Popular Genres – Week 10: Alternate Histories

According to Mountfort (2016), what makes TMITHC a stand-out example of the alternate history (or uchronie) genre?

The ‘alternate history’ genre is a subgenre of speculative fiction that centres around the re-imagining of historical events. In particular the alternate history genre focuses on the outcome of historical events changing in a kind of ‘what could have been’ scenario. According to Wikipedia (n.d), alternate history “is a genre of speculative fiction consisting of stories in which one or more historical events occur differently. These stories usually contain “what if” scenarios at crucial points in history and present outcomes other than those in the historical record.”

Personally, I believe I have only read one novel that focuses on this idea, however loosely. This novel being Stephen King’s 11/22/63, which near the end briefly looks at a world where John F. Kennedy was never assassinated. However, a stand out (and classic) example of the alternate history genre would have to be Phillip K. Dick’s ‘The Man in the High Castle.’ In ‘The Man in the High Castle’, Dick explores a world where Germany won the Second World War. He does this mainly by focusing on the United States, which is divided between the Germans on the East Coast and the Japanese on the West Coast. Ted Gioia explains the world of ‘High Castle’ well. Gioia (n.d) writes “the United States has lost World War II and is occupied by foreign powers. The eastern seaboard has fallen under German control, while the West Coast is under the sway of Japan … Tensions between Germany and Japan simmer beneath the surface, and the threat of a nuclear conflict between them is ever present.”

However, what makes The Man in the High Castle a stand out example in this genre is the use of the Chinese divination text or oracle known as the I Ching or Book of Changes. The Man in the High Castle was experimental because it made use of the I Ching to structure it’s narrative. With the use of the I Ching, Dick is possibly telling the reader that the scenario in this novel is merely an alternate possibility or another world. This has popularised the idea of the multiverse, which contains many other possibilities brought about by chance and slight variations. The ‘multiverse’ is essentially the idea that there are multiple other universes…our own universe being just one of them. ‘Parallel’ universes are a popular idea in science fiction, being that their may be another earth with similar nations and cultures, but everything is slightly different. A multiverse is similar, but contains multiple parallel universes, our own reality just being one of them. With this logic, The Man in the High Castle explores this idea with the I Ching. Indeed, Paul Mountfort (2016), explains ” The I Ching also provided a philosophical foundation for the novel in the synchronistic notion of simultaneity or “meaningful coincidence” that is contrary to classical western views of causality.” Causality being ’cause and effect’ or ‘A happens, so B is the result of A.’ In The Man in the High Castle, Dick uses the I Ching to create more of a ‘meaningful coincidence’, as Mountfort explained, rather than cause and effect. Phillip K. Dick, being a man in the western world clearly did a lot of research into the I Ching in order to make his novel as unique as it ended up being. It is like nothing that had been published up until that time in the United States for that reason as many Americans would not be familiar with these concepts.

References:

Mountfort, P. (2016). The I Ching and The Man in the High Castle. SCIENCE FICTION STUDIES, VOLUME 43 pp. 287-308. Retrieved from https://blackboard.aut.ac.nz/bbcswebdav/pid-4926610-dt-content-rid-10490437_4/institution/Papers/ENGL602/Publish/Mountfort%202016_High%20Castle.pdf

Wikipedia. (n.d). Alternate history. Retrieved October 6, 2019, from
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternate_history

Gioia, T. (n.d). The Man in the High Castle. Retrieved October 6, 2019, from
http://www.conceptualfiction.com/the_man_in_the_high_castle.html

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