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Philip K. Dick, Late Modernism, and the Chinese Logic of American Totality

Given the tradition that the Analects contain nothing superfluous, I was puzzled by the verses re length of the night-gown and the predilection for ginger. . . . Those passages of the Analects are, as I see it, there to insist that Confucius was a Chinaman, not born of a dragon, not in any way supernatural, but remarkably possessed of good sense.

—Ezra Pound, The Confucian Analects

[I]s the surest way to a fructive western idea the misunderstanding of an eastern one?

—Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era

How did the novel, which shared most of its history with the rise and consolidation of the modern nation-state, adapt to a new world order scrambled by war, colonialism, and migration? Rebecca Walkowitz and Matthew Hart, among others, have traced high modernist experiments with multilingualism, which seemed to offer the utopian possibility of an idiom to heal broken continents.[1] Nobody articulated this sentiment with greater bombast than Eugene Jolas, a self-declared “intercontinental amalgam” who found in Manhattan “a super-Occidental form of expression with polyglot overtones,” an “Atlantic, or Crucible, language . . . the result of the interracial synthesis that was going on in the United States, Latin America, and Canada.”[2] Though Jolas was convinced that “this titanic linguistic compound would facilitate intellectual communication and creative expression on a universal basis,” James Joyce, who indeed experimented with a “linguistic compound” in Finnegans Wake, did not herald an era of transnational communication (Man from Babel, 273).[3] Those earlier disappointments with cosmopolitan polyglossia, Jed Esty claims, spawned a regression to nativism, as the aging high modernists tried to salvage a sense of national identity in the wake of imperial overexpansion.[4] But what about the late modernists, those younger writers who were born headfirst into “the interracial synthesis,” and arrived too late to find consolation in either cosmopolitanism or nativism? In what follows, I identify a third way in the late modernism of Philip K. Dick, who impounds a foreign, non-verbal, empirical form to manage political and cultural instability.

But first, was Dick even a late modernist? What is, or was, late modernism? Recent scholarship on late modernism articulates its specific characteristics, such as its reinvention of poetry as instrument of dialectical reason, its attentiveness to finer details of life, or its fascination with mortality.[5] Nevertheless, as an attempt to lend a strong definition of late modernism within a broader morphology of modernism (or modernism’s transition to postmodernism?) Tyrus Miller’s 1999 work remains an important reference. Miller notes that the late modernists are “just not read,” even by literary scholars, for late modernism is considered “little more than a peripheral issue, a bit of detail work on the capacious but drafty house of fiction built by Modernism, Postmodernism, and Co.”[6] The late modernists, after all, did not mobilize for centrality; they did not form an identifiable coterie or movement in the manner of “Pound’s big brass band.”[7] Yet even as he notes “a significant set of family resemblances” among late modernists such as “generalized mimetism, self-reflexive laughter, and the weakening of symbolic form,” Miller builds his case for studying their works by emphasizing their function as bridge between high modernism and postmodernism (Late Modernism, 62).[8] Miller thus places the late modernists diachronically, as historical middlemen situated between the world wars. By design, such an approach encourages us to read late modernism against the two supposedly flashier moments in literary history, to measure its features against its historical predecessor and successor.

Though I share Miller’s investment in recognizing the indispensability of reading the late modernists to understand twentieth-century literary history, we must also think of the late modernists synchronically, as coevals who sought to expand the novel beyond the political framework of the nation-state. According to Miller, the late modernists “weaken[ed] the relatively strong symbolic forms still evident in high modernist texts” to reopen “the modernist enclosure of form onto the work’s social and political environs, facilitating its more direct, polemical engagement with topical and popular discourse” (Late Modernism, 20). In other words, Miller’s late modernists did away with high modernist formal apparatuses, which interfered with a naked engagement with social and political issues of the time. My aim is to show that though the late modernists could not sustain conviction in high modernist symbolic forms, they did not therefore give up on totalization altogether; rather, they proposed more abstract, logical constructions of their own to express modes of collectivity better suited for the emerging world order. In importing codified, numeric signs rather than resuscitating premodern myths or epics, the late modernists bypass the antinomy of multilingualism and nationalism to offer a non-linguistic formal syntax and renew faith in the basic communicative function of language. In other words, learning from high modernist failures, the late modernists plundered empirical experience rather than literary history, replicating logical solutions that had been practically deployed to make the unruly world navigable. My broader literary historical claim, then, is that the Anglophone novel becomes more geographically expansive not through the direct incorporation of multiple languages (which we might crudely call the high modernist approach) or through painstaking representations of diverse ethnicities and locales (which we might call the realist one).[9] Rather, it becomes global through the late modernists, who, by deploying various abstract categories, offered weightless patterns that, uprooted from any national historical origins, could be stretched across continents and carried across oceans. Late modernism thus constitutes not a temporal, liminal phase in literary history, but a particularly cerebral approach to the problem of representing the new world order, one that not only has positive features but also extends well into the Cold War period.

Dick has not been considered alongside his modernist contemporaries because of his purported parochialism, unexceptional style, and choice of subgenre. Dick, after all, was a stay-at-home American writer who had little to do with that modernist Mecca, Paris (though the French have always read Dick avidly); science fiction is low-prestige, and some of his works are justifiably forgotten for their careless prose. None of the above is a good reason to banish Dick from the company of, say, Samuel Beckett or Vladimir Nabokov.[10] For one, though Dick did not travel much, his writing is everywhere preoccupied with domestic experiences of global events, of intercontinental wars and postwar immigration. As Walter Benn Michaels notes, it is the seemingly insular American writers’ “obsession with a racialized Americannness that would mark most clearly their participation in modernism as an international movement.”[11] But as Michaels observes in a different context, speculative fiction offers a versatile set of tools with which to think through that classic modernist problem of managing alterity.[12] The classic SF plot presents crisis situations (usually of brinkmanship, war, or planetary invasion) in which the task of finding some comprehensible logic that all the different species can share constitutes a matter of survival.[13] In other words, the loopiest hallucinations of robots, time travel, and multiverses thus offer practical material with which to think afresh about entrenched, seemingly insurmountable racial conflict in a transnational, multi-ethnic world order. For Fredric Jameson, the social and political significance of science fiction lies in its capacity to break present deadlocks; in Jameson’s account, SF does not simply supply pastiche-images of the future (in the way Jameson has argued elsewhere that the contemporary historical novel does, of the past) but “serve[s] the . . . function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come.”[14] The individual plot content of SF matters less than the premise that the works together secrete: that it is our current actions that will draw, from innumerable possible future scenarios, the fate that will irrevocably be ours. In other words, science fiction suggests that the dystopian futures it depicts are avoidable, that history has not ended but is still actively in the making.[15]

At the core of Dick’s uneven oeuvre, then, is the task of conceptualizing a common denominator in an ethnically diverse, culturally diffracted America. Thinky androids and tempagogic drugs notwithstanding, Dick’s future worlds bear the imprint of 1950s California, and they are preoccupied with extracting a formula for a common collectivity amidst the dramatic upheavals in American demography. Viewed thus, it seems only natural that Dick cut his teeth as a Jamesian realist before he migrated to science fiction; the ready availability of androids and aliens helps Dick reformulate the basic modernist question of what gives any collective its necessary coherence. Each of Dick’s experiments with imagining totality attempts to strike the delicate balance between the collective and the individual; his purpose is to find a social logic for America’s multiracial future, a solution that would have to be at least as bold and unprecedented as American federalism. As I show, such experiments seek no less than to find a system of thought that would unsettle and replace racism. In finding a solution in China, Dick joins the company of modernists such as Ezra Pound. If predecessors such as Pound appropriated a surface aesthetic, though, Dick goes further, importing a social logic, a practical system of thought, to bind and make sense out of the emergent transnational world order.

Your History is Your Fate

But why did Dick have to go all the way to ancient China to find a social logic for modern America? Did American lack its own forms and images? Various Old World commentators from Alexis de Tocqueville to Jean Baudrillard have asserted with pride and envy that Americans, having been modern from their very inception, never had to ache for a destroyed premodern past.[16] Yet America too inevitably ages, and in projecting future worlds of colonized planets and supra-national world systems, Dick anticipates the loss of America’s—or, more accurately, a specific subsection of America’s—indigenous knowable community: the tribes of suburbia, where regal Anglo-Saxon names are reduced to cheerful monosyllables (Bob, Bill, Phil, Liz) and neighbors assay adulterous affairs like so many comrades in a shared battle against ennui.[17] Nixon’s presentation of the USA to the USSR in 1959 with a cutaway model of a suburban home was a touch of genius, for in those toy-like appliances lay, for many middle-class Americans, a recognizable national essence, the happiness of homey material comfort (also available for export). No wonder, then, that for Dick, small-town America is a site of cathexis; it offers a necessary conceptual counterweight for disorienting constructions of the future, whose alterity seems to demand no less than a modification of the English language for adequate description. The strange, often foreign, future pushes the American knowable community into obsolescence. In the best-case scenario, the American heartland remains intact for the simple reason that it is so undesirable and barren that the most grasping foreign imperialists don’t want it (The Man in the High Castle, 1962); in the worst, it is kept on life support as military strategy (Time Out of Joint, 1959) or artificial theme park (Now Wait for Last Year, 1966).[18] 

 G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1962).
Fig. 1. Cover for the first edition of The Man in the High Castle, (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1962).

One of Dick’s signature strategies, though, is to place pre-World War II American suburbs incongruously alongside high-tech “off-worlds” populated by androids and aliens, as if to emphasize their desultory, disconnected survival as image or theme. Christopher Kendrick writes that utopian writing emerged in the transitional state of uneven development. Placing noncontiguous modes of production together, the disorderly spaces of early modern utopias register the instability felt in the transition from one mode of production (feudalism) to another (capitalism). Kendrick reads Louis Marin to note that utopian spaces, or jeux d’espaces, proffer the writer’s own critical digestion of a transitional period:

[T]he jeux d’espaces do not make up a passive material, but are rather implicit with (a plural) informing principle, as if controlled by some psychotic demiurge. This means that these rudimentary spatial figures are critical: they compose a content with a kind of second-level realist function in that they refer to the variegated sources, necessarily historical in nature, from which the imaginary setting is formed.[19]

A good reader’s task is thus to parse the diachronic parts that have been synchronically thrown together. To reach the social, historical context and concomitant utopian desires underpinning the text, a reader must first pick through the writer’s psychotic plunder.

Though Kendrick’s focus is Thomas More, his argument can be productively applied to Now Wait for Last Year, which, at its barest, cobbles together not modes of production but three modes of collectivity that have been attempted or idealized at various moments in history.[20] In that sense, Now Wait for Last Year does not offer a singular utopia so much as a meta-utopia displaying three competing models of social coherence. The plot involving the toxic drug JJ–180, which induces the time travel, offers a pretext through which Dick exhibits versions of collective living in an America that has stretched beyond the planet, across the galaxy. The first, introduced immediately at the novel’s opening, are the “babylands” kept on Mars by elderly war profiteers in 2055, the novel’s diegetic present. Such babylands simulate space-times from past Terra, somewhat like the curated Brooklyn in the film Synecdoche, New York (2008). Thus Virgil owns “Wash–35,” which simulates the 1935 Washington town of his childhood. Shops “at which Virgil had bought Tip Top comics and penny candy” stand next to drugstores where “the old man during his childhood had bought a cigarette lighter . . . and chemicals for his Gilbert Number Five glass-blowing and chemistry set.”[21] Populating Wash–35 are android children and a “dignified dark robant” (robotic servant) programmed to speak like a slave (Dick, Now Wait, 28). Virgil must be able to address each unthreatening robant by name, for his enjoyment of the space depends on its intimacy. In a novel where the protagonist, Eric, spends most of his time travelling vast expanses in talkative taxis, the babylands replicate for the elite a regressive knowable community small enough to be traversed by foot, where the pettiest purchases form the sweetest memories.

Meanwhile, on Earth humans experiment with fascist collectivities where leaders lock down consensus with personal charisma. The problem is that the dictator of the United Nations, Gino Molinari, is so electrically sensitive to his populace that he is constantly ill, having absorbed all the physical ailments of those in his vicinity; yet because humankind’s cooperation and ability to withstand attacks from hostile aliens depend on Molinari’s charisma, he must stay alive to appear periodically in public. Eric’s task is to replace Molinari’s organs, which give in to spontaneous decay most inconveniently during important meetings with enemy aliens. As it turns out, to sustain the ever -precarious world order, Molinaris must be secured from alternate presents and preserved in coldpak to replenish expired Molinaris. Far from enjoying power, the Molinaris are tragic creatures who constantly fantasize about suicide, which would allow them relief not only from the tremendous responsibility of protecting earth from alien attack but also from the unremitting pain. As one freshly revived Molinari tells Eric, “I don’t move ahead, like you do. I move sideways only, into the parallel presents” (227). Though this centralized system, which unites all the human species on Terra under Molinari, is diegetically current, it has no future, for even the frozen Molinaris are limited in supply.

The novel’s closing scenes presents the third and final totality, which had been suggested all along in references to pungent cigarettes and specialty furs: Tijuana. By this point, having traveled to and tampered with various pasts, presents, and futures, and having resuscitated Molinari several times, Eric has saved humanity multiple times; rather than returning home, though, he takes a cab across the border, a disorienting moment in which Dick would seem to switch genres from SF to Western. Tijuana, which has remained miraculously pristine from developments elsewhere on Terra, is bright with “neon signs of the narrow boothlike shops” and clangs with “the clamor of the Mexican hucksters”; “Small tough Mexicans, youths wearing open-throated fur shirts, strode directly at him, their mouths agape as if they were strangling” (235, 236). With unseasonable fur, Dick superimposes a Mongolian reference, perhaps to suggest Huns and hordes, on Mexican bodies. It is hard not to think of the opening shots of Blade Runner (1982), Ridley Scott’s adaptation of another Dick novel, where Asians push and jostle against Harrison Ford; indeed, much like Ford in Blade Runner, Eric is the only white man in the crowd who is somehow still able to blend into it because the Mexicans are (inexplicably) complacent about his presence. The doctor philosophizes among the milling bodies.

In a town where everything is legal . . . and nothing achieves worth, you are wrenched back into childhood. Placed among your blocks and toys, with all your universe within grasp. The price for license is high; it consists of a forfeit of adulthood. And yet he loved it here. The noise and stirrings represented authentic life. Some people found all this evil; he did not. People who thought that were wrong. The restless, roving bands of males who sought God knew what—they themselves didn’t know: their striving was the genuine primal under-urge of protoplasmic material itself. This irritable ceaseless motion had once carried life right out of the sea and onto land; creatures of the land now, they still roamed on, up one street and down another. And he went along with them. (236)

The moneyboys build babylands on Mars, but the middle-class doctor finds cheaper nostalgic pleasure in tourism, which offers him his own “blocks and toys.” Dick’s Tijuana is recognizable as an archetype of totality that Hegel imagines in his writings on epics and the Greeks; this is the prelapsarian world of the savage who does not suffer from a fissure between thought and action, having never known the distinction.[22] The Mexicans not only have no law, but as “protoplasmic material,” precede in their primitivism the troublesome binary of good and evil (ethics with which, as a doctor tampering with events that will influence the future, Eric has constantly struggled). Community requires individuality and its coordination; plasmic material knows neither individuality nor community as fact or problem. Eric thus chooses the opposite of the knowable community: he seeks the recalcitrantly unknowable community, or more precisely, a community where there is nothing to know.

 Doubleday, 1966).
Fig. 2. Cover for the first edition hardcover of Now Wait for Last Year (New York: Doubleday, 1966).

What emerges from the serial display of three types of collectivity—of the American suburbs, modern totalitarianism, and foreign atavism—is therefore something more precise than what Herbert Marcuse called the atrophy of the utopian imagination, about which Jameson has written suggestively.[23] Now Wait for Last Year impugns our inability to find the most minimal common ground in thinking about a desirable system.[24] Dick’s banal totalities confirm Georg Lukács’s trademark insight that one is always blinkered by one’s class standpoints.[25] The capitalist finds his utopia on a regressive colony, a getaway from a world riven by financial risk. The unnamed masses (or the proletariat) take solace in the charismatic, electrifying leader who, giving a whole new meaning to the term “gut feeling,” viscerally sympathizes with the downtrodden (Molinari comes close to dying, for instance, from the pain of a cook working in his building). And finally, for the well-behaved middle-class doctor who has just been shaken by a meeting with his fat, cranky future self, utopia is a primordial past where there is no tomorrow, and thus no pressure to discipline the present self for the benefit of a better future self; it is not a coincidence that in Tijuana Eric behaves like an undergraduate on spring break, visiting a tattoo parlor and trying to score drugs. The title, of course, refers to the plot, which features characters who travel to the past and thus wait for last year to repeat itself. It also mocks our imaginative poverty, our impulse to cobble together visions of future community out of memories already tainted by prejudice.

For especially in the case of America, the past—personal history—constitutes derelict grist for a future totality. Any judgment about the most desirable moment in history will necessarily be constrained by experience and thus identity positions. The American modernists, unlike their British counterparts, did not have the option of returning to an idealized rustic past, not because America never had a history (as the French critics hyperbolically insist) but because America never had a homogeneous past. A plantation colony, America was ethnically diverse and marred by racial violence from its inception. In Now Wait for Last Year, that identity divides primarily along class lines, but in the Mexican epilogue and other Dick novels (Dr. Bloodmoney, 1965, or Martian Time-Slip, 1964) it further splinters along color lines. For Dick, present attempts to imagine a coherent collective are thwarted not so much by differences of race, gender, or class as such, but by the tendency to revert to the past to imagine future forms of community, which defeats the purpose: America’s future will always already be fragmented by its history. If a new form of American community is to be imagined at all, it must be fabricated anew from unfamiliar materials or imported from foreign shores.

Motion Illness

Dick was hardly the first or only young man to go East for literary inspiration. A few examples include Oscar Wilde’s chinoiserie in Dorian Gray, Pound’s faux translations of the Chinese ideograph, and the Beat generation’s interest in Buddhist Zen (a fascination that thrives still in Silicon valley).[26] The I Ching in The Man in the High Castle, however, stands out because China supplies more than a surface aesthetic such as an ideographic character or a minimalist lifestyle. To Dick, China offers no less than a practical social logic that can be stitched deep into American life as a system of thought. Dick’s interest in China is particularly striking because, unlike the globetrotting writers of contemporary global novels or cyberpunk, Dick dreaded globalization. In David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten (1999) or Cloud Atlas (2004), for instance, various metonymic motifs (such as an odd-shaped birthmark) and recapitulated experiences signify kindred spirits despite differences in birthplace; there are even mystical suggestions of cross-cultural reincarnations. In cyberpunk, the future is heterogeneous but familiar, for cultures have flattened into uniformity worldwide; all characters in William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) converse in a multilingual patois. In the works of both Mitchell and Gibson, then, globalization connects and homogenizes, and the abolition of difference through physical contact, as Case’s night with Molly in Neuromancer suggests, is as thrilling and pleasurable as Donna Haraway promised. In Dick’s future worlds, though, globalization renders spaces featureless but diversifies communities, generating constant miscommunication.[27] In blessing the Rachel–Rick Deckard relationship in Blade Runner, Ridley Scott thus eliminates a key Dickian theme: a terror of commixture. The dissolution of reliable social infrastructures (such as governments) and the poverty of cultural, fictional representations of collectivity in the globalized future generate a chaotic anomic state in which the task of apprehending and managing alterity becomes a personal responsibility. The weight of that task causes chronic existential uncertainty and psychological breakdown, and Dick’s characters often end up burrowing into their own paranoid conclusions.[28]

In The Man in the High Castle that breakdown manifests as a general anxiety disorder that everyone must find ways to manage. The most celebrated Dick novel, High Castle is also the most ethnically diverse, taking as its premise an alternative past in which the Axis powers have triumphed and America has been absorbed into a Japanese empire. Because America is now an imperial outpost, foreigners arrive not at the bottom of the social ladder, as 3-D workers, but as the ruling elite who run the country and set down the new cultural norms. The defeated Americans characters thus adopt mutilated Japanese English or try to acquire a “tan.” Having established what counts as correct grammar and beautiful skin shade, the Japanese govern minds and bodies on autopilot. American deference reveals how globalization is experienced from the receiving end as aggression, even when it arrives as so many benevolent labor-saving devices or sugary confections; military and economic dominance underwrites the paper agreements that bring glossy novelties to shore.[29]

In this new superficially multicultural reality, every social interaction is informed by nationality and ethnicity, and it falls on the powerless to adjust to their interlocutor’s behavioral norms. Thus Robert Childan, who owns a store that sells American paraphernalia to a Japanese clientele, suffers constant anxiety about whether his behavior is appropriate. The simple task of leaving his store to see a client in central San Francisco is dramatic because it involves strategizing many intricate steps:

Too much to plan; no time for a midday doze. Was he absolutely properly dressed to enter the Nippon Times building? Possibly he would faint in the high-speed elevator. But he had motion-illness tablets with him, a German compound. The various modes of address . . . he knew them. Whom to treat politely, whom rudely. Be brusque with the doorman, elevator operator, receptionist, guide, any janitorial person. Bow to any Japanese, of course, even if it obliged him to bow hundreds of times. But the pinocs. Nebulous area. Bow, but look straight through them as if they did not exist. Did that cover every situation, then? What about a visiting foreigner? Germans often could be seen at the Trade missions, as well as neutrals.

And then, too, he might see a slave . . . None would be in the Trade Mission offices, but if any unloading were taking place—for instance, should he carry his own bags to Mr. Tagomi’s office? Surely not. A slave would have to be found, even if he had to stand waiting an hour. Even if he missed his appointment. It was out of the question to let a slave see him carrying something; he had to be quite careful of that. A mistake of that kind would cost him dearly; he would never have place of any sort again, among those who saw.

In a way, Childan thought, I would almost enjoy carrying my own bags into the Nippon Times Building in broad daylight. What a grand gesture. It is not actually illegal; I would not go to jail.[30] 

The legality of gauche behavior is partly responsible for Childan’s misery; a written code might at least be learned and followed. Instead, decorous and “correct” behavior in Japanese San Francisco remains distressingly elusive. As a white shopkeeper, Childan belongs somewhere in the middle of the city’s hierarchy of ethnicity and class, and to keep that place he cannot lose face. Every possible encounter must be planned for. Even the solution to counter the physiological effects of gauche cultural behavior is nationally typed, as if in eating a German compound, Childan ingests Teutonic power, cultural prestige. Given the intensity of his incessant inner commentary, it comes as no surprise that Childan’s utopia is a world where one need not constantly bid to be considered equal. An unexpected dinner invitation from a young Japanese couple plunges Childan into happy dreams of a future where all converse on equal terms: “Place difference did not have the significance for them. It will end . . . Someday. The very idea of place. Not governed and governing, but people” (Dick, High Castle, 5). Yet Childan soon sinks back into his mental contortions, the habit runs so deep (“Being admitted, no doubt offered tea. Would he do the right thing? Know the proper act and utterance at each moment? Or would he disgrace himself, like an animal, by some dismal faux pas?” and so on and so forth [5]).

For Childan, the Japanese characters do not seem to suffer any of the side effects of a multiracial America; instead, they curate and consume the best the world has to offer. Indeed, it is only when he realizes that the Japanese are somehow exempt from the negative emotional consequences of globalization that Childan snaps out of his self-disparagement. When the Kasouras do not respond to his fawning praise of Japan, Childan’s anxious thoughts sour, a scene all the more disconcerting because his hate is expressed in Japanese patois:

Face facts. I’m trying to pretend that these Japanese and I are alike. But observe: even when I burst out as to my gratification that they won the war; that my nation lost—there’s still no common ground. What words meant to me is sharp contrast vis-à-vis them. Their brains are different. Souls likewise. Witness them drinking from English bone china cups, eating with U.S. silver, listening to Negro style of music. It’s all on the surface. Advantage of wealth and power makes this available to them, but it’s ersatz as the day is long.

Even the I Ching, which they’ve forced down our throats, it’s Chinese. Borrowed from way back when. Whom are they fooling? Themselves? Pilfer customs right and left, wear, eat, talk, walk, as for instance consuming with gusto baked potato served with sour cream and chives, old-fashioned American dish added to their haul. But nobody fooled, I can tell you; me least of all. (117)

Childan’s rant casts an unflattering light not only on idealizations of multicultural liberalism but also on the later cyberpunk aesthetic of exotic locales and protagonists fluent in tongue-twisting brand names. Only a historical victor admiring his spoils sees, in the new heterogeneous sprawl, a cosmopolitan style and not a logistical nightmare. Precisely when the Kasouras proudly display their cosmopolitan taste and fondness for Americana, Childan despairs in a difference that runs deeper than skin, deeper than culture: “[t]heir brains are different. Souls likewise.”

Yet the circumstances are more complicated, and even for the Japanese, ethnic and cultural difference poses problems. Kim Stanley Robinson notes that early Dick novels resemble conventional European realist novels in their tendency to flit in and out of the perspectives of multiple characters. To properly apprehend diegetic worlds that offer so many subjective perspectives, the reader must train herself to aggregate and synthesize her own information.[31] The episode in which Tagomi frets about picking the right present for Baynes (an undercover German intelligence officer whom Tagomi knows at first to be Swedish) provides a counterpoint to Childan’s rant: as it turns out, even the Japanese worry about giving offense. After much anxious deliberation, Tagomi offers Baynes the “most authentic of dying old U.S. culture, a rare retained artifact carrying flavor of bygone halcyon day”: a Mickey Mouse watch (45). And it is only having seen Tagomi’s “tense, concerned face,” that Baynes concludes that the watch is not an antic insult. Clearly, Tagomi’s situation differs from Childan’s; since the Japanese, as the dominant group, take their own norms to be the default, it does not occur to Tagomi to investigate what the Swedes like, let alone cater to those tastes. Yet Tagomi too, having given his guest the watch, must “[study] him, drinking in his reaction, his appreciation” (45). Both Tagomi and Baynes strain to comprehend gifts that, pulled out of cultural context, mean nothing. Dick’s novels prophesy a future that will bring, on the one hand, a superficial mixing of cultures and greater access to unfamiliar luxury, but on the other, a return to racial prejudice, which supplies emergency shortcuts in a heterogeneous community, a way of managing the unknown and thus potentially threatening other. In this stressful world, where businesspeople must decipher faces like psychics and palm readers, race functions as a kind of script, or shorthand. We can recall here the German compound that Childan swallows before meeting his Japanese clientele: the more popular German compound that temporarily relieves motion illness in this alternative Nazi universe is not a pill. It is racism.

The Portable Absolute

So can there be an effective alternative to racism? A structure that is at once expansive enough to cross divisions of identity, but also flexible enough to offer guidance in quotidian social situations, to make communities knowable again? It is worth recalling at this point that the “knowable community” was a modern British—or more specifically, Welsh—idea.[32] Lukács had something quite different in mind when he explained totality in opening his chapter on “Integrated Civilizations.” Here is totality explained as sensory images:

Happy are those ages when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths—ages whose paths are illuminated by the light of the stars. Everything in such ages is new and yet familiar, full of adventure and yet their own. The world is wide and yet it is like a home, for the fire that burns in the soul is of the same essential nature as the stars; the world and the self, the light and the fire, are sharply distinct, yet they never become permanent strangers to one another, for fire is the soul of all light and all fire clothes itself in light . . . “Philosophy is really homesickness,” says Novalis: “it is the urge to be at home everywhere.”[33]

For Lukács, totality is a well-nigh magical state in which all elements are perfectly balanced so that each maintains its individual integrity without alienating another; elements “are sharply distinct, yet they never become permanent strangers to one another,” while everything is “new and yet familiar.” In a world where the thrill of novelty coexists, impossibly, with the sweet comfort of familiarity, one feels securely tethered to a sense of place even as one explores expansive spaces of possibility. Most strikingly, the stars stretch out a map that is not merely static and spatial but temporal also, “illuminating the paths of the ages.” Lukács’s totality is not social or historical; it is cosmological, a unanimity achieved not merely among human bodies but among celestial bodies. Against possible anxieties, the wise stars dispense psychological assurance. Members of those elusive “integrated civilizations,” then, were privy not only to consonance between soul and body, thought and action, but also conversant with the natural elements. And it is here that Lukács’s vision contrasts most radically with that of the later Marxists, for it has little truck with the Enlightenment rationalism that, growing out of Renaissance humanism, pitted man against nature (Novalis, who is explicitly cited, yearned for the Middle Ages); the young, pre-Marxist Lukács’s account of totality resembles that of Taoism or Buddhism, which prioritize harmony and coexistence with nature. As Martin Jay has shown, the concept of totality as we know it would never have come into existence without the work of Lukács.[34] Yet the vision of a cosmological consensus offered in that foundational essay does not so much anticipate a future “Western Marxism” as reflect an ancient, Eastern world view.[35]

For Theodor Adorno, this most basic human desire to converse with the natural elements suffers degrading commodification in the L. A. Times astrology column, where Lukácsian tragedy is repeated as farce.[36] For Adorno, astrology, like mass culture, is epiphenomenal to reified social conditions, which divides the world into disconnected spheres. Astrology exploits the split between the irrational sphere of the stars and the rational demands of day-to-day decisions; it attempts “to bridge the gap and to relate, with a stroke, what is unrelated and what, one ultimately feels, must somehow be linked together.”[37] Put simply, astrology cashes in on feelings of anomie and lost connection endemic to the modern world. More than a canny business plan, though, astrology possesses a “sect-like character, the claim of something particular and apocryphal to be all-comprehensive and exclusive” which has “a most sinister social potential: the transition of an emasculated liberal ideology to a totalitarian one” (Adorno, Stars Down, 164). Newspaper horoscopes troubled Adorno, that is, less for their effects than for their cause; their widespread popularity suggest that American shores also harbor a desire for totality and fear of disconnect that, only three decades ago, drove Europe into fascist violence.

Adorno’s likening of astrology to fascism may seem histrionic to us today—one is surely not like the other. The world of High Castle, though, takes seriously their commensurability, for in the world of High Castle it is fascism and a fanatic trust in the I Ching that, like Gog and Magog, rule the German and Japanese empires. Why the I Ching, though, and not astrology? On a superficial level, the choice is (stereo)typical; as Christopher Bush writes, China was both “a topos used to figure Western modernity” and “a source of indexical traces that partially constitute that modernity,” so the idea that a system of Chinese provenance might determine modern American mass culture is perhaps not all that remarkable or novel.[38] Nevertheless, the I Ching also appeals as a homey divination tool that putatively retains wisdom about how human history (and indeed, the universe itself) works; the I Ching promises the praxis so desired by revolutionaries but reportedly destroyed long ago in the West.

Crucial to the success of the I Ching is, beyond its worldview, its form: the I Ching offers that system—at once impossibly theoretical and practical—as a portable code, as manual. The Western fascination with the possibility of Chinese praxis, or unity in practice and theory, is not ungrounded; as the debates about the impossibility of Chinese metaphor make evident, the Sinosphere famously did not distinguish the literal and figurative, thought and action.[39] Shin Young-bok explains that the absence of metaphysical distinctions is inscribed into Chinese equivalent for philosophy, “tao.”[40] If philosophy has its etymological roots in “love of truth,” “tao” translates as “path”: its ideograph combines the figure of a man sauntering with his hair streaming behind him in the air with the figure for thought.

Ideograph of “tao.”
Fig. 3. Ideograph of “tao.”

Where, in Europe, philosophy suggests cloistered sedentary contemplation—Shin’s example is Rodin’s stony philosopher—tao entails thinking on the feet as a moving presence in the streets and in the world. The I Ching as a system, which Shin deems prototypical of all Eastern philosophical thought, offers an integrated worldview untouched by Descartes, let alone Luhmannian differentiation.[41]

But the I Ching would seem to offer especial modern appeal also because it developed out of a conjunction of comparable social, political, and cultural conditions in Chinese history. The language of the I Ching—of yin and yang—and the method of drawing sticks had existed for millennia. Yet it was only in Confucius’s time, around 500 BC, that the I Ching became a respectable philosophy and worldview to be studied sedulously by the bureaucratic elite (Confucius is said to have worn through three wooden binders of the I Ching due to frequent consultations). The Spring and Autumn Period (Chūnqiū Shídài) was a time of dramatic upheaval and transition during which the old Chinese empires crumbled into warring factions of multiple ethnicities in a no-holds-barred scramble for land and power:

The five hundred fifty years of the Spring and Autumn Period were a time of new freedom in which all values collapsed and nations had no choice but to go to brutal war and engage in competition to achieve national prosperity and military power. It was a state of chaos in which the extant value-systems had collapsed but new values were yet to be established. The more unstable future prospects become, the stronger the desire to study immutable truths . . . The I Ching is a legacy from a period that was desperately in need of a codified understanding of social change. (Shin, Lectures, 92)[42]

In consolidating a set of interpretations of the I Ching, Confucius and his protégés sought basic certainties that could withstand historical turbulence. Bemoaning a civilizational integrity putatively lost in the West, thinkers such as Hegel or Marx frequently invoked the Chinese as an exemplary people who still enjoy a blessed state of integrity, which further implies a state of innocence if not stupidity; yet China too had its intellectuals and philosophers who labored to reinstate consonance and offer guidance to a society broken by war. The codex’s answer to the problem of murderous disagreement among warring ethnic groups lay in its claim to a unitary world order expansive in both time and space. All factions, regardless of status, were inextricably bound to a shared cosmos.

The I Ching thus shares with the modern global novel the aspiration to identify what makes the heterogeneous world coherent. The I Ching’s competitive advantage over literary fiction lies in its form: instead of a representation, it offers a contingent grammar to construct a potentially infinite number of utterances, or scenarios.[43] Thus it turns out that The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the novel within the novel that narrates a World War II victory by the Allied Powers, was not written by a man, but by a man consulting the I Ching; the I Ching projects possibilities by combining elements in original ways. In other words, the I Ching differs on the one hand from conventional narrative representations of world order, such as the realist novel’s technique of narrating reality in a one-to-one correspondence with the given world, and on the other hand, from the poetic method of reducing the given world to a single figure. Such literary methods inevitably confront the problem of scale, which only becomes trickier as diegetic spaces expand.[44] The I Ching avoids the scale problem altogether insofar as its world order is not diegetically contained by a single hexagram or combination of hexagrams but presumed by the medium itself, in the worldview of yin-yang that is the basic vocabulary of the I Ching. To accept the efficacy of the I Ching is to first accept that the cosmos contains a homeopathic balance of light and darkness that is stable and logical. A legible system is a coherent one.

Precisely because it was refined in a period of intense ethnic, military conflict, the I Ching is primed to supply unity and stability to a fragmented San Francisco still recovering from World War II and on the verge of World War III. All four “protagonists”—Tagomi (Japanese elite), Childan (American collaborator), Frank Frink (American working class), and Juliana Frink (American working class)—consult the I Ching in moments of crisis. The I Ching presupposes a unitary cosmological order from which nobody and no event is exempt. Frank Frink notes early on that the I Ching is “[r]andom,  and yet rooted in the moment in which he lived, in which his life was bound up with all other lives and particles in the universe” (Dick, High Castle, 12); the I Ching, that is, suggests a synchronically connected cosmos that incorporates not only all members of the human species but also all matter, a worldview particularly comforting to the middle-aged man with a dead-end job who feels “surrounded by lonely disorder” even while alone in bed (14). Another character lauds the I Ching for its diachronic efficacy, for surviving the test of all historical convulsions known to humankind. The Nazi secret service (Sicherheitsdienst or SD) arrive at Tagomi’s office, where he is meeting Baynes and a Japanese General in hopes of preventing a third world war; having felled the Nazis with an antique Colt 44, Tagomi whips out his I Ching kit. 

Still quite shaky, he began taking out the forty-nine yarrow stalks. Whole situation confusing and anomalous, he decided. No human intelligence could decipher it; only five-thousand-year-old joint mind applicable. German totalitarian society resembles some faulty form of life, worse than natural thing. Worse in all its admixtures, its potpourri of pointlessness.

Here, he thought, local SD acts as instrument of policy totally at odds with head in Berlin. Where in this composite being is the sense? Who really is Germany? Who ever was? Almost like decomposing nightmare parody of problems customarily faced in course of existence.

The oracle will cut through it. Even weird breed of cat like Nazi Germany comprehensible to I Ching. (211)

Through individual hexagrams, the I Ching offers targeted advice; as a general system, it administers conviction that there is coherence even the most free-floating, contingent developments. With the death of Martin Bormann (the chancellor succeeding Hitler), Germany is thrown into a chaotic power struggle that threatens a possibly apocalyptic war. For Tagomi, as for all other characters in the novel, the I Ching supplies a database of experience capable of incorporating even the most pointless of potpourris into “an external frame of reference,” as General Tedeki explains (212). The I Ching contextualizes all phenomena, be it the collapse of a political system or disconcerting act of violence.

If totalitarian political structures gain their following by superimposing hierarchy and ritual on disorder, the I Ching posits a natural logic underlying a world of disturbingly random phenomena; both depend on prevalent feelings of insecurity for their success. In fact, the I Ching presents an elegant alternative to totalitarianism, for it functions by interpellation rather than by the solicitation of allegiance through cumbrous rituals and institutions. But if for Adorno, fascism and astrology are dangerous because they both fool the fearful, in High Castle Nazism and the I Ching qualitatively differ. Totalitarianism is a disastrous lie; all the various German characters in the novel are spies in disguise. The I Ching, by contrast, offers only the truth, even when it is used to compose fiction (as in the case of Grasshopper). The characters trust the oracle for the simple reason that it is always right; for instance, the oracle accurately informs Tagomi that Baynes—visiting under business pretexts—is a German intelligence officer who will help him. The novel’s oft-maligned conclusion, which reveals Abendsen, the occupant of the high castle, to be a mere medium and the I Ching the true author of Grasshopper, remains ambiguous; yet whichever interpretation one subscribes to, the I Ching is the true operative principle in the diegetic universe.[45]

It is therefore a mistake to claim, as some readers have done, that High Castle signals Dick’s momentous transition into cynicism. Dividing Dick’s works into three phases, Robinson claims that the early works, which usually feature men overthrowing dystopias, suggest an optimism snuffed in High Castle, after which the “wish fulfillments are finished; here the best that can be accomplished by the protagonists is the holding action of keeping things from getting immeasurably worse” (The Novels, 40). For John Rieder, the conclusion of High Castle is darker still: “Dick’s pessimism radicalizes liberal humanism into anarchistic individualism,” with the novel “promis[ing] only to create among its readers a form of community like that of the random coherence among the ‘moments’ of hermeneutic activity codified in the I Ching: an apolitical collectivity, without a center or a goal.”[46] For both readers, then, High Castle offers a postmodernist shrug, or what Jameson calls an “aesthetics of singularity,” rather than a community given allegorical coherence, however spurious, by Greek myth or other formal props.[47] Set against the mature productions instead of Dick’s juvenile sketches, though, High Castle looks different. For if in Now Wait for Last Year—the truly despairing work—collectivity indeed becomes impossible and all the protagonist can do is repair rapidly decaying dictators, High Castle reconciles three kinds of imagined communities into a unitary system: the familiarity of the suburban American Midwest and the all-encompassing stability of an imperial, totalitarian system meet a Chinese logic.

High Castle’s I Ching enables a functioning conglomeration of the three aforementioned totalities that Dick offers separately and serially in Now Wait for Last Year. We can proceed backwards here, beginning with Eric’s strange Tijuana and the persistent Oriental theme in Dick. Postwar America had two final frontiers, seemingly impossible to branch into because of the barrier of time: first, in outer space, which was of the future, and the second in China, which was of the past.[48] Ideas about China’s defiance of normative temporality run as deep as Hegel; recapitulated by Marx, China hardened into a kind of shorthand for a deep alien past incompatible with (Western) modernity, which, as Eric Hayot has shown, took on a vigorous afterlife in American political commentary.[49] The fact that the Chinese remain the most abject underclass (along with black slaves) in Dick’s alternative San Francisco ensures that the Chinese stay “living fossils” indeed, untouched by civilization and its benefits. The I Ching thus retains its pre-Enlightenment aura of metaphysical innocence, which Dick channels with references to the Chinese origins of the I Ching.

China, however, is too distant and foreign to be integrated; alterity was also the problem with Eric’s Tijuana, which is appealing precisely because of its insurmountable temporal distance from modern America. High Castle finds its solution in the Japanese imperial regime, which serves two functions. First, through Japan, Dick incorporates the positive functions of a unitary totalitarian empire. The Japanese system, like Molinari’s but unlike Hitler’s, not only offers capable political and military protection for its heterogeneous populace, but also permits individual sympathy with the downtrodden and persecuted, as Tagomi shows to Frank Frink. Second, the Japanese function as cartilage connecting the three separate utopian elements; as Childan observes, the I Ching is “pillage” that the Japanese have circulated in the way empires often do (we need only think of how the British taste for Indian spices resulted in delicious consequences such as karē-raisu.) Like bees spreading pollen, the Japanese disseminate a Chinese product, facilitating even as it buffers the contact between China and America.[50] And finally, Abendsen applies the finishing touch, bringing in the old Dickian fantasy of the American suburbs in a conclusion that invokes that most canonical fable of the American heartland, The Wizard of Oz. As it turns out, Abendsen does not live in a “castle” after all, but in a humdrum Wyoming home where he hosts dinner parties for the neighbors. The three spheres that are cordoned off in Now Wait for Last Year integrate, through the I Ching, into a single streamlined order.[51]

Indeed, Dick’s most inventive works are often driven by such searches for systems at once inclusive and normative, objective structures available for subjective use. If High Castle offers the I Ching to counteract denationalization and the disintegration of knowable communities, Ubik imagines an aerosol of that name to undo the temporal decay of familiar people and things. In the world of Ubik, it is change in time rather than space that is experienced as disaster; people crumble into skeletal dust overnight and planes regress into cars. The spray constitutes sole protection, temporarily halting entropy. Noting that Ubik derives from the Latin “ubique,” or “everywhere,” Stanislaw Lem explains that the magic spray melds “the concept of the Absolute as eternal and unchanging order which goes back to systematizing philosophy, and the concept of the ‘gadget.’ . . . This ‘canned Absolute,’ then, is the result of the collision and interpenetration of two styles of thought of different ages, and at the same time of the incarnation of abstraction in the guise of a concrete object.”[52] Like the I Ching, the spray materializes Dick’s fantasy of the Absolute made available in portable form for emergency use; in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch or Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, drugs perform a comparable function. Lem notes that Ubik is “an expression of nostalgia for a lost ideal kingdom of untroubled order, but also an expression of irony, since this ‘invention’ of course cannot be taken seriously”(“Philip K. Dick,” 66). To be sure, both Ubik and the I Ching “cannot be taken seriously” in the sense that one cannot plausibly invent an improbable spray or pill or trot out the I Ching in moments of uncertainty. It is clear that Dick’s solutions are nontransferable and only situationally valid, a point Dick himself makes explicit by their placement in alternate realities. Nevertheless, it is also clear that our own world is not exempt from comparable reconfigurations of space and passage of time, which merely take place at a slower pace. Frontiers may be flung open on earth, in space, but the human body and mind remain close to Cro-Magnon.[53] Managing those changes and finding a system at once universal and particular will require as much oddball imaginative exertion, as well as study and investment, as required in inventing a magic spray or rediscovering arcane texts. The future is hard work.

Of Aliens, Gods, and Ceramics

Among such extraordinary talismanic objects, books can easily seem like decorative relics from a past. With the exception of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy in High Castle, fiction rarely plays a crucial role in Dick’s plots. For one, there is the immediate question of how literature could possibly compete with mood machines and chemically induced group hallucinations. Galactic Pot-Healer (1969), which the reissue publishers, Mariner Books, call “a wildly funny tale about aliens, Gods, and ceramics,”  merits attention for the claims it makes for the value of language and literature in a world where culture is dead and relief from boredom readily available.[54] It is with this quintessentially Greenbergian question—what is art?—that we finally confront the question of Dick’s place among the modernists. Bill Brown has argued that Dick’s penchant for “redemptive reification” places the writer in the company of Virginia Woolf and Man Ray.[55] An aerosol, however, is a very different thing from a novel or photograph, and it is Dick’s affirmation of the practical uses of art that sets him apart from from the high modernists. For Dick, literature cannot primarily derive its value from its capacity to project fictional imagined communities or for its beauty; if there is any hope for the novel, it will be in the genre’s survival as an intelligible and accessible medium despite its apparent obsolescence.  

 Berkley Books, 1969).
Fig. 4. Cover for the first edition of Galactic Pot-Healer (New York: Berkley Books, 1969).

That claim, though, is advanced obliquely, and the publishers are right that Galactic Pot-Healer reads first as a novel entirely about extraterrestrials and pots. The plot concerns Joe, whose vocation is to heal broken ceramics; he is out of work because plastic has taken over and there is no more earthenware to heal. A suspect god (“Glimmung”) recruits the suicidal Joe to join a task force to be dispatched to a planet called Sirius Five; Glimmung intends to restore a cathedral that has been submerged and forgotten in an ocean. As in heist movies, specialist aliens from various planets form a team. Native to Sirius Five, though, are menacing creatures (“Kalends”) who, like itinerant Bible sellers, hawk a book of Fate, which predicts that Joe will murder Glimmung, tanking the mission. Omens notwithstanding, the team members fuse into Glimmung (who had hitherto appeared as a voice and a collection of random objects) to successfully recover the cathedral; all creatures lose their identities and achieve blissful communion in a single mystical body.

Here again, then, is the basic Dickian repertoire of alterity (aliens), abstract unity (gods), and humble, portable objects (ceramics). What’s omitted from this rudimentary plot summary is Dick’s sustained attention to language barriers, which is displayed first on Terra and second on the spaceship. Before he is recruited by Glimmung, the jobless Joe must play “The Game,” a time-killing exercise in which he must deduce the original message after a computer has translated an English phrase into Japanese and then translated it back into English (so the correct answer to “The Male Offspring in Addition Gets Out of Bed” is The Sun Also Rises).The game is based on friction between languages; the skull-numbing effects of the “game” demonstrates the sheer patience required for basic communication beyond one’s mother tongue. Even after joining the mission, however, Joe is not free from linguistic labor, for though the aliens use translation machines in meetings, they must make do with awkward English in private interactions, which quickly becomes a source of confused comedy. Mali Yojez, a blue humanoid alien with whom Joe begins a romance, speaks a broken bookish English (“we besport ourself amorously”) which echoes the stilted Japanese-English of High Castle’s San Francisco (Dick, Galactic Pot-Healer, 68). Difference in language reflects a difference in worldview; Mali, for instance, repeatedly mistakes placements of subject and object in her sentences as if she were stranger to the distinction.

Miscommunications—the confused mixture of multiple languages—hinder trans-planetary cooperation. A conversation about forming a union to negotiate work conditions with their employer (Glimmung) devolves into squabbles about the comparative inferiority of certain planets. Perfect understanding is achieved only when everyone fuses into a “polyencephalic entity” casting aside of their bodies and thus subjective identity positions (167). Mali describes the exhilaration of that experience when they temporarily split into individual entities before the final fusion: “it makes me realize how isolated each of us normally is, how cut off. Separated from everyone else . . . in particular separated from other life. That ended when Glimmung absorbed us. And we were no longer individual failures” (168). In other words, fusion into Glimmung enables complete telepathic connection; yet Glimmung, of course, is not a model of collectivity but a biological unity.[56] For the polyencephalic entity, language becomes obsolete in the way ceramics are obsolete in a time of polymers; for those with no need of verbal communication, the most powerful religious artifact is not a text (such as the ineffectual Book of Fate sold by the Kalends) but a physical space, a cathedral.

And yet: though the farcical translation games played in the opening suggest that language is an uncouth thing, without the option of biological fusion, language remains necessary. Resisting the temptation to stay fused in Glimmung with Mali, Joe re-inhabits his body. The only other creature to revert with him is a gastropod, which serves as Joe’s Yoda, dispensing advice: “You know what I think your problem is? . . . I think you ought to create a new pot, rather than merely patching up old ones . . . Observe the success of Glimmung’s aspirations. Emulate him, who in his Undertaking fought and destroyed the Book of the Kalends and thus the tyrannic rule of fate itself. Be creative. Work against fate. Try” (Dick, Galactic Pot-Healer, 179). The pep talk inspires Joe to get to work in a “new, gleaming workshop” with “overhead lights flooding down on him,” a dramatic scene that concludes with Joe stepping back to “[appraise] what he had done, and, within it, what he would do, what later pots would be like, the future of them lying before him. The pot was awful” (179–80). The deflationary conclusion delivers all the delicious ambiguity of Beckett’s (and not Steve Jobs’s) “fail better.” Joe has left the fantastical world of perfect harmony with a benign God for a broken world rife with miscommunications and unfulfilled wishes. In that imperfect world of ugly pots, language remains indispensable still.

Dick challenges, with this conclusion, the high modernist cosmopolitans who announced, among other things, “[t]he plain reader be damned,” which was in the first instance derived from the assertion that the modern artist has “the right to use words of his own fashioning and to disregard existing grammatical and syntactic laws.”[57] Galactic Pot-Healer makes a distinction: on the one hand, there is art, the historical and cultured cathedrals and vases that must be recovered collectively and protected as testament to a shared past. On the other hand, there is the crude rudiment of language, which is raw and present, soft in the hands and yet to be perfected. It is in a novel putatively about rescuing past ceramics and cathedrals, then, that Dick insists on the present need to try one’s hand in reinventing homey but potentially useful forms, even when the tools are unruly and the fingers clumsy. To fashion new forms, an artist need not purposively violate existing grammatical and syntactic laws, for it is paradoxically through innovation that the artist also preserves those laws. Most importantly, the writer can never damn the reader; even when she imports foreign forms, she must do so without losing sight of its usefulness. After all, until polyencephalic, biological fusion becomes a feasible option, language is the all the modern artist and plain reader have.


I am grateful to Joe Cleary, Debra Rae Cohen, Katie Trumpener, and the anonymous readers for their advice on earlier drafts.

[1] Rebecca Walkowitz, Cosmopolitan Style: Modernism Beyond the Nation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006). Matthew Hart, Nations of Nothing But Poetry: Modernism, Transnationalism, and Synthetic Vernacular Writing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) considers how the modernist poets across the British empire incorporated the high and low, the domestic and foreign in an effort to create that new idiom.

[2] Eugene Jolas, Man from Babel (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 2, 147.

[3] See also Nico Israel, “Esperantic Modernism: Joyce, Universal Language, and Political Gesture,” Modernism/modernity 24, no. 1 (2017): 1–21, on Joyce’s engagement with Esperanto and interest in the possibility of a universal language.

[4] See Jed Esty, A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003) on the high modernist regression to Little Englandism to contain the “bad infinity” of the British empire.

[5] On late modernist poetry as negative epics, see C. D. Blanton, Epic Negation: The Dialectical Poetics of Late Modernism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). On late modernist literary attempts to approach large scale geopolitical events through attention to quotidian detail, see Thomas S. Davis, The Extinct Scene: Late Modernism and Everyday Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015). On late modernist preoccupations with mortality, see John Whittier-Ferguson, Mortality and Form in Late Modernist Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[6] Tyrus Miller, Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts Between the World Wars (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 6, 12.

[7] James Joyce, The Letters of James Joyce, ed. Stuart Gilbert (New York: The Viking Press, 1957), 277.

[8] Miller claims that we must read Wyndham Lewis, Djuna Barnes, and Samuel Beckett to understand “the broader shape of twentieth-century culture”; late modernism, with its “apparent admixture of decadent and forward-looking elements,” at once demonstrates “the aging and decline of modernism” and “strongly anticipates future developments” of postmodernism (Late Modernism, 7).

[9] See Jed Esty and Colleen Lye, “Peripheral Realisms Now,” Modern Language Quarterly 73 (2012): 269–88, on realism as a means to map the world system.

[10] Nabokov insisted that “great novels are great fairy tales,” and it’s often been observed that science fiction are merely technologized fairy tales that imagine an enchanted world governed by different natural laws (Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature [New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980], 2).

[11] Walter Benn Michaels, “Response,” Modernism/modernity 3, no. 3 (1996): 121–26, 123.

[12] Walter Benn Michaels, The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004) considers Octavia Butler’s use of the genre to think about race and identity.

[13] The fantasy of American-Chinese cooperation in crisis situations has hardened into a convention in contemporary SF films. See, for instance, Arrival (loosely adapted from Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life”) where aliens dock specifically to remind us, with their grotesque Cephalopod bodies, that skin color is a minor difference after all; and the improbable denouement of The Martian, dir. Ridley Scott (2015; Los Angeles: 20th Century Fox), where the Chinese generously offer the use of their secret spaceship for the rescue of Matt Damon.

[14] Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future (New York: Verso, 2005), 288. See also Eric Hayot, “Chineseness: A Prehistory of Its Future” in Sinographies: Writing China, ed. Eric Hayot, Haun Saussy, and Steven G. Yao (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 3–33 for the claim that American sci-fi uses Chinese futures to express and think through its current anxieties.

[15] See also Paul Saint-Amour, “Counterfactual States of America: On Parallel Worlds and Longing for the Law,” Post45,  September 20, 2011, for the claim that counterfactual narratives of the present (of which Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is one example) inspire “a homesickness for a different present.”

[16] See Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America, trans. Gerald E. Bevan (New York: Penguin, 2003); Jean Baudrillard, America, trans. Chris Turner (New York: Verso, 2010).

[17] Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (New York: Penguin, 2001), 249, notes that the golden age of suburbia was 1970, “when the U.S. Census showed that the majority of Americans were—for the first time in the history of any nation—suburban.” Writing in the late fifties and early sixties, Dick thus anticipates the loss of a suburban America that had not yet seen its heyday. See also Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), for a history of American suburbia.

[18] See also Philip K. Dick, Time Out of Joint (1959; repr. New York: Mariner Books, 2012), where the protagonist discovers that all his family and friends had been actors on government payroll, that his prewar suburban world is fake, and that, in playing computer games, he had been launching lethal missiles against enemies on the moon.

[19] Christopher Kendrick, “More’s Utopia and Uneven Development,” boundary 2 13, no. 2/3 (1985): 233–66, 239.

[20] See Jameson, Archaeologies, especially 67–96. Glossing Kendrick, Jameson argues that if the early moderns created such utopias out of a kind of political unconscious, the postmoderns curate, relativizing and synchronically suspending all historical moments.

[21] Philip K. Dick, Now Wait for Last Year (1966; repr. New York: Mariner Books, 2011), 26.

[22] See G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975).

[23] See Jameson, Archaeologies, 281–95.

[24] This is a theme recapitulated across Dick’s oeuvre. In the collective hallucinations of Dick’s A Maze of Death (1970; repr. New York: Mariner Books, 2013), a group comes upon the same mysterious building but each reads, on its entrance, what he or she respectively desires (so a drinker reads “winery,” while a intellectual manqué reads “wittery”).

[25] Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971).  

[26] See Eric Hayot, Chinese Dreams: Pound, Brecht, Tel Quel (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011), on Pound. See R. John Williams, The Buddha in the Machine: Art, Technology, and the Meeting of East and West (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), on American interest in Asian aesthetics as antidote to technology.

[27] See Saskia Sassen, Losing Control?: Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 63, for the claim that “[e]conomic globalization denationalizes national economies; in contrast, immigration is renationalizing politics.” Sassen has shown that nations are more willing to open their borders to intrusive electronic and financial transactions than to intrusive foreign bodies.

[28] See Emily Apter, “On Oneworldedness: or Paranoia as World System,” American Literary History 18, no. 2 (2006): 365–89, on paranoia as psychological and aesthetic response to globalization.

[29] See Sassen, Losing Control, 17–22, for the argument that “international” and “transnational” have been used as code names for operations advancing American agendas. It should also be noted that certain elements are not of an alternate reality at all. See David Palumbo-Liu, Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 283. Palumbo-Liu describes how in certain Californian districts such as Monterey Park, whites felt threatened by the immigration of affluent Chinese who refused to adopt local ways and formed their own thriving enclaves. Beyond America, the Japanese empire was a historical reality in Korea and parts of China.

[30] Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle (1962; repr. New York, Mariner Books, 2011), 22–23.

[31] Kim Stanley Robinson, The Novels of Philip K. Dick (Ann Arbor: Univeristy of Michigan Research Press, 1974), 15. See also Jameson, Archaeologies, 349–62, for an account of the character system in Dr. Bloodmoney and the use of multiple perspectives.

[32] See Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).

[33] Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971), 29.

[34] See Martin Jay, Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

[35] See Perry Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (London: Verso, 1976), or Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974), for histories that place the Hungarian thinker at the helm of Western Marxism.

[36] See also Scott J. Juengel, “Stars Without an Earth,” Modernism/modernity 26, no. 3 (2019): 521–42, for the claim that Adorno’s astrology columns were shot through with the philosopher’s experience of exile and anxiety about worldlessness.

[37] Theodor Adorno, The Stars Down to Earth and Other Essays On the Irrational in Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), 160.

[38] Christopher Bush, Ideographic Modernism: China, Writing, Media (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 128. See also David Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004), 70, for the claim that the European nation state was in the first instance inspired by China: “in the early stages of globalization,” Graeber writes, “Western elites were trying to model themselves on China, the only state in existence at the time which actually seemed to conform to their ideal of a uniform population.”

[39] See Haun Saussy, The Problem of a Chinese Aesthetic (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993), especially 13–46, for an overview of criticism on the impossibility of Chinese allegory. 

[40] Shin Young-bok, 강의: 나의 동양고전 독법 (Lectures: Readings in East Asian Classics) (파주: 돌베게 [Paju, South Korea: Dolbaegae], 2004), 37. All translations mine.

[41] See Shin, Lectures, 88: “주역은 동양적 사고의 보편적 형식이라고 할 수 있습니다. 역경이라 명명하여 유가 경전의 하나로 그 의미를 한정하는 것은 잘못이라고 생각합니다.”

[42] “춘추전국시대 550년은 기존의 모든 가치가 무너지고 모든 국가들은 부국강병이라는 유일한 국정 목표를 위하여 사활을 건 전쟁에 뛰어들지 않을 수 없는 신자유주의 시기였습니다. 기존의 가치가 무너지고 새로운 가치가 수립되기 이전의 혼란한 상황이었습니다. 미래에 대한 전망이 불확실할수록 불변의 진리에 대한 탐구가 절실해지는 것이지요. 실제로 이 시기가 동서양을 막론하고 사회 이론에 대한 근본적 담론이 가장 왕성하게 개진되었선 시기였음을 전에 이야기했습니다. 한마디로 주역은 변화에 대한 법칙적 인식이 절실하게 요청되던 시기의 시대적 산물이라는 것이지요.” The literal translation of “신자유주의” is “new liberalism” but also refers today to neoliberalism; Shin appears to purposefully conflate the terms.

[43] See R. John Williams, “World Futures,” Critical Inquiry 42, no. 3 (2016): 473–546, on the re-discovery and uses of the I Ching in constructing corporate scenarios.

[44] See Christian Thorne, “The Sea is Not a Place; or, Putting the World Back in World Literature,” boundary 2 40, no. 2 (2013): 53–79, for the claim that the novel may simply be ill-equipped to represent an entity larger than the nation.

[45] According to one reading, the universe consists of multiple parallel worlds, of which the diegetic world of Nazi victory is one, the world of Nazi defeat depicted in Grasshopper another, and our world (of a different kind of Nazi defeat) a third. Another possible reading, which focuses on the final message from the oracle, “Inner Truth,” suggests that there is only one reality in which Germany and Japan lost the war; High Castle, like Grasshopper, was produced by the I Ching, which explains why the I Ching is always right in the diegetic universe. Dick claimed in interviews to have written High Castle himself with help from the I Ching, but this would have been impossible for Dick as for Abendsen: the I Ching merely offers hexagrams and cannot unspool a full-fleshed narrative.

[46] John Rieder, “The Metafictive World of The Man in the High Castle: Hermeneutics, Ethics, and Political Ideology,” Science-Fiction Studies 15, no. 2 (1988): 214–25, 223, 224.

[47] Fredric Jameson, “The Aesthetics of Singularity,” New Left Review 92 (2015): 101–32.

[48] The sociologist Robert Ezra Park explicitly states that the “Pacific Coast is our racial frontier.” Quoted in Palumbo-Liu, Asian/American, 31.

[49] See Hayot, “Chineseness,” 20–22. On Hegel’s “living fossils,” see Saussy, The Problem, 156. See G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History (New York: Dover, 1956), 133, for a brief description of the I Ching (or Y King), which the philosopher mistakenly interprets as “Book of Fates.” See Lin Chun, China and Global Capitalism: Reflections on Marxism, History, and Contemporary Politics (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 18, on Marx’s “living fossils.” See Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (New York: Verso, 1974), for an overview of Hegel and Marx on China, and the claim that the attribution of a timeless stationary quality to China and Asia derived from the German philosophical need to blur distinct Chinese dynasties into a single archetype.

[50] Dick’s use of Japan to mediate between China and America is a classic solution to the confused model minority discourse in America, which stipulates that Americans should emulate the Chinese but somehow not become like them. See Palumbo-Liu, Asian/American, 182–216, on the development of postwar American ambivalence about China. As Palumbo-Liu notes, the Japanese were often considered honorary whites and thus thought to be acceptable middlemen between East and West.

[51] The idea of a Chinese book that contains all possible wisdoms fascinated several writers after Dick. See also Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” in Labyrinths (New York: New Directions, 2007), 19–29; and the opening of Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage Books, 1994). 

[52] Stanislaw Lem, “Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans,” Science Fiction Studies 2, no. 1 (1975): 54–67, 66.

[53] In fact, in Philip K. Dick, The Simulacra (1964; repr. New York: Vintage, 2002), Neanderthals wait out human extinction in Oregon. 

[54] Philip K. Dick, Galactic Pot-Healer (1969; repr. New York: Mariner Books, 2013), 6, 7.

[55] Bill Brown, Other Things (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 11.

[56] In fact, precisely because language is inadequate and inhibitions are so strong, in many science fiction novels physical fusion and interbreeding with aliens are a precondition for communication and political alliance. See, for instance, Octavia Butler, Lilith’s Brood (1987–89; repr. New York: Hachette, 2007).

[57] Kay Boyle et al., “Revolution of the Word: A Paris Group Manifesto,” transition 16­/17 (1929): 12.