. Loaded with this high caliber roster, Amazon Studios has delivered what some are touting as the best adaptation of a Philip K. Dick work to date.
After the success of the pilot episode in January, resulting in the largest viewership yet for Amazon, the studio, in February, picked up the series for production.
Set in 1962, the opening sequence takes us to New York’s Times Square. There are large billboards depicting Hitler and Nazi swastikas are everywhere. This is a world in which the Axis powers have won World War Two, and a defeated America has been carved into three sections, with the east coast belonging to the Germans, the west to Japan, and the middle Rocky Mountain States acting as a neutral buffer zone.
In this alternate history, a syphilitic Adolf Hitler is on the verge of being replaced as Führer, fueling rumors amongst the Japanese hierarchy that the new German leadership may choose to drop a nuke on Japan, thus igniting a new war. This scenario is quintessential Philip K. Dick, the atmosphere rife with paranoia and authoritarian control.
Dropped into this milieu is freedom fighter Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) who joins an underground American resistance group. Armed with a gun and a bag full of amphetamines, Blake is given the assignment to transport goods from New York to the neutral zone.
In Japanese controlled San Francisco, we meet Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), a student of aikido who is thrust into intrigue when her dying sister hands off a film reel containing a movie called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, created by a mysterious entity known only as The Man in The High Castle. She is instructed to transport the film, the possession of which is an act of treason, to a location in Colorado.
John Smith (Rufus Sewell) is the ruthless Nazi commander dedicated to hunting down and killing all traitors to the party. Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is the Japanese Empire’s liaison who consults the I Ching in his attempts to avert war with Germany.
These are the main characters introduced in this pilot episode, with the focus on Joe and Juliana as the story culminates with their meeting in Colorado. There is a an effective twist at the end to leave the viewer wanting more.
The Endless Circular Strip That Is Orange County
I had the opportunity to watch The Man in the High Castle while visiting Orange County, California. I point this out because this is where Philip K. Dick wrote most of his books. But Dick harbored strong ambivalence towards southern California, a place he would call home for the last ten years of his life.
In a letter he wrote to science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem in 1973, Dick stated “There is no culture here in California, only trash. And we who grew up here and live here and write here have nothing else to include as elements in our work . . . The west coast has no tradition, no dignity and no ethics – this is where that monster Richard Nixon grew up. One must work with the trash, pit it against itself.”
Indeed, there could have been no better place for Dick, as a writer, than Orange County.
California, in many ways, represents the future, a future that troubled Dick greatly. Keenly aware of its plasticity and artificial nature, he would mockingly refer to Southern California as “Disneyland.” Disneyland was the symbol, the simulacra that had replaced authentic life for Americans and perhaps one day, the world. These meditations upon what was real and unreal would dominate all Dick’s work.
“In Southern California,” he writes in A Scanner Darkly, “It didn’t make any difference anyhow where you went; there was always the same McDonaldburger place over and over, like a circular strip that turned past you as you pretended to go somewhere.”
Recounted in almost all discussions of Philip K. Dick are the mystical revelations Dick experienced in Orange Country, from February and March of 1974, which he references in short hand as “2-3-74.” These psychedelic visions were initiated by a series of events which included a trip to the dentist’s office to extract an impacted wisdom tooth, a dose of sodium pentathol, and a visit by a delivery woman wearing a fish pendant.
The delivery woman was bringing Dick a dental prescription for Darvon, and the pendant was a symbol representing Christ. The moment Dick laid eyes on this symbol, a remarkable thing occurred: The pendant emitted a beam of light which, according to Dick, downloaded into his mind the entire sum of cosmic knowledge. Dick called this process anamnesis, a term borrowed from Plato, meaning the recollection of knowledge from all of one’s past lifetimes.
The experience was so profound it came to dominate the final eight years of his life, inspiring him to write an 8000 page “exegesis,” and author the seminal VALIS Trilogy.
Within the pages of the Exegesis, Dick grappled with the cause and meaning of the 2-3-74 occurrences. Was it, as his detractors would claim, final proof that he was certainly crazy? Perhaps he had suffered a mild case of temporal lobe epilepsy, which can produce visions. Many, including Dick himself, considered the possibility that these were hallucinations resulting from years of drug abuse. Although Dick had experimented with LSD, his drug of choice was amphetamines.
Paul Williams asked Dick in a 1975 interview for Rolling Stone whether his claim about writing all his novels since 1953 while on speed was an exaggeration.
“No,” Dick answered, “That’s not an exaggeration, that’s correct. A Scanner Darkly was the first complete novel I had written without speed. See, I believe there was a direct connection between the amphetamines and the writing. I attributed my speed of writing, my high productivity and my pushing myself to the amphetamines. I really used to think that if I didn’t take ‘em, I couldn’t write. But when I wrote Scanner, I found myself doing exactly what I’d done when I’d taken amphetamines, that is, I would work incredibly long hours, eat very little . . .”
Wether Dick’s spiritual experiences came from a drug induced delirium, or were the result of a divine invasion, they certainly derived from a man who’s spiritual yearnings were authentic.
“We are not products of this world,” Dick writes in the Exegesis, “But voyagers here – one thinks of Gnosticism at once. We have come here from another place and will eventually find the unexpected orthogonal axis and ascend to the next. Ah! Eventually we will chafe against the bonds – restrictions, determinism, limitations – of this world too, and seek release, as we did before with the “heavier” world.”
Dick certainly gave us much to ponder as we go around this endless circular strip that is Orange County, and elsewhere.
This story by Andrew Arnett was originally published March 15, 2015 @ The Stoned Society