“Cataclysm.” First definition: a large-scale violent event in the natural world. Second definition: a sudden violent upheaval, especially in a political or social context. These are the definitions that fuel many science fiction narratives. Couched within them is a persistent question, what if such-and-such or so-and-so never had happened or existed?
Oppressive and dangerous heat plaguing so many areas today on our planet may be a harbinger of a horrific future cataclysm in our [less and less] natural world. What if industrialized nations had restricted carbon emissions and other pollutants originating in human activity seventy-five years ago? Stanislaw Lem’s 1971 story, “Let Us Save the Universe” carries such concerns to a cosmic and comic extent. His narrator, Tichy, a galactic tourist, complains, “By squandering nuclear energy, polluting asteroids and planets, ravaging the Preserve [a grouping of planets outside the Solar System], and leaving litter everywhere we go, we shall ruin outer space and turn it into one big dump. It is high time we came to our senses and enforced the laws. Convinced that every minute of delay is dangerous, I sound the alarm: let us save the universe.”
In keeping with the second definition cited above, Philip K. Dick’s novel, The Man in the High Castle poses an alternative set of circumstances leading up to and ending the Second World War, (1939-1945), a violent political and social upheaval. He imagines the assassination of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930’s and the Allied forces loss to Japan and Germany who have divided the spoils: the Pacific sector including California belongs to Japan, the U.S.’ east coast is under Germany’s jurisdiction, and a buffer zone along the Rockies lies between the two. Canada somehow has remained independent.
Two of the most interesting and sympathetic characters in the novel are Nobusuke Tagomi, a San Francisco-based Japanese trade representative and Juliana Frink, working in a truck stop located in the buffer zone. Both of them encounter divergences provoking, respectively, an epiphany and a revelation. They realize they believed they were living in one reality, but circumstances begin to erode that belief. Both of them eventually suspect that the Allies did not lose the war. Nothing is as it seems.
Distraught over the outcome of a meeting in his office—whereby agents opposing the Axis regimes encounter Nazi police thugs sent to kill the agents—Tagomi experiences his epiphany in a brilliantly surreal sequence on Kearny Street far from his office:
“God, what is that? He stopped, gaped at hideous thing on skyline. Like nightmare of roller coaster suspended, blotting out view. Enormous construction of metal and cement in air.”
A passerby tells him it is the Embarcadero Freeway, disliked by many people. Realizing the structure is not from his own time, Tagomi thinks he is experiencing a mad dream induced by the previous day’s terrible event.
He then rests in a park and studies an unusual piece of modernist jewelry he acquired in an antique shop. Frustrated that the object fails to give him any promised insights, he dashes down the street, now populated by the larger cars of a different future America, places with a “dull, smoky, tomb-world cast. Smell of burning. Dim gray buildings, sidewalk, peculiar harsh tempo in people. And …no pedecabs [sic].”
Another strange phenomenon turns his world upside-down: at a lunch counter, no white person—usually deferential to the Japanese—yields a stool to him. When he insists, given his status, the customers insult him and regard him with open hostility.
“Bardo Thodol existence, Mr. Tagomi thought. Hot winds blowing me who knows where. This is vision—of what? Can the animus endure this? … The terrible journey—and always the realms of suffering, rebirth, ready to receive the fleeing, demoralized spirit. The delusions.”
Realizing he has experienced a perceptual shift, Tagomi lectures himself: “Must stop this dreadful gliding among shadows; refocus concentration and thereby restore ego center,”  and retrieves his familiar life, but not for long.
Juliana Frink feels destined to be the catalyst for world change, and a personal revelation just might make that happen. Her journey takes her to the home of the man who wrote The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a novel depicting the Allies winning the Second World War. She is accustomed to consulting the I Ching to determine her choices and she asks the author if he did the same as he wrote the book. Spoiler alert: the oracle dictated the book because it claimed to be telling the truth. “‘It’s Chung Fu,’ Juliana said. ‘Inner Truth. I know without using the chart, too.’” At this point, near the conclusion of the narrative, Dick leaves the reader with what he describes in another novel, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, “…here was the essence of the future: interlaced possibilities.”
After finishing The Man in the High Castle, I felt the outcome of World War II seemed less important than the dilemma facing characters in the novel: how to survive in times fraught with uncertainty and ambiguity, despite dangerous political situations that impose a seemingly inflexible yet reliable order in the world. Perhaps PKD’s work, written more than 50 years ago, fascinates me now because their dilemma resonates like an alarm bell. More often than not, I feel as though I am living in one of the ‘interlaced possibilities” and I can’t help thinking, what if just a few seemingly insignificant circumstances had been different? Where or what would we be today?
[Image: Fatima Ronquillo, “Hand with Pearls and Lover’s Eyes”]
 Vandermeer, Ann and Jeff. The Big Book of Science Fiction. New York, Vintage Books, 2016. pp. 571-576
 Dick Philip K. The Man in the High Castle. Boston – New York, Mariner Books, 2011 edition. p. 244
 Ibid. p.445
 Tibetan Book of the Dead, in Tibetan Buddhism, a funerary text that is recited to ease the consciousness of a recently deceased person through death and assist it into a favorable rebirth.
 Ibid. pp. 245-246
 Ibid. p.246
 Two groups of countries fought the Second World War. The Axis Powers, including Germany, Italy, and Japan, opposed the Allied Powers: Britain, France Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India, the Soviet Union, China, and the U.S.A.
 Ibid. p.272
 Dick, Philip K. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch; Four Novels of the 1960’s. New York, The Library of America, 2007. P.414