#Book Talk… Philip K. Dick’s THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, the Embarcadero Freeway, #Portland’s Marquam Bridge, & Automobile Culture as Dystopia

In his blog, Professor DG Meyers reviews PK Dick’s THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE. If you don’t know, in this novel, Japan and Germany won World War II, but characters in it discover, through a book within the book called the Grasshopper Lies Heavy, that their world is a fiction. I have a different opinion that Meyers about a key part of the book. Meyers writes:

The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is not alternate history, after all. It is the true history no one is willing to face. The United States won the war, and yet capitulated to the Axis, acquiesced to partition and foreign occupation, nevertheless.

Dick’s political message has become something of a thematic commonplace in alternate history: even if the events had been different, the outcome would have been the same. War may decide the occupier, but not the sequel of occupation. If the U.S. had not developed the atomic bomb, another country would have—and would still have threatened Japan with it!


I think this navigates the wrong slice of understanding. It misses some meta-magic that the book offers. My opinion is that The Grasshopper Lies Heavy isn’t telling the characters that the USA really won the alternate history war. The fictional USA didn’t win the war, then capitulate. The fictional USA lost the fictional war in the most straightforward sense.

No, the fictional novel Grasshopper Lies Heavy is telling the characters that the alternate history is fiction, that the reader’s USA really won WWII in the true reality of the reader’s world. That is what is so wonderfully shocking–not just telling the fictional characters, but the writer’s respect it shows to the fictional character’s reality. The novel gives further clues to this interpretation, but take note, it is aesthetic talismans that make this possible, those of beauty and ugliness.


Examine the middle part of chapter 14. There, after viewing “the imperishable seeds. Of Beauty” of Mr. Childan’s silver work, Mr. Tagami shudders into crisis and epiphany. Among several pages of wonderful probing upon the artifact, he willfully staggers through a different reality (“The veil of maya will fall more if I–” The light disappeared.) Here a Yank policeman breaks his reverie, but a page later Mr. Tagami realizes he already crossed the barrier. The barrier to what? “God, what is that? He stopped, gaped at hideous misshapen thing on skyline, like nightmare of roller coaster suspected…” A man tells him, “Awful ain’t it? That’s the Embarcadero Freeway. A lot of people think it stinks up the view.” And it certain did.


The Embarcadero Freeway existed in PK Dick’s world, the reader’s world, not the character’s. It was an emotional issue at the time for people who lived in the area (and still is). Throughout US cities, such highway monstrosities have brutal effect on their neighborhoods. (It is its own symbol of brutality, helping Mr. Tagami confront the Germans later that chapter.)

Powered by the sublime talisman of Childan’s silver work, and its connection to the ugly talisman of the Embarcadero Freeway, Mr. Tagami has painfully traveled across realities. This is similar to the way fictional novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, powered by the oracle I-ching, connects the fiction to the reader’s real world. Side note, I think PKD uses some of the same language of permeability between worlds in UBIK.

I do think there is another meaning to The Grasshopper Lies Heavy conclusion about the war. Childan’s silver artifact with its beauty/truth sublime power, and artifacts like it that Childan sells, conveys some hyper sense of the “real” reality to the fictional world. And that has some kind of impact to the sense of sensitive people in the fictional novel that there is some kind of way in which truth/beauty can win in that fictional world. This would only be a victory for the fictional USA, and a loss for the fictional Japan/German axis, to the extent that the book is fiction and thus their victory is not truth. I think it is, roughly, a mystical, poetic, philosophic or aesthetic victory, though, something invisible and in its way unstoppable. Transformative aesthetics gives the fictional world a change to stop the nuclear war. –What magic do we have to help our real world? Sadly, Childan’s sublime silver work is fictional, whereas we had the Embarcadero Freeway as our talisman… The fictional world with a nightmarish Japan/German control yet has the beauty that Childan discovered that our real world does not. Because we have the triumph of the Embarcadero Freeway aesthetic.

I am hardly an expert in Bay Area infrastructure and its history, but I have lived in San Francisco, and I do still visit the area frequently (including a few weeks ago). In the 1980s, various San Francisco leadership entities proposed tearing down the Embarcadero Freeway, but afraid of change, the voters, lead by local merchants, voted to preserve it. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged it, Bay Area authorities just barely managed the political will to tear it down. Now it’s a boulevard lined by palm trees and supported by the Muni light rail. So much better!

In the 1990s, I wrote bicycle journalism. I attended civic meetings in Portland for the opening of the Eastbank Esplanade, which is not too far from where I live. Not just an eastside park, the Esplanade reflected a kind of technological update of urban infrastructure. The designers spoke not just of joining the west side river park with the east side, but of integrating the citizens with the river, making citizens see and feel the river ecology, understand the fish as part of the city.


The designers consciously conceived and advocated the Eastbank Esplanade as a natural and pleasant advocate for change. They recognized a problem, however, which is Interstate Highway 5. It crosses the Willamette River from the west side to the east and then parallels the river headed north. It is adjacent a large part of Esplanade. Despite the high concrete walls, it is painfully loud and impacts conversation of people walking along the Esplanade.


I suspect that Portland’s Esplanade is on this stretch an unpleasant advocate for change, by exposing pedestrian citizens to the aesthetic violence of the highway. The Esplanade even includes a sculpture, the Echo Gate, that portrays an act of trying to hear the river despite the authoritarian, ugly noise of the freeway:


Former Mayor Katz (whose statue sits in the Esplanade) spoke of removing the Marquam Bride which carries the I-5, and moving it underground. We can dream that someday it will happen, and I would support that. But think also what it means to need an infrastructure so aesthetically violent that it “rips the veil of maya”? That we need to bury it not for practical reasons but because it is so ugly and awful? What are the engineering coefficients for livability? Of “the imperishable seeds. Of Beauty”?


Highway infrastructure demands a brutal aesthetic. This is one reason why I remember that passage in PK Dick’s novel so well: the vision of the real Embarcadero Freeway is such an embodiment of ugliness, it helps give the sensitive fictional character a heart attack.

Our automobile madness seems like a 1930s utopian vision of the future that of course did not turn out the way its advocates expected. Master builder and urban planner Robert Moses didn’t even want to drive a car on his own freeways. This says something about human limits being separate from engineering limits, doesn’t it?





So what if these cars and trucks control themselves? Google’s self-driving cars seem to me misguided application of genius to an outdated form of transportation, like putting google glasses on the faces of oxen pulling canal barges. Highways driven by robots will still be brutal and degrading. There is a popular feeling that automobile culture is more of a cowboy thing than mass transit, but it mass transit; serviced by big government, automobiles moves the masses. Unfortunately it serves rural communities more efficiently and more pleasantly, subsidized by city dollars, and the USA’s political structure deliberately gives rural citizens disproportionate power, which itself is shrinking under the global corporate hydrocarbon economy.

What would happen if the hydrocarbons were suddenly not available?


My novel DANGEROUS BICYCLE MYSTERY QUEST is an adventure story that explores the role of energy by removing most of it. Not only does this oil shock shut down economies, it reveals cracks in the social order that cheap energy obscured. The character use bicycles to find out what happened and to try to help Portland survive. But things do not turn out as they intend.

It’s available as an eBook in popular formats around the world. Here’s a review.

Kindle USA http://goo.gl/yrIid7 (also available from your non-USA amazon.com )

iBook http://goo.gl/ffJGTK

Nook http://goo.gl/URm0Mq

Also available on Kobo, Inktera, Scribd, Tolino, and Oyster.

I’ve priced my novel cheap for now… but soon the price will go up. This is a good time to check it out.

It will be available as a paper book around September, 2015. [Update: The publisher and I have delayed the paper book version of DANGEROUS BICYCLE MYSTERY QUEST as  I prepare the e-Book version of the graphic novel ISLAND OF THE MOTHS.]


Note: Wikipedia is the source for the pictures above, except for my book cover.

Published in: on June 30, 2015 at 12:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

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