The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

This is an alternate history novel, set in an America where the Nazis won World War II. The USA is a very different place from its reality. Japanese culture is everywhere and totalitarian rule is in place. The story darts from place to place, showing life from the perspectives of several loosely connected characters. The first is Robert Childan, an antiques dealer, coping with the discovery that some of his stock consists of fakes. We also have Frank Frink, secretly a Jew, who was fired from the company who made the fake merchandise, and who now wishes to set up his own handcrafts business. Frank’s estranged wife Juliana, a judo instructor, is travelling across the country with another man who has a secret agenda. And there are others. The central aspect of the novel is a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, written by the character Hawthorne Abendsen. Interestingly, this is an alternate history novel-within-a-novel, which tells the story of the Nazis losing the war. It describes a world similar to our own – a tale of how life might have been. It is a banned book, and Abendsen is rumoured to be living in a fortified castle for his own safety, hence the title of Dick’s book.

I felt ambivalent about this novel. On the one hand I was awed by the amount of research that clearly went into describing this alternate reality. The downside was that the story severely lacked drama until its closing chapters. Perhaps if I had a larger interest in World War II the novel would have captivated me more. The subtext of the story seems to revolve around the projection of illusion. All the characters, in one way or another, are dealing with false realities. Frank Frink hides his true identity for reasons of safety. Juliana has no idea what her lover is secretly up to. Childan is distressed by the fake merchandise in his position. Abendsen pretends to live in a castle while actually living in an ordinary house. There’s no doubt that Dick had something very deep in mind when he wrote The Man in the High Castle. But when subtext becomes more important than story, the entertainment value of a novel often suffers.

Some will no doubt love this novel; others will hate it. It depends on what you want out of a story. Generally, when I read fiction, I’m looking for an emotional experience, and The Man in the High Castle fails to deliver that. At times, the lack of dramatic content made the reading tedious, and I confess that I only starting appreciating the novel’s strengths when I had a chance to read about it afterwards and reflect on its themes.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

I hate criticising classics! When a book has been around for over a hundred years and shows no sign of ever disappearing, you tend to feel a little hesitant to speak negatively about it. Somebody once accused me of writing “another abortion of a review” because I dared to tell it like I experience it. But a book hits you like it hits you, and there’s no getting around that fact without resorting to lies. So here we go once again.

I’m not sure what possessed me to read this book. I guess I thought old Verne was worth another shot since I had only read one other novel by him. Also, I was rather fond of the old Disney movie. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is the story of a great monster prowling the oceans. Professor Aronnax and his young associate Conseil join the hunt for the beast. After many months of searching, battle finally ensues. But when the professor’s ship is demolished, several of the crew find themselves stranded in the ocean with the creature. Only it turns out not to be a creature at all, but a massive submarine vessel.

Here we are introduced to the well-known character of Captain Nemo, commander of his submarine, the Nautilus. Nemo is a fascinating, complex villain. His compassionate invite to take the stranded seamen on board is tempered by his intent to keep them prisoners forever. On the one hand is is capable of attacking certain sea vessels without provocation. On the other, he will risk life and limb to save a poor native from the jaws of a hungry shark. The character of Nemo is the main strength of the story and is, I would guess, an uncommon find in old fiction. In modern fiction, we have learned to appreciate realistic heroes and villains who are more grey than black or white. It’s nice to discover that this trend isn’t entirely new.

The story catalogues the a journey of 20,000 leagues across several oceans. I now understand that the title literally means “twenty thousand leagues travelled whilst under the sea,” not “twenty thousand leagues deep” (which would be somewhere through the core of the earth, out the other side, and off into outer space!). The story is episodic in nature – lots of mini adventures featuring various foes and locales that I won’t spoil. What does spoil several of these adventures is Verne’s insistence on cataloguing a horrendous amount of sea life for the reader. Fair enough, Prof. Arronax is a marine biologist, but do we really need lists upon lists of names of ocean creatures shoved in our face, not just once, but many times throughout the book? I’d like to think that Verne wasn’t descending to the level of show-off, but I’m not sure. What is certain is that he appears to have no perception that he is slowing his adventure to a crawl whilst engaging in these pointless encyclopedic epsiodes.

One interesting side of the story is the description of the submarine’s operation. The book was written before the invention of the modern submarine, although Verne cannot be credited with its design, as he was using known research of the period. I tickled me when I read about the submarine being steered by the primitive means of a pilot in a glass bubble, sonar having not been invented.

Overall, an average read. I had two versions at my disposal when reading this. A complete version and a shorter abridgement by Puffin books, which seeks to remove the problem of the lists. I chose the longer version, out of respect for the author, and I wish I hadn’t. It’s not often you’d hear me recommend a version of a book that had been tampered with, but in this case I’ll make an exception. Do yourself a favour, and read the shorter one. In days of old, readers may have had more patience, and writers less awareness of the importance of pacing. I leave you to decide whether there’s something tragic in our modern attitudes. All I know is, when I’m reading for pleasure, I don’t want to be bored.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

What’s a thirty-four-year-old man doing reading Alice in Wonderland? you might ask. Well, I have a fascination with classic literature, and this is one of the most popular novels. It’s not hard to find references to Alice in modern film and literature: since I’m a sci-fi fan, the character Morpheus in The Matrix is the first one that jumps to my mind. For whatever reason, Alice has stuck in the public’s imagination.

I didn’t find much enjoyment in reading during my pre-adolescent years. Hence, this is the first time I’ve ever read Alice. Can it be enjoyed by an adult? That’s too general a question. Was it enjoyed by this adult? Not overly. It’s a story about a girl who’s sitting by the riverbank with her sister. She spots an odd-looking rabbit; it’s wearing a waistcoat. The rabbit enters a rabbit-hole. Alice goes in after him. She falls and falls, eventually landing on a pile of leaves in a tunnel. What follows is a series of bizarre encounters with characters that range from eccentric to psychopathic (usually talking animals of one kind or another). Alice herself does a lot of growing and shrinking in order to squeeze through small spaces and get from place to place. At one point she creates a lake out of her own tears. Each scene in the story has very little to do with any other, and there is no motivating factor in the story’s progression other than mere curiosity. I am loathe even to call this an adventure, on that basis; it reads more like a child’s acid trip. In the end, the story resorts to the most shameful plot device of all, in order to get Alice home: “It was all a dream.” This just would not fly, if written today.

In fairness, Alice was not written for someone my age, so I should try and ask myself whether I think I would have enjoyed this as a young boy. When I think about what I did like as a boy (Star Wars, Knight Rider, The A-Team), again I have to say no. I suspect Alice is for little girls only (and that’s a place I just can’t take my mind back to!). However, I can’t ignore the fact that there is children’s literature that I do enjoy today. And it’s not all boys’ sci-fi adventures. Take C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. The haphazard structure of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland pales by comparison to the carefully woven tapesty of Lewis’s novel. So, I’m sticking to my guns. Alice gets a thumbs down.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne

This novel, first published in 1864, chronicles the journey of Professor Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel from their home in Germany to the shores of Iceland, and from there to the crater of a sleeping volcano where they expect to find a route to the very centre of the earth itself. Their entire expedition rests solely on the dubious authenticity of piece of parchment written centuries ago, telling of a man who successfully made the journey.

The story is told in the first person, by Axel, the unwilling companion of his hot-headed, impetuous uncle. This relationship injects a welcome dose of humour into the book. As we journey beneath the earth’s crust, Verne’s narrative is laced with scientific theory, complemented with timely reminders of the sheer scope of land (and sea, eventually) on top of our heroes’ heads.

There were aspects of the novel I didn’t like, however. Once the initial hurdle of lowering oneself into a volcano’s crater had been overcome, I found it pretty hard to believe that a person could enter a cave and simply walk hundreds of miles into the bowels of the earth. Certainly there were many perils thrown into the path of the adventurers along the way, but instead of relying on their wits to save themselves, too often a rather irritating good fortune stepped in to rescue them from certain death. Verne also has a very irritating habit of spoiling each chapter through the chapter heading, i.e. chapters with names like “We Find Water”, “Saved” and “A Human Skull” are pretty awful spoilers, and “Shot Out of a Volcano” really takes the biscuit.

All in all, I enjoyed the novel to some degree. It’s a light-hearted tale which holds the reader’s interest, told in a simple and easy to read style.