‘They know a million tricks, those novelists…’ – Analysing the theme of alternate realities in works of science fiction – Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin

The human mind, by its very nature, is a constantly curious, questioning thing – and as such, what is it that leads us to continuously ask ‘what if?’ Why has the concept of alternate realities remained so enduringly popular within the broader oeuvre of science fiction – that tantalising capability to delve into both past and future scenarios in an attempt to analyse the possibilities for something different, something profoundly ‘other’? In his essay on Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, Ted Gioia argues that ‘the excitement of sci-fi is not derived from its science—which rarely stands up to scrutiny—but rather from its imaginative reconstructions of our perceived reality.’ This essay focuses on this notion of ‘reconstruction’ and the fabrication of the unfamiliar, fantastical and unsettling from the world we know. It is a tradition with roots stretching back through literature of the past two-hundred years to early Greek philosophical debate and classical poetry. As two of the most prolific authors of science-fiction, Ursula Le Guin and Philip K. Dick provide an ideal crux to an examination of alternate realities and how this narrative premise can be employed as a tool to investigate a multitude of themes prevalent to contemporary society.

Published in 1962, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle explores the concept of an alternate reality where Germany and Japan won the Second World War. With Europe completely dominated by Germany, America was forced to surrender to the Axis powers and was promptly colonised by Germany on the East Coast and by Japan on the Western Coast – the two powers separated by a neutral Rocky Mountain buffer zone. In an unstable Cold War environment unfolding between Japan and Germany, many of the remaining Americans eke out an existence selling antiques – both fake and real – to the Japanese, who have an obsession with objects of America’s past. Against this backdrop, a young woman called Julianna Frink seeks out the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy; a book that portrays a hopeful alternate world where Germany lost the war. Through this novel-within-a-novel technique, Dick explores the notions of alternate realities, the subjective nature of history and ideas of race within a conflicted society. As Eric Brown explains in his introduction to the novel, ‘[Dick] was obsessed with the idea that the universe was only apparently real, an illusion behind which the truth might dwell. Again and again in his work, we find that reality as perceived by both reader and protagonist is a hoax’.

Ursula Le Guin engages with many similar themes within her novel The Lathe Of Heaven (1971). Dealing with protagonist George Orr, who suffers from dreams with the capability to change reality, the novel examines this mechanism and the problems created when it is abused by Orr’s doctor, William Haber. Utilising a brainwave machine that enhances Orr’s dreams, Haber attempts to change the world, with disastrous consequences – directing Orr to dream of an end to racism, everyone’s skin is turned grey. Ordered to dream of world peace, Orr creates an alien invasion, uniting the world’s nations to fight against them. With the world becoming increasingly unstable through repeat usage of the ‘dream-machine’, Orr is forced to fight for control against Haber and ultimately shut his operations down.


The makings of a genre – views of history as subject to change

In pre-Christian religions, dreams were often seen as a portal to alternate realities, running parallel to normal life. These dreams were seen as direct messages from God, offering a new, alternative level of consciousness. Greek philosophers speculated on these hazy, speculative realms, typified by Plato’s discourse Timaeus (360 BC). Here, Plato put forward the theory of a distinction between the physical and spiritual worlds, the former subject to constant change: ‘As being is to becoming, so is truth to belief’. His theories posited the idea of reality being something contingent, as open to flux as opinions and beliefs were, and this point was illustrated by Plato’s inclusion of references to the mythical world of Atlantis.

Despite these early concepts, the sub-genre of alternate reality (existing as a narrative premise within the wider genre of science-fiction as a whole) has its true beginnings as a component of modern literature in nineteenth-century France, where it became focused less on speculative other-worlds, but on the notion of other versions of history. The aftermath of Napoleon’s death provided the perfect conditions for authors looking to explore how history might have unfolded differently. As the man that had led the French Empire to an almost Europe-wide extent, Napoleon’s influence on what constituted contemporary history could be seen first-hand. This was someone whose choices and actions could genuinely be said to have history-altering consequences, on the largest of scales.

  1. F. Clarke’s introduction to Tales of the Next Great War addresses the idea of alternate realities and their link to imperial notions of culture – precisely the kind of collective continent-spanning identity Napoleon’s Empire sought to achieve: ‘The future war story is at all times a specific response, both in form and in content, to the perceived potential in contemporary society.’ The central phrase here is ‘perceived potential’, with alternate realities in many sense being an enlarged sense of themes relevant around any society, but presented as part of a fantastical, altered world where these themes can be portrayed on a more grandiose scale. The ‘perceived potential’ in an ambitious ruler such as Napoleon provided a focal point for writers – the identity of a culture magnified in the domineering military power of one man.

Theories of central, iconic figures dictating history swiftly became a popular part of historical discourse in the nineteenth-century. Originally proposed by Thomas Carlyle, who stated ‘The history of the world is but the biography of great men’, his discourse twinned the language of history and literature in his imagination of the history of the world as a biography, a story. This theory stood directly opposed to the older, established theories that history was instead composed of a series of smaller events combining to bring about gradual change.

Subscribers to the great man theory looked to texts such as early editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica where details of post-Roman European history were merely compiled into the biography of Attila the Hun. Powerful leaders such as Attila, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon and Hitler stand as classic central focuses of the great man theory – through their individual influence and power, decisive shifts to world history were brought about. These theories of central figures dictating world history helped give rise to what is commonly considered the first ‘alternate-history’ novel, the extravagantly titled Napoleon et la conquete du monde (Napoleon and the conquest of the world) by Louis Geoffroy (1836). In America Jack London painted a dramatic picture of world conquest in his 1910 short story The Unparalled Invasion which looked ahead to an imagined 1970s landscape where China’s population eclipsed that of the ‘white’ Western nations.

In these disparate but representative works there is a running theme of climactic, changeful times such as these providing the catalyst for alternate reality fiction – it was not until the mid-twentieth century that the genre really began to blossom, prompted by the horrors of World War II. The concept of a Nazi victory over the Allies – the premise that Dick’s The Man in the High Castle centres around – originally dated from much earlier; wartime propaganda used to promote America’s involvement in the war. Examples include Marion White’s If We Should Fail (1942) – the grim title speaks for itself; this was literature designed to provoke a response in its readers, to scare them with worst-case-scenario visions of alternate realities. The capacity for this kind of literature to be co-opted for political ends highlights two central aspects to why alternate reality fictions have endured, their populist mass appeal and their engagement with contemporary issues pervading to society.

Post-war, the purpose of these hypothetical Nazi-victory scenarios shifted, now re-envisioned as a kind of propaganda to eternalise the memory of Germany’s war crimes while simultaneously salving the American conscience of any doubts that their involvement in the war was the incorrect course of action. This new spate of alternate reality fiction included Cyril M. Kornbluth’s Two Dooms (1958) and Dick’s The Man in the High Castle itself – the popularity of this subject matter and engagement with the nature of history was clearly evident when it formed the basis of a Star Trek episode, first televised in 1967, ‘The City On The Edge of Forever’. In this episode, the heroes must stand by and allow a pacifist to die after discovering that if she lives, her actions lead to the US delaying their entry into World War II; thus allowing Germany the time to develop atomic weapons and conquer the world. Within these scenarios, key moral and ethical questions were being posited, allowing the narratives to act as a kind of scientific exposition of human values.

This new wave of alternate reality fiction was now also attaching itself to the fears of Cold War America. In 1962, the prospect of nuclear war seemed almost inevitable when for ten days in October, the world waited with apprehension for the Cuban missile crisis to resolve. In the eyes of American patriots, the country’s stoicism had ultimately once again forced a foreign power to back down, but at what cost? Though a nuclear incident had been avoided this time, it was not hard to imagine an alternate version of events which had ended in disaster. These fears are realised in one of the most iconic scenes of Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven (1971), in which lead character George Orr dreams of an alien invasion of Earth, the imagery of his experiences clearly tied into that of a nuclear attack: ‘the big star brightened hugendly BURST blinding. He fell to the ground, covering his head with his arms as the sky burst into streaks of bright death.’

Just as history was emerging in the public consciousness as a thing of multiple possible outcomes, new branches of historical philosophy were being proposed, building on Carlyle’s ‘great man’ theory. Indeed, in the context of Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, central character George Orr is the literal embodiment of the ‘great man’; able to directly influence the course of world events through his dreams. With these branches of historical theory seeping through into popular literature, the world was primed for further developments in the field. In 1975, Michel Foucault proposed a new kind of historico-political discourse in his series of lectures, Society Must Be Defended, where he presented the idea that the notion of ‘truth’ was a delicate product of historical struggle. This struggle, he argued, manifested itself on a global level between nations and by clever manipulation of the supposed truth, history could become not just a means of recording past events, but a powerful political weapon.

In Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man (1953), protagonist Ben Reich is the owner of one of the most powerful companies on Earth in an imagined future where it is the immense wealth of businesses rather than the democratic decision-making of governments that holds power over the world and its people. Having killed the head of his largest rival organisation, Reich is left fleeing the police – led by high ranking Police Prefect Powell – who identifies the terrifying power an unchecked Reich would wield.

Look at Reich’s position in time and space. Will not his beliefs become the world’s belief? Will not his reality become the world’s reality? Is he not, in his critical position of power, energy, and intellect, a sure road to utter destruction? Reich is one of the rare Universe-shakers… all reality hangs precariously on his awakening. He cannot be permitted to awake to the wrong reality.

Here, Bester extrapolates Carlyle’s ‘great man’ theory to encompass not just the world, but the entire universe. As with Napoleon or Hitler, future history, and by association reality itself hinges upon the fulcrum that is Reich – the great man. From the dangerous cocktail that results from his business power and intellect, he is in the unique position to bring about genuine history-changing events of the kind ‘regular’ citizens can only imagine.

More interesting though is the way Reich’s possible future is inherently perceived as ‘wrong’ by Powell, acting in a position of custodian of the world. Reich’s future is portrayed as something of ‘utter destruction’ that would ‘shake’ and sully the universe. Reich, like Le Guin’s George Orr, is an inherently chaotic catalyst within the complex fabric of potential realities. In both instances, these characters have the power to bring about large-scale change – but as the authors illustrate, uncontrolled, this power leans dangerously towards destruction and violence. In The Lathe of Heaven, Orr literally wakes ‘to the wrong reality’ from his change-bringing dreams – starting and ending wars, eliminating the entire concept of race – and it is this kind of scenario Powell seeks to avoid in The Demolished Man.

The concept of police-like intervention on a global level remains a relevant issue to this day, most commonly targeted at America. In early 2003, with the Iraq war presenting itself as a very real possibility, many questioned whether it was right for America to intervene in the affairs of the middle-east and play the role of international policeman or ‘Globocop’, as Max Boot puts it in his Financial Times piece ‘America’s Destiny Is to Police the World’:

Why should America take on the thankless task of policing the globe… does the world need a constable? As long as evil exists, someone will have to protect peaceful people from predators. It is the country with the most vibrant economy, the most fervent devotion to liberty and the most powerful military. In the 19th century Britain battled the ‘enemies of all mankind’, such as slave traders and pirates, and kept the world’s seas open to free trade. Today the only nation capable of playing an equivalent role is the US. Allies will be needed but America is, as Madeleine Albright said, ‘the indispensable nation’

The tone of Boot’s piece echoes Powell’s speech in The Demolished Man – here, liberty and peace are presented as the objective opposites to ‘evil’, ‘predators’ and ‘enemies of all mankind’. Just as Powell deems Reich ‘a sure road to utter destruction’, Boot deems American intervention as essential – ‘indispensable’ even – to ensure the world remains on the ‘correct’ course of history. In the 1970s, Foucault lectured on the defence of ‘society’ as part of an interplay between history and politics – the same holds true in the contemporary nature of Boot’s analysis of America as world policeman, with the politics now taking place on a scale in which ‘society’ becomes representative of the core values of liberty and peace on a global scale.

As with Bester’s idea of both ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ versions of history opposed against each-other, The Man in the High Castle is also a book of juxtapositions and multiple elements. The basic premise of the novel is a juxtaposition in itself – the notion of a false reality, and by association a false version of history, as opposed to our ‘real’ world. We are presented with the theme of history as something indeterminate, elusive – and left to decide which is correct, our interpretation of history or the version of events given in the novel. In his critical review of the book, Adam Roberts raises the question of what history exactly stands for:

Postmodern and deconstructive historians have been involved with more traditional historians in precisely this debate for several decades now: whether history is ‘out there’, a realm of solid fact… or whether it is ‘in the mind’, radically indeterminable, textual rather than factual. Dick takes the argument further along than a Foucault or a Hayden White could dare.

It is precisely this argument that Dick explores in his creation of The Man in the High Castle – it is his very own, self-contained textual history – a version of world events that he has created to fit his designs, his plot machinations. Even more interesting is the fictional novel contained within the book, entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which presents yet another imagined version of history (one where Germany loses the war, but in ways subtly different from our ‘real’ history).  With so many different versions colliding and interweaving, history fast becomes, as Roberts puts it, ‘radically indeterminable’. Reliability is called into question, the notion of absolute authority. Can any one man, or indeed, a culture, define a ‘master’ version of history that all should subscribe to above others? Or is the world instead comprised of a countless number of contingent histories, every person and object containing their own personal timeline?

It is important to place Le Guin and Dick’s novels not just within the discourse of science-fiction and historical theory but also postmodernism. Often defined as a movement which decentred the concept of texts – turning them from individual creations into intertextual ones – postmodernism strived to build on the more explorative literature of the early twentieth-century and not just examine the world around us, but also the language and means by which the world is described with. Other key themes in postmodernism such as paranoia, techno-culture and hyperreality (where reality becomes indeterminable from a simulation of reality) bear particular relevance to Le Guin and Dick whose novels are charged with contemporary fears of war, politics, technology and drug usage – indeed, the novels could in many ways be seen as a paranoid reaction to these fears. In The Lathe Of Heaven, it is through Dr. Haber’s ‘dream machine’ that Orr’s dreams are controlled, a seamless integration of man and technology utilised to world-altering effect. In The Man In The Castle, Dick supplies a more respectful view of technology, one intertwined with the nature of Nazi culture itself and their achievement of space travel:

What the Nazis have which we lack is – nobility. Admire them for their love of work or their efficiency… but it’s the dream that stirs one. Space flights to the moon, then to Mars; if that isn’t the oldest yearning of mankind, our finest hope for glory.

Here, the tone is one of appreciative awe. Though they are portrayed as an oppressive people, there is a notion of respect for the ambition and ingenuity of Nazi technology, a sense that they have achieved the fullest extent of human potential by actually turning such long-held dreams as visiting Mars into reality. Postmodernist discourse also raised notions that there was a hidden scheme of ordering behind the day to day existence of the world, an invisible drive behind apparently chaotic events. This bears relevance The Man in the High Castle where characters, lost in the bewilderment of ever-changing modern life, look to the advice of the I Ching for solace. Within the I Ching system, apparently random combinations of yarrow stalks combine to create a form of divination; fortune telling. While sceptics would target the system as completely random, for the user, the belief in the outcomes of this kind of divination is absolute – for them, the order imposed by the I Ching to the events of their life is to be completely believed.

Within the naming of Le Guin’s character George Orr lies the obvious referencing of George Orwell, and by extension, the themes of duality present both in Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven and Orwell’s 1984. Within this passage from 1984, Orwell sets out many of the themes of a malleable, controlled notion of history and reality that Dick and Le Guin also deal with:

And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed -if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. ‘Reality control’, they called it: in Newspeak, ‘doublethink’.

George Orr’s ability to alter reality with his dreams recalls Orwell’s ‘doublethink’; a capability to imagine an alternate state of reality, and for this to then be imposed over current reality. As with Orr, reality is positioned as something that begins explicitly in the mind, moving outwards to encompass the world itself – the ‘reality control’ that Orr possesses as inherent ability. Orwell’s phrasing specifically focuses on the almost simplicity of the act, ‘all that was needed’, how with the correct series of thought processes, this reality control becomes second nature – a theme that becomes evident in Dr Haber’s increased manipulation of George Orr’s dreams in The Lathe of Heaven. With Haber in control, George Orr achieves more and more victories over his memory of established events – erasing world wars, conjuring aliens into existence – instantaneously.

While Orwell states ‘if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth,’ Dick takes this premise and explores it to its natural extension with the Nazi-ruled world of The Man in the High Castle where, through consultation with the I Ching, the reality the characters are living in is finally exposed as false in the novel’s closing pages. Presented with this realisation, Julianna targets Hawthorne, the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, with the criticism: ‘Even you don’t face it’, echoing Orwell’s ideas of the acceptance of a lie, an avoidance of the real truth to accept reality at face value – Germany continuing to exert a ‘victory’ over America and their collective cultural memory. By engaging with theories of the malleability of history, both Orwell and Dick seek to examine the cross-over between history and reality itself – with history as the process that creates truths from the past, these then coalesce to form the make-up of the reality that surrounds us in the present.

In one of the extracts from The Grasshopper Lies Heavy presented in the novel, a German named Karl is confronted with the Hitler’s dead body and the absolute finality it presents for the Nazi Party:

‘Here he lay, and now he was gone, really gone… The man – or was it after all Uebermensch? – whom Karl had blindly followed, worshipped… We see your bluff, Adolf Hitler. And we know you for what you are, at last. And the Nazi Party, the dreadful era of murder and megalomaniacal fantasy, for what it is. What it was.’

Emphasised within this extract is the duality of Hitler and the Party; once existent and powerful, now dead and gone. Here, the ‘bluff’ is finally faced head on, the lie of superiority thrown down as a ‘megalomaniacal fantasy’, Dick specifically employing the term fantasy to highlight it as a kind of fiction. Here, German rule is exposed as a false reality, just as it is in the closing pages of The Man In The High Castle itself. As ‘author’ of the destiny of Nazi race, Hitler’s story comes to a close, the eyes of his ‘blind’ followers finally opened to the ‘true’ reality.

Dick’s usage of the Nietzschean term ‘Uebermensch’ is also important – mostly commonly translated as ‘super man’, it also recalls Carlyle’s ‘great man’; positioning Hitler as the abstraction of his race and country that Dick uses earlier in the novel to identify the Nazi ideology. However, in the original English translation of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra – from which the term originates – the word appeared as ‘Beyond-Man’, establishing themes of an alternative, separate being – an ultimate goal for humanity to strive towards. Thus, in this definition, Hitler is not just the ‘great man’, but something above and beyond normal comprehensions of mankind and reality. Drawing on Nietzsche’s themes of the struggle to find purpose in a world with no meaning, and no God, Dick then exposes Hitler- for all his ‘Uebermensch’ pretentions – as merely another God figure, ‘blindly followed, worshipped’.

In terms of extracting meaning from character names, Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man employs a similar technique with its protagonist – Ben Reich, a bringing together of the overtly Jewish ‘Benjamin’ and Reich; more specifically the Nazi regime of the Third Reich. By combining both oppressor and oppressed within one name, Bester furthers the concept of Carlyle’s great man theory by creating an all encompassing man comprised of archetypal traits of both races. As a businessman, Reich plays into concepts of Jews as inherently engaged with money, while as a powerful man driven on controlling all the major corporations in the solar system, he engages with the conquering force of Nazi Germany. By investing his lead character with these connotations, Bester explores the capacity of a homogenised force on the world. Reich’s personal mantra in the novel is ‘Make your enemies by choice, not by accident’, following on from Orwell’s ideas of control, this positions him as a man who succeeds through the ability to choose – a theme also present in the creation of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy in Dick’s novel; a book written through a series of random ‘choices’.

Exploring the way the novel has been created through a continuous series of consultations with the I Ching, the author’s wife explains: ‘One by one [Hawthorne] made the choices. Thousands of them. By means of the lines. Historic period. Subject. Characters. Plot. It took years. [Hawthorne] even asked the oracle what sort of success it would be. It told him that it would be a very great success, the first real one of his career.’ Perhaps most pertinent is the fact that Hawthorne’s creation of the The Grasshopper Lies Heavy mirrors the way Dick actually composed the narrative of The Man in the High Castle by way of the I Ching, furthering the post-modernist elements of Hawthorne as a representation of Dick-as-author within the book itself. This also poses the question; who exactly is in control of The Man in the High Castle – Dick, or the I Ching?

Notions of control in respect to narrative is a core post-modernist theme, and presenting history as a story open to change, Dick and Le Guin are arguably not only in control of the narrative of their novels, but the history contained within them. In one scene of The Lathe of Heaven, George Orr and Dr. Haber are discussing the conflicted state of fictional Middle Eastern country ‘Isragypt’, which has now been ‘imagined out of existence’ by Orr dreaming of world peace: ‘The made-up word from the old reality had a curiously shocking effect, spoken in this reality: like surrealism, it seemed to make sense and didn’t, or seemed not to make sense and did.’ Le Guin’s specifying of Isragypt as a ‘made-up’ word engages with the author’s power to create words to fulfil their purposes, with the irony here being that it is now as ‘made-up’ for Orr as it is for the reader. As a portmanteau of Israel and Egypt, we can comprehend the meaning of the word, but it holds no ‘real’ value for us – it is an entirely fictional nation. Thus, we are placed in Orr’s mindset, encountering a word that ‘seemed to make sense and didn’t’. Here, the history of the world and the political states of its nations is placed in constant flux, with Le Guin as controller, not only playing with a dual sense of reality – in a manner akin to Orwell’s ‘doublethink’ – but extending that notion of duality into the very words on the page.

Returning to the idea of intertextuality, to a degree, the world of Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven is a postmodern creation in itself. Just as postmodern novels are things of metafiction – writing referring to the process of writing – The Lathe of Heaven is a fictional world concerned with the further creation of fictional worlds. George Orr creates a patchwork of varied worlds in his dreams, the multiple elements stitching themselves together, overlaying themselves on top of each-other until any notion of an original world is lost. And it is in this context of overlaying and eventual loss that historical theorists have analysed the shifting events of our own world and presented the theory that history – as it is understood on a global level – is inherently written by the victors.

Race and reality – history in the eyes of the victors

Returning to Dick’s novel, the concept of ‘history written by the victors’ plays directly into the theory of a linear Nazi history – indeed, this is why the Nazis have banned the alternate-history novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, as it dares to offer an alternative to their ‘master’ history. If only the victors ever write the history, the loser’s story is lost, never to be recovered – and without knowledge of these events, they effectively cease to exist.

America’s history in particular has proved to be a focal point of this sense of varied history. What was once traditionally described as the initial ‘colonisation’ of America by European settlers is now sometimes described as a period of invasion and dominance of the native Indian tribes – the same events, but from different viewpoints. These theories are grouped together under the term ‘historical revisionism’, literally a revising of what constitutes ‘history’ – as the American example proves, ‘today’s winners are tomorrow’s losers’. Through these methods, present trains of thought influence the way the past is seen. Dick handles this theme deftly in his novel, presenting a scenario where America is once again ‘invaded’ by European powers, making a keen political point about the way events can come to be viewed.

In his essay on Richard Hakluyt (sixteenth-century writer key in the initial colonisation of America by England), David Harris Sacks explores the specific terminology of early European conquest of Native Americans:

England would quickly “worke many great and unlooked for effects, increase her dominions, enrich her cofers, and reduce many Pagans to the faith of Christ”. To ‘reduce’ means literally ‘to lead back’. Its use implies that for the natives of North America the forward course of history represents a return to lost truth.

Here, history is presented as something of dual aspects – on one level it moves continuously forward, an unalterable march of progress upon world events. But equally, history for the Native Americans becomes malleable, specifically and intentionally altered by the English settlers as they sought to return the natives to the universal truth of Christianity. In their eyes, the individual history of the formerly isolated natives is wiped away to be replaced by a larger, greater world history. Sacks continues, highlighting this view of the universal truth of man as a collective whole: ‘This usage reflects the view that the natives of the Americas, along with the rest of humankind, have suffered the consequences of the Fall, but can be freed from the burdens of sin and returned… to a state of righteousness and reason, the potential for which is in their God-given nature’.

For Dick, the dictatorial aspects of Nazism present a similar view – the strict linearity of one central version of history – they are the master race, inherently opposed to difference and otherness. ‘Their view; it is cosmic. Not of a man here, a child there, but an abstraction: race, land.’ Here, the localised version of reality and history disappears altogether, replaced by a universal, uniform master narrative. This concept of the individual versus the concept of a race in its entirety is a frequent element in historical theory – In his essay on French historian Alexis de Tocqueville, Hayden White explains:

The democratic historian seeks to discover some large meaning in the mass of petty details which he discerns on the historical stage. He is driven to refer to everything, not to individuals at all, but to great, abstract, and general forces.

Just as Dick talks of the ‘cosmic’ view of the German race, White explores how the notion of the individual is homogenised and in essence lost amidst a mass of ‘everything’. This echoes Dick’s use of the antiques industry as a metaphor for history – several of the characters enter into a discourse on the value of a cigarette-lighter claimed to have been held by President Roosevelt when he was assassinated. We are told that the object only has worth because it is accompanied by an authenticity certificate:

…it’s all a fake, a mass delusion. The paper proves its worth, not the object itself! …the paper and lighter had cost him a fortune, but they were worth it – because they enabled him to prove that he was right, that the word ‘fake’ meant nothing really, since the word ‘authentic’ meant nothing really

The actual significance of the lighter is lost amidst proving if it is genuine or fake, and the reader is left doubting whether, despite the authenticity certificate, it is real at all. Just as with George Orr’s multiple created worlds, Dick’s landscape of antiques within the desolated, ‘antique’ America is permeable, contingent, a thing of change. This theme of a lack of control is continued in White’s Metahistory, who states: ‘[the historian] therefore tends to view history as a depressing story of man’s inability to control his future’. What Dick also achieves in his novel is the creation of a distinct parallel between American, Nazi and Japanese society – by carving up the world of the novel, and by association the world in its entirety, into three carefully characterised societies, Dick’s narrative bears relevance to another aspect mentioned in the White essay:

[Mediating] not only between alternative concepts of society and between the past and the present, but between the present and the future as well… The task of the historian was to show how these possibilities had crystallised as distinct alternatives for the future

This sense of indeterminacy regarding nation and race is highlighted in The Lathe of Heaven where George Orr’s lawyer Lelache discusses her confused sense of racial identity.

I can’t decide which colour I am. I mean, my father was a black, a real black – oh, he had some white blood, but he was a black – and my mother was a white, and I’m neither one… Well, where does that leave me?

Lelache stands as a living example of Foucault’s theories about society – her own personal ‘truth’ is incomplete as she herself does not know how to think of herself. Her sense of race extends outwards to the world at large; if she is unsure of her own race, then the notion of racial conflict is always a potential. It is George Orr that offers the unifying solution, describing her brown skin as ‘The colour of the Earth’. In George’s eyes, Lelache’s mixed heritage is the perfect example of the variety of racial heritage present on Earth – while Lelache searches for a sense of singularity, George – as with his dreams of multiple realities – is open to the notion of an individual comprised of many identities.

The sense of an individual being composed of their race is also dealt with in Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, a psychoanalytical study on the feelings of inadequacy that black people experienced in the white-dominated Western culture of the 1950s:

The white world, the only honourable one, barred me from all participation. A man was expected to behave like a man. I was expected to behave like a black man – or at least like a nigger.

Here, Fanon describes how white culture of the time views him only as ‘black’, a singular concept built on historical perceptions of ‘the black man’. He is arguably viewed not even as a ‘regular’ man, but specifically prefaced as ‘black’ – or worse, as less than a man, a ‘nigger’. Here, Fanon exists only as his race – or rather, his skin colour. He continues:

I was responsible at the same time for my body, for my race, for my ancestors. I subjected myself to an objective examination, I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics’.

The quotation bears relevance to Dick’s The Man in the High Castle where Americans have been turned into a colonised people within their own country; those that remain become the sole continuation of their ‘race’. In their trade of American antiques, they play on the very stuff of their ancestors; the characteristic make-up of the American ‘race’ reduced to Mickey Mouse watches and old Civil War posters. Through the antiques trade, these remaining Americans become curators of their own past, and through selling these ‘expensive treasures’ to the Japanese ruling class, they – as Fanon puts it – subject themselves to an ‘objective examination’.

Just as Fanon describes a world where he is ‘barred from all participation’, the America of Dick’s novel is literally divided into three zones: the German-controlled east coast, the western Japanese-controlled Pacific States and a neutral Rocky Mountain central buffer zone. Here, borders between race dissolve the former ‘United’ states into a country of divided parts, a segregated world reflective of the tensions of the Civil Rights movement in 1960s America. Dick further develops the segregated portrayal of races in his novel through the stylistic technique of the Japanese characters employing a ‘telegraphese’ style of speech. Used both in these characters’ dialogue and internal thoughts, Dick’s concepts of race become almost caricature-like in nature:

Mr Tagomi thought, Cancel all business for today. Let me see. Dispatch at once formal note to Reichs Consul. Minor item; subordinate can accomplish. Deep sorrow, etc.

By clearly delineating the three races into distinct, separate entities, the reality of The Man In The High Castle splits into three further alternate realities, specific to each race. By crystallising these races into bulk entities, the concept of the individual is again lost, the plot of the novel peeling away to a greater scale of global narrative. The character of Mr Tagomi becomes something impersonal and overtly formal; a ‘Mr’, unable to express emotion beyond the vagueness of ‘Deep sorrow, etc.’ Ideas regarding the identity of race are further explored early on in Dick’s novel where Mr Tagomi meets with a supposedly Swedish trade official, Mr Baynes. Tagomi soon suspects that Baynes is not what he says he is:

The insight was, simply, that Mr Baynes was not what he seemed; that his actual purpose in coming to San Francisco was not to sign a deal for injection moulds. That, in fact, Mr Baynes was a spy. But for the life of him, Mr Tagomi could not figure out what sort of spy, for whom or for what.

In Mr Baynes’ indistinct nature, he bears relevance to another argument from Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks where race becomes removed from the distinct visual aspects of ‘black and white’ and shifts to something far more transitory and indeterminate: ‘the Jew can be unknown in his Jewishness. He is not wholly what he is. His actions, his behaviour are the final determinant.’ In Fanon’s view, the Jew can be a man of alternate selves and can choose to present himself as either ‘the white man’ or ‘the Jew’, an option not open to the black man, who Fanon argues is forever determined solely by his skin colour.

It later emerges that Baynes is in fact a German envoy, and here Tagomi’s initial doubts – raised by a consultation with I Ching – become apparent: ‘Here a strong man is presupposed. It is true he does not fit in with his environment, inasmuch as he is too brusque and pays too little attention to form.’ Here, the difficulty with placing Baynes is that – whether Swedish or German – he is ‘the white man’, and it is only through the minutiae of his body language that Tagomi senses something is wrong. In Fanon’s words: ‘His actions, his behaviour are the final determinant.’ Fanon goes on to explain how the question of race goes beyond mere physical and behavioural characteristics, and into notions of an inbuilt ‘destiny’ that the race, as a collective entity, must fulfil: ‘The white man wants the world; he wants it for himself alone. He finds himself predestined master of this world. He enslaves it. An acquisitive relationship is established between the world and him.’

Explored here are the kinds of workings that drive the Nazi regime in Dick’s novel – an indisputable need to conquer the world, to rebuild in their singular image. In the brutal carving up of America into segregated parts, the reader is presented with echoes of the nation’s slave-owning past, but with the position now reversed, with Americans as the enslaved. When Alfred Bester described Ben Reich’s capacity for global change as ‘will not his beliefs become the world’s belief? Will not his reality become the world’s reality?’ in The Demolished Man, he encapsulated the concept of a singular force – in this instance an individual man – achieving a kind of ownership over the world. In The Man in the High Castle, this singular force becomes the entire Nazi regime, the beliefs of an entire planet enforced from the dominant position of the Third Reich. By fulfilling this ‘race destiny’, the Nazis achieve one possible manifestation of reality and by working through the (fictional) historical events which lead up to this world-state, Dick presents this reality as a genuine alternative – it could have happened in our ‘real’ world, if events had unfolded in the correct way.

This theory is explored by Helga Nowotny as she discusses the notion of ‘proper time’ and an ‘extended present’ in the novel, with the Nazi conquest of the United States presented as ‘a mutation in the history of the future’ where any sense of forward progress for the American people has been seemingly eliminated. In essence, proper time is time as the individual subjectively experiences it – as opposed to the ‘public time’ as measured on a watch or clock; dictated by stationary, agreed standards of timekeeping. To the reader’s eyes, in the technologically advanced world of Nazis – where manned space travel to Mars and rocket flights between Europe and America have been achieved by the 1960s – time has in essence been ‘accelerated’ far beyond the pace of real life events. By association, this alternate reality of events is not a potential future for the world, but merely an ‘extended present’ as imagined by Dick, an artificial version balancing on the brink of existence. It is for this reason, perhaps, that the Japanese are so focused on collecting mass-produced American antiques, to create a sense of a ‘past’ so that the extended present will morph into a genuine future.

Alfred Bester explores similar themes of proper time and artificially extended realities in the closing scenes of The Demolished Man. Ben Reich has been captured by the police and is subjected to a kind of full-scale lobotomy – the ‘Demolition’ of the book’s title – completely emptying his mind. His final thoughts are presented to the reader in the form of a speech from a malevolent, dark side of his personality dubbed The Man With No Face:

We were the only reality. All the rest was make-believe… dolls, puppets, stage-settings… pretended passions. It was a make-believe reality for us to solve. Does it matter who or what we are? We have failed. Out test is ended. We are ended…. perhaps if we had solved it, Ben, it might have remained real. But it is ended. Reality has turned into might-have-been, and you have awakened at last… to nothing.

Here, Ben Reich’s life and power to change the world is positioned as another kind of extended present – a flickering reality of possibilities, but now curtailed to nothing by Reich’s demolition. The extended present crumbles away, replaced only by the grim finality of Reich’s demolition: ‘we are ended.’ In choosing to employ the word ‘we’, Bester engages again with a kind of duality, the prospect of multiple, mutable futures. It is here that the divide between reality and imagination, substance and nothingness, is made clearest. With Reich’s demolition, he becomes nothing, erased from history as the loser of the novel’s events. Just as the Man With No Face presents the question ‘does it matter who or what we are?’, the same question must be asked of those events and people not recorded in history books as they are deemed insignificant. Here, Reich is catapulted from ‘great man’ to a nameless, demolished entity.

Drugs and dreams – means of inducing the ‘alternate’

One of the greatest powers of these novels is that in many ways they are not just works of fiction, but more specifically, pieces of philosophical thought in fictional form. Just as Plato used the concept of Atlantis to explore his own theories on reality, Dick and Le Guin present frightening, dystopian versions of America to analyse the socio-political situations of their own time, a theme raised by Gavriel Rosenfeld’s essay ‘Why Do We Ask ‘What If?’ Reflections on the Function of Alternate History’: ‘[science fiction] explores the past less for its own sake than to utilize it instrumentally to comment on the present’ In the 1960s and 70s when both Dick and Le Guin’s novels were first published, the world was in the midst of a rapid rise in recreational drug use, particularly psychedelic drugs like LSD – highlighting the ease at which the state of a person’s mind could be altered. Just as the novels explore themes of altered realities, drugs like LSD allowed people to directly alter their own perception of reality; to induce a new, alternative way of seeing and experiencing the world around them. Speaking on the drug’s history, David Nichols recounts:

Many a frustrated and angry parent believed that using LSD had caused their son or daughter to reject their time-honoured values, or become a war protestor. Thus, for many in the mainstream, LSD even took on an ‘anti-American’ character.

Here, the link between altered states of consciousness and drug use are made clear, with the notion of the drug creating an anti-American persona tying neatly in to the Nazi-ruled America in Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Indeed, many of these were relevant to Dick’s own life, as Eric Brown addresses in his introduction to the novel: ‘he became dependent on amphetamines and prescription drugs. He was paranoid (convinced at times he was being watched by the FBI and the CIA)’. Thus, The Man In The High Castle becomes in many ways the culmination of the fears addressed in the Nichols quotation, a book explicitly dealing with the invasion of America by a foreign power, written by an author who was actively ‘invading’ his own body with ‘foreign’ substances. Dick’s situation is neatly mirrored in Le Guin’s novel, where George Orr begins The Lathe of Heaven suffering from an overdose on prescription drugs and is promptly apprehended by the authorities for using his friends’ pharmacy cards to obtain more than his allocated allowance.

The influence of psychedelic drugs more prominently manifests itself in the novel where a race of aliens (in both a literal and symbolic sense of the word) appear in George Orr’s dreams and speak to him. The analogy of subversive foreign, ‘alien’ powers in contemporary America is clear as Orr outlines what the alien race have revealed to him about the process of dreaming:

They’re a lot more experienced than we are at all this… At dreaming – at what dreaming is an aspect of. They’ve done it for a long time. For always, I guess. They are of the dream time… The play of form, of being, is the dreaming of substance… You must learn the way. You must learn the skills, the art, the limits. A conscious mind must be part of the whole, intentionally and carefully.

Particularly, in Le Guin’s usage of the phrase ‘the skills, the art, the limits’, she echoes the paraphernalia and processes of drug-culture and leads into discourse on how these methods play into the nature of the mind itself. The idea of exploring the seditious, reality-altering influence of drugs also emerges in Alduous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception – released in 1954, it pre-dates Dick and Le Guin’s novels but actively engages in the effects of drug usage, describing in detail the experiences of the author during and after a mescaline trip. Seeking a means of escape from personal crisis, and having already attempted meditation, Huxley was lured in by the potential of psychedelic drugs, which he described as ‘toxic short cuts to self-transcendence’. Already, Huxley was identifying the means by which drug use could elevate him into an altered perception of existence.

Writing of the trip experience itself, Huxley describes how he feels like he is being overwhelmed with sensation, coming close to the feeling of madness. He relates this specifically to schizophrenia, a literal state of ‘alternate realities’ within a single mind – here, the affected mind is unable to escape from the ‘mad’ state into the accepted realm of normal reality. Le Guin elaborates on these ideas specifically in The Lathe of Heaven – George Orr is exactly this kind of individual; affected by his reality altering dreams, he is unable to escape to a regular existence. Orr’s doctor describes the oppressive feelings of the mental state:

Your therapy lies in this direction, to use your dreams, not to evade and avoid them. To face your fear and, with my help, see it through. You’re afraid of your own mind, George. That’s a fear no man can live with… All you need to do is not to hide from your own mental powers, not to suppress them, but to release them.

Identified in Le Guin’s writing is a clear selectiveness between different mental states – one where Orr is terrified of his dreams and actively attempts to avoid them, the other where they become a creative force that offers release. Here, as with the world of the novel itself, the mind becomes a place prone to constant flux. This ties into one of the theories presented by Huxley in The Doors of Perception; a way by which the human mind functions on a highly selective series of processes, filtering out unessential information to create the world that we see. Huxley calls this theory the Mind at Large, explaining that it is only in an altered state of consciousness that we can be said to be experiencing true reality, without the interference from the filters of our brain.

Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.

Just as Dick’s novel-within-a-novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy provides a glimmer of hope that the Nazi-ruled world may only be one possible reality amongst many, Huxley explains that the mind shields us from useless, irrelevant information; in effect, protecting us by offering a reality that is best suited for us to exist in. Furthermore, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is written through a process of continued consultancy with the I Ching; every thread of its narrative based on an outcome of the oracle-like nature of the fortune telling method. Late in Dick’s novel, the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is questioned regarding the process:

I wonder why the oracle would write a novel. And why one about the Germans and the Japanese losing the war? Why that particular story and no other one? What is there it can’t tell us directly, like it always has before?

Here, the I Ching functions like Huxley’s ‘Mind at Large’, providing the characters of Dick’s novel with a piecemeal ‘special selection’ of information that, coming together in its entirety to form The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, ultimately positions the truth that in an alternate universe the events of the book might be a reality. To offer this truth directly would be overpowering and confusing, but by presenting it stage by stage, over the course of a fictional narrative, it becomes real. Indeed, once the book’s origins in the I Ching (itself a foreign influence on Western culture) are revealed, that reality becomes all the more believable.

But whereas Huxley actively seeks these wondrous experiences, Le Guin’s character George Orr shies away from them: ‘you used the phenobarb to suppress dreaming but found with habituation the drug has less and less dream-suppressive effect, until it has none at all’. Indeed, the irony in Le Guin’s writing is that here, drug usage is intended to reduce – not induce – fantastical dream-experiences. Le Guin’s awareness of contemporary themes such as drug addiction lend her words added weight, emphasised further by the use of scientific language; her reality is all the more effective for its pseudo-believability and the inclusion of ‘mad scientist’ archetypes like Dr. Haber that serve as a warning against excessive scientific meddling with the world.

Both Dick and Le Guin’s novels centre around a premise of change mediated by technology and the dangers this may present.  In The Lathe of Heaven, it is through the direction of Haber’s ‘dream machine’ that reality is directly altered, highlighting the many issues that arise from the attempted building of a Utopian reality – solve one problem and others will likely arise. Both novels tend towards moral narratives on the dangers of too much freedom – with America as the self-proclaimed land of the free, the irony is evident in Dick’s presentation of a Nazi controlled USA; completely and utterly restrictive. By focusing on everyman characters, both Dick and Le Guin place ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, allowing the reader to better sympathise with the adversities and moral problems these characters encounter in their authors’ respective alternate realities.

But beyond these similarities, there are also profound differences between the ways Dick and Le Guin employ their alternate realities and the capacity this presents for a ‘happy’ ending to the narrative. As Ian Watson highlights:

‘there is an essential difference between Dick’s false realities and Le Guin’s, in that Dick’s warping of reality is quite Machiavellian in its tricksterism and involves the reader himself ultimately in a dissolution of the sense of reality; whereas Le Guin proceeds from change to change far more definitively, ending up with a solid, unambiguous conclusion’

With Dick’s closing revelation that the world of The Man in the High Castle may indeed be an entirely ‘false’ reality, the reader – who has spent the entire narrative within this world and alongside its characters – feels almost cheated, trapped within something entirely artificial. In essence, their predicament mirrors that of the characters, who realise they have spent their entire lives experiencing a reality that is only illusion. In contrast, The Lathe of Heaven ends on a far more positive note – George Orr grows from his drug-dependent beginnings to a true ‘hero’ figure, shutting down Dr. Haber’s dream machine and his meddling influence in the state of the world. Here, the novel reaches a closed conclusion, neatly slotting together the jigsaw pieces of the various realities into a sustainable status-quo where the hero has ‘solved’ the problem and defeated the antagonist, whereas in Dick’s novel, these disparate pieces are ultimately thrown into disorderly chaos.

‘[The Lathe of Heaven] teaches us that if we would truly make the world a better place, we must abandon all pretence towards rational control’or as George Orr explains to Haber within The Lathe of Heaven itself: ‘I do know it’s wrong to force the pattern of things. It won’t do. It’s been our mistake for a hundred years’ Here, the power of authoritarian, rational, state-representing roles is attacked – the doctors and politicians of the world. It is transferred to the more creatively inclined; the dreamer, the writer. The reader is not forced down a singular route, rather presented a series of options, a theme echoed by the creation of both The Grasshopper Lies Heavy and The Man in the High Castle by means of consultation the I Ching – a random process removed from logic. By abandoning rational control, moving toward the fantastical and the capacities of science-fiction for analysing ‘what if?’ scenarios, the authors are freed of logical restraints and can pursue a number of alternate possibilities for the world limited only by the extent of what their minds can imagine into being.

These novels highlight the effectiveness of the alternate reality premise as a means to engage with contemporary issues – whether it be race, drugs of the nature of history itself, the fictional medium gives the authors the space and faculty needed to dissect these themes in detail, in the guise of populist narrative. The sense of what constitutes a nation, and by association, the world as a whole – the novels expose the delicate balance between the fixed and unfixed elements within these concepts; dominant master narratives like the Nazi regime of Dick, or the hazy, unfixed grey area of Le Guin’s interchanging realities. It is left to the reader to piece together the disparate aspects of the ‘alternative’ and draw their own conclusions on what these glimpses of otherness say about their own contemporaneous reality. The reader becomes more than passive participant, instead opting into providing a critique of Dick and Le Guin’s world-building attempts – for by its very nature, the concept of an ‘alternate’ can only exist alongside an original – our own ‘real’ world.



Primary sources

Bester, Alfred, The Demolished Man (London: Gollancz, 1999)

Dick, Philip K., The Man in the High Castle (London: Penguin Classics, 2001)

Le Guin, Ursula, The Lathe of Heaven (London: Gollancz, 2001)

Orwell, George, 1984 (London: Penguin, 2008)

Secondary sources

Allen, Graham, Intertextuality (London: Routledge, 2000)

Barth, John, Postmodernism Revisited: Further Fridays (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1995)

Boonstra, John, ‘Philip K Dick’s Final Interview’, The Twilight Zone Magazine, 2, (1982)

Call, Lewis, ‘Postmodern Anarchism in the Novels of Ursula K. Le Guin’, SubStance, 36, (2007)

Clarke, I. F., The Tale of the Next Great War, 1871-1914 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1995)

Eco, Umberto, Faith In Fakes – Travels In Hyperreality (London: Vintage, 1995)

Foucault, Michel, Society Must Be Defended (London: Penguin, 2005)

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967)

Freedman, Carl, ‘The Man in the High Castle: Philip K. Dick and the Construction of Realities’, Critical Theory and Science Fiction (Hanover: University Press of New England, 2000)

Geoffroy, Louis, Napoleon et la conquete du monde, 1812-1832: Histoire de la monarchie universelle (Paris: Tallandier, 1983)

Houston, Chloe, New Worlds Reflected (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010)

Huxley, Aldous, The Devils of Loudon (London: Chatto & Windus, 1952)

Huxley, Aldous, The Doors of Perception (London: Chatto & Windus, 1954)

Jones, Maldwyn A., The Limits of Liberty: American History 1607-1992 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)

Nietzsche, Friedrich, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Philips, John Edward, Writing African History (New York: University of Rochester Press, 2006)

Pick, Daniel, Dreams and History (London: Routledge, 2003)

Plato, Timaeus and Critias (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Rosenfeld, Gavriel, ‘Why Do We Ask ‘What If?’ Reflections on the Function of Alternate History’, History and Theory, 41 (2002)

Simons, John L., ‘The Power of Small Things in Philip K. Dick’s ‘The Man in the High Castle’’, Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, 39 (1985)

Sohn, Stephen Hong, ‘Alien/Asian: Imagining the Racialized Future’, MELUS , 33, (2008)

Watson, Ian, ‘Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven and the Role of Dick: The False Reality as Mediator’, Science Fiction Studies, 2 (1975)

Web resources

Boot, Max, ‘America’s Destiny Is to Police the World’, Financial Times, Feb 19th (2003) [http://www.cfr.org/us-strategy-and-politics/americas-destiny-police-world/p5559]

Gioia, Ted, ‘The Lathe of Heaven’, Conceptual Fiction [www.conceptualfiction.com/thelatheofheaven.html]

Nichols, David, ‘LSD: cultural revolution and medical advances’, Chemistry World [www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/Issues/2006/January/LSD.asp]

Reilly, John J., ‘The Man in the High Castle’, The Long View [www.johnreilly.info/mhc.htm]

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How do Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade and Thackeray’s The Due of the Dead discuss the cost of war?

The Crimean war represented a mid-point of sorts, a crux of change between the battle of Waterloo and World War I. Old tactics collided with improved weaponry in a bloody conflict that ultimately saw over 20,000 British soldiers losing their lives. As the first ‘media war’, news travelled quickly, hastened by the advent of telegraph technology, presenting the prospect for first-hand accounts of the front line to swiftly find themselves in newspaper headlines and discussed over the homely dinner table. It is amidst these changing times that the actual cost of war presented itself up for scrutiny – cost of life, literal monetary cost; all aspects caught up within the chaotic, encompassing nature of mass warfare. As a matter lying not just at the heart of the immediacy of battle itself, but the lingering after-effects and the memories of dead soldiers in the minds of those back home, the cost of warfare proved to a potent premise for poets of the era.

It was, indeed, a Times article by reporter Howard Russell that first prompted Tennyson to write The Charge of the Light Brigade, a poem that in many ways has almost eclipsed the Crimean war itself. And it is in the way the poem specifically engages with numerical values that it deals most obviously with the costs of war. The insistent opening repetition of ‘half a league, half a league’ highlights a desperately fought push for a parcel of land, human life traded to win the very soil beneath their feet as the brigade charge forward. This is added to the further use of numerical quantity in the repetition of the ‘rode the six hundred’ refrain itself – by closing each stanza with this line, Tennyson places the reader’s focus specifically on the number of soldiers fighting. The effect of this is that the concept of individual men is dissolved, replaced by block movements of massed forces – war becomes something seen at a distance, Tennyson’s poem in effect mirroring the broad newspaper overtones the combat would have been dealt with in the Times article.

This kind of war at a remove terminology is also employed by Thackeray in his poem The Due of the Dead where he contrasts the language of combat with the comparative triviality of life back home: ‘I sip my tea, and criticise / The war, from flying rumours caught; / Trace on the map, to curious eyes, / How here they marched, and there they fought’. Just as Tennyson emphasises the link between the men and the physical measurement of land they are fighting across, Thackeray’s narrator points from on high to troop locations, albeit this time through the filter of a map. Here, any essence of the war as visceral and bloody are removed, reported loss of life reduced to ‘flying rumours’. Thackeray’s view of war is shocking in the distance it creates between the events and their digestion by the general public, but it is also fully aware of the poet’s own position, as one of those encompassed by the ‘I’. In a self-deprecating sense, Thackeray draws all the more attention to the way – through the process of observation and criticism – the actual cost of human life is diluted into a line of text or dialogue.

The skill of Thackeray’s poem is that it then goes on to contrast this distanced view of war with an intensely visual picture of it in all its brutal actuality: ‘Meanwhile o’er Alma’s bloody plain / The scathe of battle has rolled by- / The wounded writhe and groan – the slain / Lie naked staring to the sky.’ Beginning with the use of ‘Meanwhile o’er’, Thackeray places this scene as specifically different in tone from the previous depiction of war, while simultaneously delineating it as happening in the ‘now’. War is presented to the reader up-close, as something in the immediate, making the following depictions of ruined life all the more haunting. By punctuating the lines with dashes, Thackeray elongates the passage of time and by association, prolongs the suffering and opens up the scene of war as something happening on a large scale where a great sweeping ‘scathe’ of battle cuts down soldiers like corn in a field. The alliteration in ‘wounded writhe’ also serves to highlight the severity of the injuries, sheer pain forcing the men into inhuman movements – in this instance the reader is made to feel the cost of suffering a wound by the unnatural nature of the alliteration. Those soldiers that have lost their life are depicted as ‘naked’, stripped of everything that characterised them when alive – the cost has been absolute, not only have they lost their lives but their individuality and dignity too.

Perhaps the most explicit way in which Thackeray engages with the cost of war though is when he specifically employs monetary language to create a kind of bond between the soldiers and those back home who they are giving their lives for: ‘Owe we a debt to these brave men, / Unpaid by aught that’s said or sung.’ As before, Thackeray decries the efforts of poems like his own to offer any kind of real recompense to the soldiers, placing the debt at the feet of the reader. The poem draws on specific ideals of honour and obligation, in both a patriotic and fiscal sense – the hefty cost that the soldiers fighting in Crimea have shouldered is expected to be repaid in kind by England as a whole: ‘And of her fullness give them part’. By giving of this fullness, England seeks to plug the gap left by ‘Parents made childless, babes bereft / Desolate widows, sisters dear.’ The Due of the Dead depicts a depleted England where the cost of war has been exacted where it will cut most – in the homes of families across the country. Here, the cost is not only crude numerical loss of life, but also the cost on the emotions of the living; by focusing on the ‘bereft’ and ‘desolate’ Thackeray turns death into a far more lingering agony that strikes not only in Crimea, but within England itself.

There is an air of transaction to the poem – the irony of course being that it is the bereft families that must receive this payment as it cannot be given to those soldiers who are dead. Thackeray stresses the provision of aid to the families as essential, criticising those that would say ‘it is enough’ merely to carve a name and plant a laurel at a tomb. Again, ‘enough’ brings in to play the language of quantity, and raises the question of exactly how much would be ‘enough’ to balance out the cost of a man’s life, a theme further explored in Tennyson’s poem as he too seeks to offer some kind of balance of repayment to the soldiers; ordering the reader to ‘Honour the charge they made!’ Here, Tennyson speaks directly to the reader, commanding them through the emphasis afforded by the exclamation mark – in this respect he seeks to link the focus of the rest of the poem – which has been on the soldiers and the battle – with a focus on what those back home can now do.

One of the most moving elements of The Charge of the Light Brigade is the way it presents war’s power to deplete life in sheer numerical terms – with the continued repetition of ‘rode the six hundred’, it comes as a genuine shock when the refrain shifts to ‘Then they rode back, but not / Not the six hundred’. The full might of the six hundred in all their glory has now been cut down and reduced – a truth so shocking that even Tennyson falters in his relaying of this detail to the reader. The ‘but not / Not…’, separated by the line break depicts the poet’s words as faltering, an almost choking back of tears as the true cost of the charge sinks in. Here, although the sense of individual soldiers is amalgamated into the bulk of ‘the six hundred’, the reader is made to feel the weight of the numerical loss, the bleakness of the ‘not’ and later the ‘All that was left of them’ stating explicitly that the war has ended life en-masse with crushing finality, that the remainder of the brigade is now profoundly ‘not’ the fighting force it began the charge with.

One of the more haunting elements of the cost of war is the way death is presented as almost inevitable, a near ‘accepted’ part of the soldiers’ duties. As Tennyson comments: ‘their’s not to reason why / their’s but to do and die’ – Here, Tennyson removes logic and rationality from the role of the soldier, reducing them into thoughtless fighting automatons. With 21,097 killed on the British side during the course of the Crimean War, the question presents itself: was the war actually ‘worth it’? With over 16,000 of those losses from disease and cholera, the predominant cost of the war did not even stem from direct military action. Within this context, Tennyson’s words are afforded additional gravity – there is a sense that if the soldiers do not die by bullet or blade, they will fall prey to disease. In the line ‘O the wild charge they made!’ there is the sense that the battle was fought with reason replaced by sheer abandon, that the men were throwing their lives away without care.

Thackeray’s The Due of the Dead continues the idea of death as an all pervading concept, something not limited by the confines of one man ending another’s life. Using imagery within the poem to encompass even the landscape surrounding the men – Thackeray explicitly engages with the threat of disease in the lines: ‘He tracks his prey through steppe and dell; / Hangs fruit to tempt the throats that parch, / And poisons every stream and well’. Death becomes personified, a kind of debt-collector more able to precisely exact the cost of war. Soldiers are dehumanised into vulnerable ‘prey’, again highlighting the futility of their attempts to cling on to life. The theatre of battle becomes a stalking ground for death and even essential bodily requirements such as drinking become dangerous. Life is slowly stifled out from all angles and ‘steppe and dell’ transform into Tennyson’s vision of ‘the valley of Death’ – here the cost is not only to the men, but to the very earth they are fighting on too.

Furthermore, the biblical overtones in language like ‘hangs fruit to tempt’ and ‘valley of Death’ seem to place these costs of war within a grander scale. While it could be argued that Tennyson’s ‘mouth of hell’ to a degree euphemises the actual instance of death, it dresses the warfare in distinctly classical ideals and places it within a larger scheme of mankind’s history as a whole, with death as something man has been fighting against since creation. There is a sense that the cost of the Crimean War is only one cost within a series of costs man has had to pay since the instance of original sin brought on by Adam and Eve after being tempted in the Garden of Eden. As God says to Adam in The Bible, punishing him after he has eaten the fruit: ‘Cursed is the ground because of you… / It will produce thorns and thistles for you… / until you return to the ground, / since from it you were taken;  / for dust you are / and to dust you will return.’ Linked with Tennyson’s imagery of war as a journey into the ‘valley of Death’, there are overtones that war is the enacting of God’s punishment of Adam, that the soil of the battlefield itself is cursed, and that the bodies of the soldiers will fall into it and decompose to dust. In this respect then, war is portrayed as the ultimate cost to be paid by man, again and again across history, as sufferance for Adam’s temptation.

Also of note is the way both poets engage with notions of courage and twin it with the terminology of coinage. Thackeray describes the provision of war veterans with honours: ‘The living, England’s hand may crown / With recognition frank and free’. Here, the image is on the most literal level, of soldiers receiving honours for their deeds; a levelling of the ‘due’ that the poem’s title focuses on. But through the use of ‘crown’, Thackeray alludes to the British ‘crown’ coin, minted between 1707 and 1965. In a similar example, Tennyson ends The Charge of the Light Brigade with ‘Honour the Light Brigade, / Noble six hundred!’ – this time the coin in question is the British ‘noble’, the first English gold coin produced in quantity. While on a base level, the poets’ use of ‘crown’ and ‘noble’ is in a response to the soldiers’ courage and honour, the fact both terms can also apply to coinage helps to place the scenes within a financial context where the soldiers are ‘paid’ for the cost and hardship they have suffered in Crimea.

Ultimately, despite their grave subject matter, it is also important to examine the poems as forms of popular entertainment, and by association, warfare as something to be monetised. Tennyson’s poem, first published in 1854 in intellectual journal The Examiner, later went on to be adapted into a music hall song – and within this context the poem can be seen not just as a memorial of the brave soldiers who gave their lives in Crimea, but as an item utilised within paid-for entertainment.  Here, the meaning of the cost of warfare becomes more than just the cost of loss of life, but a monetary cost to revel in an intensely dramatic account of the events. Indeed, many parts of The Charge of the Light Brigade play directly into this action narrative as Tennyson relates ‘Flashed all their sabres bare, / Flashed as they turned in air’, almost glamorising the violence of the charge through spectacular sequences that portray a largely clean kind of violence divorced from the more brutal scenes depicted in Thackeray’s poem. Tennyson, it seems, even has an audience in mind for the poem: ‘Charge an army, while / All the world wondered:’ – here, there is a sense of warfare as something intensely theatrical, a massed audience of ‘all the world’ held in suspense as the poem unfolds. In this respect then, perhaps both Tennyson and Thackeray add another cost to all those described within their poems – that the soldiers they aim to honour must now suffer a kind of double-death, once in real life, and then again within the poems themselves.



Brighton, Terry, Hell Riders: The Truth about the Charge of the Light Brigade (London: Penguin, 2005)

Coughlan, Sean, ‘Why the Charge of the Light Brigade still matters’, BBC News Online Magazine [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/3944699.stm] (accessed 11/03/12)

Pointing, Clive, The Crimean War: The Truth Behind the Myth (London: Chatto & Windus, 2004), p.344

Royle, Trevor, Crimea: The Great Crimean War, 1854–1856 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000)

Skingley, Philip, Coins of England and the United Kingdom (London: Spink & Son Ltd, 2010)


Stallworthy, Jon, The Oxford Book of War Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 115


Genesis 3:17-19, The Bible (Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 2008)


‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, BBC Learning Zone [http://www.bbc.co.uk/learningzone/clips/the-charge-of-the-light-brigade-pt-1-3/1278.html] (accessed 11/03/12)

‘Original Sin’, BBC – Religions [http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/beliefs/originalsin_1.shtml] (accessed 11/03/12)

Assessing the ways in which Janice Galloway experiments with typography and the physical layout of text in The Trick is to Keep Breathing

For all that Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing might present itself as a standard novel on a surface level, within its first few pages it has already laid out a plethora of typographical experimentations that begin to subvert the traditional ‘novel’ form. In a book that on so many levels deals with the nature of facades and playing up to roles within society, Galloway’s typographical meandering between established conventions and more outré divergences presents a narrative that is often unsettling in both form and content. Not content merely to describe protagonist Joy Stone’s state of mind to us, Galloway places the reader directly within that mindset, and through a variety of techniques, attempts to enable us to see the world through her eyes.

In a book where drowning plays such a prominent role, there is the notion of drowning within the physical text of the novel on more than one occasion. Going against established formulae for numeric chapter headings, Galloway instead inserts an enigmatic ‘ooo’ as a placeholder throughout the novel. Without a steadily increasing chapter number to guide the reader through the novel, the reader is effectively lost within the chronology of events, with no pointers to guide their way – instead they are submerged straight into Joy’s life, without any introduction as to who she is or her situation. It is only through sustained exposure to Joy’s way of seeing things that we begin to unravel her state of affairs; as she begins the novel: ‘I watch myself from the corner of the room’ – the reader also finds themselves watching Joy, from the depths of her own perspective.

This essence of drowning within the words (or more specifically in this instance, the lack of them) reaches its pinnacle on page 188 which is bare apart from a single bereft ‘oops’. In the novel format, where the reader thrives on the continued digestion of text, the shocking absence present on this page comes as a jolt, a physical shock akin to the processes of breaking down and falling apart present in Joy’s own existence. In addition, the ‘oops’ acts as a kind of continuation, or rather full realisation of the ‘ooo’ of the chapter titles, a kind of startled admission of Joy’s inability to function properly in the ‘normal’ world. By subverting regular textual norms in this manner, Galloway achieves a similar effect, alienating the book from literary standards in much the same way Joy feels alienated from societal standards.

The theme of the capacity of the ‘o’ to convey meaning is also employed by Galloway to effectively book-end the novel. Early on, Joy – in one of the many italicised ‘flashback’ scenarios – describes the discovery of Michael’s dead body: ‘A group of men stand in a rough O, staring with their eyes down. Water drips from their arms.’ Here, Joy’s extraction of meaning and shock from the scene stems from the visual input of the ‘O’, which here equates to the shape of the men gathered around Michael’s lifeless body. Joy’s mind is repeatedly shown to operate in a highly image-based manner, from both the transformation of a group of people into a singular textual mark on the page to the image of water, which reoccurs throughout the novel. A counterpoint scene is presented in the closing passages of the novel: ‘His mouth is a wide 0, eyes open to the sky… I am entirely alone on this ship, churning on through foreign water’. Here the ‘O’ of the encircling group of men has morphed into the ‘0’ of Michael’s mouth, a grim death-mask of a facial expression that seems not only to emphasise his own loss of life, but Joy’s loss of the man she has loved; the numeric value of ‘zero’ is harsh in its brutal finality. The resurfacing of the water symbolism serves to back this up, Michael’s death ‘churning’ Joy’s life up into turmoil and leaving her alone in ‘foreign waters’.

The incidence of Michael’s death is employed by Galloway as a kind of separation between the past and present of Joy’s life, neatly separated in textual terms by relegating the ‘flashback’ scenes – Joy’s memories of the death – into italics as opposed to the regular text the rest of the novel is composed in. This has the effect of holding up the past memories as different, as important, scenes of almost lyrical, chorus-like reoccurrence within the novel. It is telling that Joy returns to these memories so often, and it is established that in many ways they represent the crux of her ‘problems’, as her doctor asks her: ‘Tell me from the beginning what you think is making you feel bad… tell it in your own words.’ Galloway’s novel is the result of these words, and when she aligns ‘My mother walked into the sea’ and ‘He drowned’ in the centre of the page,she signifies – through the application of layout – the central role both Michael’s death and the death of Joy’s mother plays in Joy’s own life. Indeed, as Joy points out after relating these two incidents: ‘Something was happening to my stomach.’ – everything is centralised, right down to the heart of her own body. If the text is taken as the aspect of Joy’s life presented to the reader, it corresponds that the placing and presentation of that text within the novel bears relevance to how these relative concepts hold meaning to her as a person.

Another instance where Joy’s world, both before and after Michael’s death, is thrown into contrast is early on in the novel where she describes the numbers on the door of their house:

13 13

The first of the numbers is presented as larger and in italics, a potential allusion to the italicised memories of Michael’s death; that these memories present the enlarged aspect of Joy’s as lived alongside Michael. The second number is much smaller and presented in straight font, representative not only of Joy herself and the bulk of her narrative, but reinforcing the fact that she is ‘smaller’ without Michael, her life less fulfilled. Returning to the house after Michael’s death, Joy removes both sets of numbers so that all that remains are ‘four little holes’. The emphasis here is on removal and loss, not just in the trivial sense of the door numbers themselves, but in what they represent; Joy and Michael’s life and home together. Just as there are now only holes in the door, there are also holes in Joy’s life where Michael’s death is felt most keenly, as well as literal ‘holes’ in the text such as the almost blank page discussed above. For Joy, whose ongoing life has become defined by Michael’s death, the door number ‘13’ is an unlucky reminder of everything she now no longer has. Once it signified the place she and her lover called home – now, just like her relationship with Michael, the numbers have diminished to nothing.

The door numbers are not the only unusually presented typographic intrusion of a sign into the text; one of the most obvious examples is the ‘VISITORS MUST REPORT TO THE OFFICE’ presented within a border and at a jaunty angle on page 11. Printed in uniform capitals, the sign interrupts the regular flow of the text and issues a firm command to both Joy and the reader; leaping from the page it reaffirms the inescapable accoutrements of the ‘official’ and strict order of modern daily life. Used to similar effect is the ‘SOME OF US HAVE WORK TOMORROW’ employed on page 90, a harsh outburst from angry neighbours directed at Joy. Again, it reeks of the regimented processes of nine-to-five working life, a world bound by normality, the language of the work environment. In both instances, these all-capitals inserts are an intrusion – both literally and visually – into Joy’s life, and in the latter case highlights how even within the walls of her own home, she is not entirely secure.

Equally though, there is a kind of comfort in these signifiers of ordinary life – they provide Joy with a means to grasp onto a world she so often seems to be fading from. For example, when she goes shopping she specifically states that she is going to ‘TESCOs’, again employing capital letters to mark out the shop’s neon sign in the way it appears to her. This notion of brands entering into the substance of life and helping to provide it with consistency is furthered in the kind of catharsis she experiences idling through the assorted elements of the supermarket: ‘I can spend hours among the buckle-wheeled trolleys, fruit and fresh vegetables, tins of blueberry pie filling, papaya and mango’. There is a sense of comfort in the familiar, highlighted also in the scene where Joy is presented a betting slip with ‘St Elmo’s Joy : Chepstow’ written on it in gothic script:

St Elmo’s Joy : Chepstow


Galloway seems keen to emphasise the rituals that are individually important to people, that we all have aspects of Joy’s ‘quirks’ to ourselves. There is a pleasure in the process of setting out one’s own font on a betting slip, a sense of imbued luck that juxtaposes with the unluckiness of Joy’s door number ‘13’. As Joy points out: ‘most of the men like to write their own [betting slips]… They are regulars.’The essence of the regularity and the small enjoyment that can be garnered from instances like this appears to hint at exerting a kind of control over life, in much the same way we might choose which supermarket or brand to purchase. In the disparate elements of the ‘routine’, in whatever form it might manifest itself – betting, shopping, working – Galloway’s characters are shown to find comfort in regularity; and by association, we – the readers – find discomfort in the irregularity of the various typographical techniques employed.

The concept of the routine also forms the focus of one of the early interplays between Joy and a health visitor. Galloway initially sets out the components of the ‘tea routine’ in a specifically determined page layout with every item: ‘Tray / Jug / Sweeteners / Plates…’ on its own line. To this degree, Joy protects herself behind the various individual parts of the tea routine and gives herself ‘time to think’. Confronted with an ‘intrusion’ into her house from a person in an official capacity, the routine acts as a kind of armour or facade of normality to protect the real Joy, who is clearly ill at ease. Just as Joy previously seeks solace in the items found in a supermarket, she now associates herself with the objects of – and in the role of – a housewife. The theme of the facade is continued as the health visitor offers the opening remark of ‘Well!’, delineated within a comic-book style speech bubble:




Here, the processes of trivial speech are set within boundaries, in essence a character playing at being a character. Laid out here within the speech bubble, the health visitor’s words are cheap and disposable, dialogue cut off and isolated both from the rest of the text and Joy herself. The theme of acting up to prescribed roles and the presentation of speech reaches a head in the subsequent page where the dialogue between Joy and the health visitor now takes on the layout of a play script. Here, Joy is safe behind her facade, reduced to a nameless, ambiguous ‘PATIENT’. The conversation may seem impersonal and forced, but by playing up to a role – significant when her job as a drama teacher is considered – Joy is able to assert her own control and values over her life. With her dialogue clearly allocated and set apart from the health visitor in the play script format, Joy may be acting up to a part society has given her, but this affords her the capacity to shelter the far more vulnerable ‘real’ version of herself.

One of the most unusual layout techniques used in the novel in fact emerges when Joy is at her most vulnerable, underscoring the fragility of the person behind the carefully maintained public facade. As readers, only we and Joy are privy to the snippets of incomplete text that appears in the margins of many of the book’s pages – it is here that we see Joy’s mind at its most frustratingly chaotic and fractured. These intrusions, like the numerous in-capitals signs that intersperse the text, serve to disrupt the flow of narrative-proper; is the reader supposed to read these snippets as relevant to the main body of text they appear next to, or are they a kind of largely irrelevant supplementary side-text?

If these intrusions are to be seen as directly relevant, the most obvious example comes on pages 174 and 175 where Joy is ‘raped’ by Tony. Here, the margin intrusions reach newly prolific levels; six across the space of the two pages, almost as if Tony’s physical intrusion into Joy is being manifested textually on the paper of the novel itself. In the case of the even-numbered pages, the reader is enticed to peer right into the central crack of the book, to seek out the words that are seeping – drowning even – in the centre. We want to apply order and logic to these intrusions, to fit them into the wider narrative, even as they serve to further the image of Joy’s mind as increasingly chaotic. Piecing together the fragments, the following message can be made out: ‘…ignore the warnings… when the worst happens we can only blame ourselves’; indicative of something Joy has likely read in one of her women’s magazines pertaining to rape. Also of note is the fact the margin intrusions are presented in a smaller font size, the same that is employed for articles Joy reads in magazines: for example the agony aunt piece on page 45 or the diet tips on page 39. And so, even in the worst, most horrible of scenarios, Joy’s life becomes defined by the limits of what she has read in magazines.

Whether it be the name of a supermarket, an office sign, angry neighbours or magazine articles, The Trick is to Keep Breathing is a novel littered with the by-products of everyday life. By rendering all these disparate objects in a variety of typographical and layout-based means, Galloway increases both the novel’s sense of reality and viscerality. In a world that is more often than not highly fragmented and unreal, these elements of the ordinary let us empathise with Joy and break through the barrier she so clearly seeks to erect between her past and present. As a textual and uniquely textured creation, Galloway’s novel becomes more than just a novel about an individual’s fractured mentality, it assumes that mentality itself.



Galloway, Janice, The Trick is to Keep Breathing (London: Minerva, 1991),

Jackson, Linda, Exchanges: Reading Janice Galloway’s fictions (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Review, 2004)

Jones, Carole, Disappearing Men: Gender Disorientation in Scottish Fiction 1979-1999 (London: Rodopi, 2009)

Schoene, Berthold, The Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Scottish Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007)

Thomas, Ruth, ‘Janice Galloway Interview’, Textualities [http://textualities.net/ruth-thomas/janice-galloway-interview/] (accessed 11/03/12)

Wallace, Gavin, The Scottish Novel Since The Seventies (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993)

The List (2005) [http://www.list.co.uk/article/2819-janice-galloway-the-trick-is-to-keep-breathing-1989/] (accessed 11/03/12)