Briefly, The Man in the High Castle is a "fictional picture of a world divided by Germany and Japan, victors of the second World War".
In the novel's parallel history, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt was assassinated by Giuseppe Zangara on February 15, 1933, leading to the continuation of the Great Depression and U.S. isolationism during the opening of World War II. Adolf Hitler led Nazi Germany to conquer most of Europe and the Soviet Union, murdering Jews, Roma, Slavs, and other groups. Meanwhile, Imperial Japan occupied China, before taking control of India and Oceania. The Nazis then helped Italy conquer most of Africa. As Japan invaded the U.S. West Coast, Germany invaded the U.S. East Coast and most of South America. By 1947, the U.S. and the remaining Allies surrendered to the Axis, ending the war.
By the 1960s, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany are the world's competing superpowers, with Japan establishing the "Pacific States of America" (P.S.A.) from the former Western United States, with the remaining Rocky Mountain States now a neutral buffer zone between the P.S.A. and the Nazi-occupied former Eastern United States.
Hitler, though still alive, is incapacitated from advanced syphilis, and Martin Bormann has become Chancellor of Germany, with Goebbels, Heydrich, Göring, Seyss-Inquart (who oversees the extermination of the peoples of Africa), and other Nazi leaders soon vying to take his place. The Nazis have drained the Mediterranean to make room for farmland, developed and used the hydrogen bomb, and designed rockets for extremely fast travel across the world as well as space, having colonized the Moon, Venus, and Mars. The novel is set mostly in San Francisco in the P.S.A.; here, Chinese residents first appear in the novel as second-class citizens and black people as slaves.
In 1962, fifteen years after Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany have won World War II, Robert "Bob" Childan owns an Americana antiques shop in San Francisco, California (located in the Japanese-occupied Pacific States of America), which is most commonly frequented by the Japanese, who make a fetish of romanticized American cultural artifacts. Childan is contacted by Nobusuke Tagomi, a high-ranking Japanese trade official, who is seeking a gift to impress a visiting Swedish industrialist named Baynes. Childan's store is stocked in part with antiques from the Wyndam-Matson Corporation, a metalworking company. Frank Frink (formerly Fink), a secretly Jewish-American veteran of World War II, has just been fired from the Wyndam-Matson factory, when he agrees to join a former coworker to begin a handcrafted jewellery business. Meanwhile, Frink's ex-wife, Juliana, works as a judo instructor in Canon City, Colorado (in the neutral Mountain States buffer zone), where she begins a sexual relationship with an Italian truck driver and ex-soldier, Joe Cinnadella. Throughout the book, many of these characters frequently make important decisions using prophetic messages they interpret from the I Ching. Many characters are also reading a widely banned yet extremely popular new novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which depicts an alternative history in which the Allies won World War II, a concept that amazes and intrigues its readers.
Frink reveals that the Wyndam-Matson Corporation has been supplying Childan with counterfeit antiques, which effectively works to blackmail Wyndam-Matson for money to finance Frink's new jewelry venture. Tagomi and Baynes meet, but Baynes repeatedly delays any real business as they await an expected third party from Japan. Suddenly, the public receives news of the death of the recently-ill Chancellor of Germany, Martin Bormann. Childan tentatively, on consignment, takes some of Frink's authentic new metalwork and attempts to curry favor with a Japanese client, who surprisingly considers Frink's jewellery immensely spiritually alive. Juliana and Joe take a road trip to Denver, Colorado, and Joe impulsively decides they should go on a side-trip to meet the mysterious Hawthorne Abendsen, author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, who supposedly lives in a guarded fortress-like estate called the "High Castle" in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Soon, Joseph Goebbels is announced as the new German Chancellor.
Baynes and Tagomi finally meet their Japanese contact as two agents of the Nazi secret police, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), close in to arrest Baynes, who is actually revealed to be a Nazi defector named Rudolf Wegener. Wegener warns his contact, a famed Japanese general, of Operation Dandelion, an upcoming Goebbels-approved plan for the Nazis to surprise-attack the Japanese Home Islands, in order to obliterate them in one swift stroke. As Frink is elsewhere exposed as a Jew and arrested, Wegener and Tagomi are confronted by the SD agents, both of whom Tagomi shoots dead with an antique American pistol. Back in Colorado, Joe abruptly changes his appearance and mannerisms before the trip to the High Castle, leading Juliana to deduce that he intends to actually murder Abendsen. Joe confirms this, revealing himself to be an undercover Swiss Nazi assassin. Juliana mortally wounds Joe and drives off to warn Abendsen of the threat to his life.
Wegener flies back to Germany, while Tagomi remains shaken by the shootout and goes to Childan to sell back the gun he used in the fight; however, instead, sensing the energy from one of Frink's jewels, Tagomi impulsively buys it from Childan, before undergoing a spiritually intense if ambiguous moment where he momentarily perceives an alternative-history version of San Francisco. Later, Tagomi on a whim forces the German authorities to release Frink, whom Tagomi has never personally met and does not know is the maker of the jewel. Juliana soon has her own spiritual experience when she arrives in Cheyenne. There, she discovers that Abendsen now lives in a normal house with his family, having left behind the High Castle due to a change of outlook; he no longer preoccupies himself with thoughts that he might soon be assassinated. After dodging many of Juliana's questions about his inspiration for his novel, Abendsen finally confesses that he in fact used the I Ching to guide his writing of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Before leaving, Juliana infers then that "Truth" itself wrote the book in order to reveal the "Inner Truth" that Japan and Germany really lost World War II.
Several characters in The Man in the High Castle read the popular novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, by Hawthorne Abendsen, whose title is assumed or supposed to have come from the Bible verse "The grasshopper shall be a burden" (Ecclesiastes 12:5). Thus, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy constitutes a novel within a novel, wherein Abendsen writes of an alternate universe, where the Axis Powers lost World War II (1939–47). For this reason, the Germans have banned the novel in the occupied U.S.; but it is widely read in the Pacific, and its publication is legal in the neutral countries.
The Grasshopper Lies Heavy postulates that President Roosevelt survives an assassination attempt but forgoes re-election in 1940, honoring George Washington's two-term limit. The next president, Rexford Tugwell, removes the Pacific fleet from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, saving it from Japanese attack, which ensures that the U.S. enters the conflict a well-equipped naval power. The United Kingdom retains most of its military-industrial strength, contributing more to the Allied war effort, leading to Rommel's defeat in North Africa; the British advance through the Caucasus to fight alongside the Soviets to victory in the Battle of Stalingrad; Italy reneges on its membership in the Axis Powers and betrays them; British tanks and the Red Army jointly conquer Berlin; at the end of the war, the Nazi leaders—including Adolf Hitler—are tried for their war crimes, wherein the Führer's last words are Deutsche, hier steh' ich ("Germans, here I stand"), in imitation of Martin Luther.
After the war, Winston Churchill remains the British Prime Minister, and, because of its military-industrial might, the British Empire does not collapse. The Soviet Union, crippled by war losses, collapses. The U.S. establishes strong business relations with Chiang Kai-shek's right-wing regime in China after vanquishing the Communist Mao Zedong. The British Empire becomes racist and more expansionist post-war, while the U.S. outlaws Jim Crow laws, resolving its racism by the 1950s. Both changes provoke racial-cultural tensions between the U.S. and the U.K., leading them to a Cold War for global hegemony between their two vaguely liberal, democratic, capitalist societies. Although the end of the novel is never depicted in the text, one character claims the book ends with the British Empire eventually defeating the U.S., becoming the sole world superpower.
Dick said he conceived The Man in the High Castle when reading Bring the Jubilee (1953), by Ward Moore, which occurs in an alternate nineteenth-century U.S. wherein the Confederate States of America won the American Civil War. In the acknowledgments to the book, he mentions other influences: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960), by William L. Shirer; Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962), by Alan Bullock; The Goebbels Diaries (1948), Louis P. Lochner, translator; Foxes of the Desert (1960), by Paul Carrell; and the 1950 translation of the I Ching by Richard Wilhelm.
The acknowledgments have three references to traditional Japanese and Tibetan poetic forms; (i) volume one of the Anthology of Japanese Literature (1955), edited by Donald Keene, from which is cited the haiku on page 48; (ii) from Zen and Japanese Culture (1955), by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, from which is cited a waka on page 135; and (iii) the Tibetan Book of the Dead (1960), edited by W. Y. Evans-Wentz.
Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) is also mentioned in the text, written before the Roosevelt assassination divergence point that separates the world of The Man in the High Castle from ours. In this novella, "Miss Lonelyhearts" is a male newspaper journalist who writes anonymous advice as an agony aunt to forlorn readers during the height of the Great Depression; hence, "Miss Lonelyhearts" tries to find consolation in religion, casual sex, rural vacations, and work, none of which provide him with the sense of authenticity and engagement with the outside world that he needs. West's book is about the elusive quality of interpersonal relationships and quest for personal meaning at a time of political turmoil within the United States.
Philip Dick used the I Ching to make decisions crucial to the plot of The Man in the High Castle just as characters within the novel use the I Ching to guide decisions.
In The Religion of Science Fiction, Frederick A. Kreuziger explores the theory of history implied by Dick's creation of the two alternate realities:
Neither of the two worlds, however, the revised version of the outcome of WWII nor the fictional account of our present world, is anywhere near similar to the world we are familiar with. But they could be! This is what the book is about. The book argues that this world, described twice, although differently each time, is exactly the world we know and are familiar with. Indeed, it is the only world we know: the world of chance, luck, fate.
Avram Davidson praised the novel as a "superior work of fiction", citing Dick's use of the I Ching as "fascinating". Davidson concluded that "It's all here—extrapolation, suspense, action, art, philosophy, plot, [and] character."
The Man in the High Castle secured for Dick the 1963 Hugo Award for Best Novel.
A new paperback edition of the novel was published in 1992 by Vintage Books.
An unabridged The Man in the High Castle audiobook, read by George Guidall and running approximately 9.5 hours over 7 audio cassettes, was released in 1997. Another unabridged audiobook version was released in 2008 by Blackstone Audio, read by Tom Weiner and running approximately 8.5 hours over 7 CDs. A third unabridged audiobook recording was released in 2014 by Brilliance Audio, read by Jeff Cummings with a running time of 9:58.
After a number of attempts to adapt the book to the screen, Amazon's film production unit began in October 2014 filming the pilot episode of The Man in the High Castle in Roslyn, Washington, for a new television drama to air on the Amazon Prime web video streaming service. The pilot episode was released by Amazon Studios on January 15, 2015, and was Amazon's "most watched pilot ever" according to Amazon Studios' vice president, Roy Price. On February 18, 2015, Amazon green-lit the series. The show became available for streaming on November 20, 2015.
The television series diverges from the novel in many significant respects. Both the Pacific States of America and the Eastern American puppet state appear to be mere provinces of the Japanese and German empires without any apparent autonomous (even quisling) government institutions whatsoever. The Rocky Mountain States become an anarchic Neutral Zone. World War II appears to have ended following the destruction of Washington, D.C. with an A-bomb, rather than a land invasion as in the book. As for Hitler himself, while elderly, he is apparently mostly hale in his Season 1 finale appearance, though other characters elsewhere in the season do reference his supposed physical infirmity. In the novel, the Italian Empire is a minor power which controls North Africa and the Middle East; in the series, however, it is shown through maps that these territories are part of the Nazi Empire, suggesting that either the Italian Empire was annexed after the war or is self-governing within the Reich.
Characters from the book that do appear are in most cases far more fleshed out with deeper and sometimes rather different backstories than their novel originals. For instance Wegener is a standartenführer in the SS rather than a naval captain (and oddly there are no German military or naval – as opposed to SS – personnel depicted anywhere in the first season). Rather than being a member of an organized internal resistance (and despite his relatively low rank) Wegener is a close personal confidante of Hitler himself and his disillusionment with the regime appears to be largely personal. Juliana and Frank are unmarried but living together rather than divorced and separated. Frank has a sister, nephew and niece, although they are killed early in the series, and this propels him into a more active role in relation to the resistance. Juliana also has a sister whose murder by the Kempeitai early in the season instigates her search for the mysterious Man in the High Castle, as well as her having a mother and stepfather who are significant supporting characters. Joe Cinnadella is renamed Joe Blake and as he becomes closer to Juliana appears to have growing doubts about his role as a Nazi agent. Robert Childan is however a more minor character (at least in Season 1) than the original, while Ed McCarthy has a rather more prominent and active role.
There are several major additional characters introduced by the television series and numerous narrative details and the plotline differ radically from the source novel. For example, the planned Nazi pre-emptive nuclear strike on Japan, "Operation Dandelion," is apparently being prevented only by Hitler's personal refusal to authorise it, leading Heydrich and the faction demanding pre-emptive war to plot the Führer's assassination. In addition, Hawthorne Abendsen does not appear in the first season of the television version and The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is a series of newsreel films depicting multiple alternate realities rather than a novel (although this idea may actually be borrowed from Dick's later novel Valis which features a mysterious film depicting yet another dystopian alternate history of the USA). As of the Season 1 finale, these films are being tracked down by SS agents like Blake for dispatch to Hitler himself for an as-yet-unknown purpose.
In season two we see a map on John Smith's wall of the world. From this map we can see that Japan controls the entirety of the Pacific Ocean and most of the Asian continent, including China, India and half of Russia. Japan is also shown to control Australia, New Zealand, western Canada, Alaska and, all pacific states in the USA. We also see that that the Japanese Empire controls the Yucatan Peninsula and South American countries like Chile. In contrast, Nazi Germany is shown as controlling all of Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The German Empire also controls all of the United States and Canada up to the Rockies in the west and South American countries like Brazil. Germany also controls the western Russian countries such as the Ukraine. There are also buffer zones between the empires. Neither empire seems to have invaded Mexico and this neutral zone continues up through the Rockies and through Canada. A similar neutral zone is seen dividing Russia in half.
Season two also shows two very different lifestyles in the Japanese controlled Pacific states and the German controlled east. The Germans have colonized the eastern states and are assimilating its inhabitants into Nazi beliefs. The Japanese Empire is occupying the pacific states versus colonizing them. There is enforced segregation between Japanese and Americans citizens. It is implied that Native Americans were exterminated by the Germans.
In a 1976 interview, Dick said he planned to write a sequel novel to The Man in the High Castle: "And so there's no real ending on it. I like to regard it as an open ending. It will segue into a sequel sometime." Dick said that he had "started several times to write a sequel", but progressed little, because he was too disturbed by his original research for The Man in the High Castle and could not mentally bear "to go back and read about Nazis again." He suggested that the sequel would be a collaboration with another author: "Somebody would have to come in and help me do a sequel to it. Someone who had the stomach for the stamina to think along those lines, to get into the head; if you're going to start writing about Reinhard Heydrich, for instance, you have to get into his face. Can you imagine getting into Reinhard Heydrich's face?"
Two chapters of the proposed sequel were published in The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick, a collection of his essays and other writings. The chapters describe Gestapo officers reporting to Nazi Party officials about their time-travel visits to a parallel world in which the Nazi conquest has failed, but which contains nuclear weapons, available for the stealing by the Nazis back to their world. A working title for the novel, describing the emergence of a hybrid Japanese–American culture, was Ring of Fire.
On occasion, Dick said that 1967's The Ganymede Takeover began as a sequel to The Man in the High Castle, but that it did not coalesce as such. Specifically, the Ganymedans occupying the Earth began as the Imperial Japanese occupying the conquered US. Dick's novel Radio Free Albemuth also is rumored to have started as a sequel to The Man in the High Castle. Dick described the plot of this early version of Radio Free Albemuth—then titled VALISystem A—writing: "... a divine and loving ETI [extraterrestrial intelligence] ... help[s] Hawthorne Abendsen, the protagonist-author in [The Man in the High Castle], continue on in his difficult life after the Nazi secret police finally got to him... VALISystem A, located in deep space, sees to it that nothing, absolutely nothing, can prevent Abendsen from finishing his novel." The novel eventually evolved into a new story unrelated to The Man in the High Castle. Dick ultimately abandoned the Albemuth book, unpublished during his lifetime, though portions were salvaged and used for 1981's VALIS. The full book was published in 1985, three years after Dick's death.