Posted on 14th October 2010

Posted by Fiction Uncovered

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Discovering a writer for the first time

I found The Man in The High Castle by Philip K. Dick tucked away in a corner section of  WH Smiths in the Guildhall shopping centre in Exeter. It was a Penguin Classics edition, with the familiar silver jacket, and what intrigued me first about it was the cover illustration – a corrupted version of the Stars and Stripes in which the stars representing the fifty states were replaced with white swastikas. I went to the café next door and started reading.

There’s nothing quite like discovering a writer for the first time. The thrill of feeling that you are in tune with their voice, the characters that seem like people you already know, the excitement when you can hardly wait for the story to unfold. And that pleasure is somehow even sweeter when you have made the discovery unaided by advertising or marketing or reviews; when you have simply picked up a book that you liked the look of and started reading and it has turned out to be a masterpiece, or when a chance recommendation by a friend or colleague has tipped you off.

You might think that everybody has heard of Philip K. Dick, and that it’s not particularly hard to ‘discover’ a writer of his stature, but in fact he was not widely known in Britain until 1982 when his novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, was made into the film Blade Runner. Even now his more realist novels — as opposed to the overtly technological science fiction such as Do Androids… — remain relatively obscure. I had never read any of his books before. First published in 1962, The Man in the High Castle imagines an alternative history in which the Axis powers win the Second World War and have invaded the continental United States, dividing the country into three zones. The Pacific West Coast is occupied by the Japanese, and the East Coast and Mid-West by the Nazis. In the Mountains there is a DMZ (demilitarized zone) in which a small number of free Americans survive.

Writing long before Robert Harris’s Enigma and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, Dick was the first novelist to depict this now-familiar alternative history, but for me what is most interesting here is not his imagining of the Axis triumph but the story of a small group of characters as they try to find the author of a mysterious book. This book, the book within a book, is called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, and it also tells an alternative history. It imagines a world in which the Allies, not the Axis, won the war. It tells the story of the world that we live in. The characters in The Man in The High Castle believe that this book holds a powerful secret about their own existence. As they make their way into the mountains to confront the author, they consult the I-Ching (a kind of ancient, poetic horoscope and sacred text in widespread use in the Japanese-occupied territories) to try to discover more about The Grasshopper and their own destinies.

The conclusion of the novel is one of the most remarkable pieces of writing I have ever encountered. It contains a powerful meditation on the nature of reality, and serves as a profound commentary on fiction and imagination. I’m sure I would have come across Philip K. Dick’s writing sooner or later, and read The Man in the High Castle at some point, but it was pure chance that I happened to stumble upon it when I did. What this experience taught me is that it is often the books you don’t know about, and the writers whose names you haven’t heard, who can tell the stories you love best of all. Fiction Uncovered is designed to help you find those writers and those stories: the ones that don’t have posters plastered all over the Underground or the railway station: the ones that haven’t been reviewed in all the newspapers or featured on Richard and Judy. The ones that might just be lying in wait for you, ready to blow your mind or break your heart.

Charles Beckett, Art Council England

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