‘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]

Roberts, Adam, ‘The Man in the High Castle’, Infinity Plus [www.infinityplus.co.uk/nonfiction/highcastle.htm]



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

    1. Thanks! I originally wrote this as my BA English Lit thesis, so it was a real labour of love for classic sci-fi


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