For Philip K. Dick, Philip Roth, and Colson Whitehead, 'evil' hasn't been defeated—it's an active force in our politics
Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle is a dystopian alternate history in which the Nazis won World War II. The Eastern United States is under Hitler’s control; the Pacific states are ruled by the Japanese. Much of the plot of the novel revolves around a search for the author of a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy—which imagines a world in which the Germans lost the war. Nestled in the center of this nightmare alternate world is our world. At the core of the dystopia is reality.
People generally think of dystopias as warnings. They tell you what might happen, if we are insufficiently vigilant or make the wrong choices. But The Man in the High Castle is a reminder that dystopias are also reports about what is happening now. Alternate history dystopias in particular highlight the differences between what is and what could be; talking about what didn’t happen underlines what did. These books can be somewhat comforting, they remind us that things aren’t that bad. But especially at times of crisis, like now, they can also remind us that the dystopia isn’t out there in space or the future, but right here, outside the window.
A further example is Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America. It’s set in an alternate America where fascist sympathizer and hero aviator Charles Lindbergh runs against Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 US Presidential election, and wins. The book follows one Jewish family, the Roths, in New York as they struggle with the country’s rising antisemitism and fascism. Antisemites mock and bully the Roths when they visit Washington DC; racists disrupt political rallies; a family friend is murdered by the KKK. There is a full-scale pogrom against Jews in Detroit, defended by local papers and officials as an “understandable backlash” against a “troublemaking” Jewish candidate.
Roth’s novel ends in 1942; Lindbergh’s plane disappears, and Roosevelt wins an emergency election. This essentially resets the timeline as the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, and the US enters the war. The good guys and antifascists win, even with setbacks. The dystopian nightmare ends up evaporating, like a bad dream; reality, welcomely, reasserts itself.
The 2020 HBO series based on the book, however, changes the novel’s conclusion. It shows fascist thugs stealing ballots during the 1942 election, as well as Jewish and Black people bravely going to the polls despite intimidation. And that’s the end; you don’t learn whether Roosevelt wins.
The television show, in short, directly references our own reality of racist voter suppression and right wing violence. Rather than showing the defeat of a fascist alternative, it suggests that a fascist United States and an antifascist United States exist today, as they existed in the 1940s, occupying the same place at the same time. The plot against America, from that perspective, isn’t an evil defeated, but an active force in our politics. The alternate United States is the United States we live in.
Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad makes this point even more bleakly. The book initially appears to be a historical fiction set in the antebellum period. A Black woman named Cora flees those who enslaved her in Georgia.
But rather than securing freedom as in realist narratives, Cora wanders through a nightmare United States in which each state perpetrates its own special version of racism. In South Carolina, ‘progressive’ white people sterilize African Americans, as per early 20th century eugenics. In North Carolina, white Americans have instituted a mid-20th century-style final solution, hanging every Black person in the state along a Freedom Highway. In Indiana, KKK-like bands attack Black communities as they did in the post-Reconstruction era.
Whitehead imagines a world in which the entire history of anti-Black violence exists all at once. His alternate world isn’t one of different paths and different choices. It’s one in which all time is flattened out, so that US history looks less like a series of choices, and more like a set of variations on one grinding theme. Cora would recognize the current US, with antiracist protestors beaten by police and kidnapped by secret federal forces. We’re not an alternate, better timeline. We’re just another state of racism and violence.
One of the most chilling parts of The Man in the High Castle is the way that life, for most people in this Nazi world, just goes on much as it did before. People talk vaguely about what the Nazis are doing in Africa, or in the American South, but for their own part they still do business, scheme to get ahead, fall in and out of love.
The barrier between reality and dystopia is not even a barrier; it can just be your skin color, your gender, your religion, or even just where you happen to be focusing your attention. The alternate timeline, where everything goes wrong, and the fascists win, is our timeline. Dick and Roth and Whitehead aren’t showing us what could be, but what is, in the hope that we can imagine something better.