It’s difficult to overstate how profound World War II affected the course of human history. In many ways, we still live in the world it wrought. But what if it had gone the other way? What if the Allies had lost and the Axis powers had won? How would the world be different now, and what would a world led by Nazi Germany look like?
These questions are the premise behind “The Man in the High Castle,” a book by acclaimed science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. It’s set in 1962, nearly two decades after the United States, weakened by a prolonged depression after the assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt, surrendered to Germany and Japan. Germany now occupies the East Coast of the U.S. while Japan occupies the West Coast, where much of the story takes place. Needless to say, the United States looks radically different in Dick’s world than it did the real 1960s: Slavery is legal; the few remaining Jews are forced to go into hiding; an ancient Chinese oracle called the I Ching is consulted to make important decisions. Elsewhere in the world, Africa has been virtually obliterated. Japan and Germany compete for control over the remaining neutral buffer states.
In revealing this alternate reality, the book follows several characters as they confront critical ethical dilemmas. One of the main characters is Frank Frink, a craftsman living in Japan-controlled territory who changed his name to hide his Jewish roots. His estranged wife Juliana starts a relationship with an Italian truck driver named Joe Cinnadella. The thread that ties many of these characters together is a new book called “The Grasshopper That Lies Heavy,” which has been banned by the Nazis but seems increasingly popular. The book offers its own alternate reality, one in which Roosevelt wasn’t assassinated, the Allies defeated the Germans and a global New Deal helped elevate the status of some of the world’s poorest regions.
It’s hard to review “The Man in the High Castle” without giving away too much of the ending, but suffice it to say that it’s a lesson in the power of illusions. It blurs the line between fiction and reality and cleverly proves that not everything is as it seems.
Valentina Jovanovski, editor
History, it seems, is relative. For those of us who live in younger countries like the United States, what may seem ancient is, for others, comparatively recent. The first Great Courses lecture series I watched was on the Ottoman Empire, the story for which originates 1,000 years ago during the reign of the Seljuk Turks.
Nothing, though, quite compares to India. Providing a high-level overview of Indian history, as this course attempts to do, requires starting much further back: to when human beings first left the African continent about 70,000 years ago. The fertile land of the Indian subcontinent made it so easy for crops to grow that it was one of the first places that Homo sapiens settled after their prehistoric emigration.
A long history indeed, and one shaped heavily by the sorts of things that we like to focus on in geopolitics – namely, geography and its attendant climate. The fertile land found in many low-lying regions of India would have been a lot less fertile, after all, if the Himalayas, which separate the subcontinent from the rest of Asia, were not situated in such a way as to contribute to the formation of annual monsoons. Monsoons contributed to the ease of human settlement, and much later their predictability actually eased travel and trade across the Indian Ocean. (These trade routes would be one of the primary avenues by which Islam came to the subcontinent.)
Michael H. Fisher’s course covers more than just history. It explains the importance of epic literature such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, essential texts in the Hindu religion, and how many of these stories, such as the Vedic verses, which were transferred through generations by Brahman oral tradition before initially being committed to writing over 2,000 years ago, still play an important role in contemporary Indian culture.
It’s difficult to capture so much history in an 18-hour course, and even more difficult to summarize it in a 400-word review. But for anyone interested in how the Mauryans came to power after Alexander, how Islam spread to South Asia, how the British dominated such a large population with a minuscule deployment of British forces, how Indians ultimately rejected foreign rule, or wish to learn more about the lesser-known genocide of Bengalis that took place in 1971, this course is worth checking out.
Xander Snyder, analyst