The Man in the High Castle is a literary universe inhabiting one of many time-paths forked in the 1930s. Not merely positing that Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had won the war, the alternate universe begins with Franklin Delano Roosevelt's assasination, which is said to have allowed the events following it to occur. This alternate fork is not necessarily the focus of the novel. There are many complicated characters inhabiting this new world, the book taking place in the 1960s, published in 1962.
Robert Childan - Proprietor of American Artistic Handcrafts Inc. He deals with what he thinks are authentic pieces of American "historocity." Revolvers from the Civil War, Mickey Mouse watches, kitsch galore. It is his mind that opens the book. This is where Philip K. Dick's mastery of the form becomes most apparent. Mr. Childan is layered in a world that is foreign to the reader's time path. He is a white man living in the Pacific States of America, in San Francisco--under Japanese rule. His mind is always in conflict, trying to maintain face among his Japanese rulers. He caters to their desire for American novelty items, but he himself has removed his own being from his personal equation. He, as a person, is now made of the values and mind-trips imposed on him, mind-trips that even the Japanese may have discarded. When faced with the first authentically contemporary North American art-jewelry, Mr. Childan doesn't know what to do. He is used to dealing in inauthentic items, his own existence inauthentic.
Frank Frink - Jew in hiding, artist. Together with his business partner, he creates abstract objects that confuse and interest other characters in the novel. Without giving away spoilers, Frank Frink is the common man. He is the protagonist, or one of many--though Dick's books typically do not follow the central character outline of development--this book is no different. Frink's art has Wu to it -- "The hands of the artificer... had wu, and allowed that wu to flow into this piece. Possible he himself knows only that this piece satisfies" a character says of his art. Frank Frink is divorced from Juliana.
Juliana Frink - one of the few to discover the true nature of the reality they live in. Lives in the Rocky Mountain States of America. She is seduced by a supposed-Italian and goes on a roadtrip to meet with an author heard to live in a fortress... the man in the high castle. She is a person who floats from one situation to the next, not quite allowing herself to take full control of her life-path. She is, however, a martial arts master.
Hawthorne Abendsen is the author of the Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a novel that most of the western American states are reading--it is outlawed by the Nazi government controlling most of the world. This book describes a world where World War II was won by the American and British armies. In it, Roosevelt had still died. Not much is known/can be revealed about this character without giving away major plot points.
"We are interested in maintaing a certain fiction..."
Other characters are either minor, or not necessarily who they seem. Any statements I may make about them may contaminate a future reader's absorption into the text. The I Ching plays a massive role throughout the novel, and at times its usage is quite ingenious.
Philip K. Dick considered this to be the first of his new novels, as if something had been communicated to him in the process of writing it, something that previously he had not been privy to.
The German government is realized in a very believable way, using real-life individuals in a future setting. Doctor Goebbels, Hugo Reiss--Dick did his research using the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to good effect. His perception of the political nature of a world that does not exist is amazing. When people speak of Dick as an incredible writer, these are the things that they could be talking about--the layers of thought underneath the words. The words that are never on the page. The clipped, almost seeming erroneous grammar of many characters. The thought processes of a human race that only exists on a tangent most of us are not aware of.
Things are seldom what they seem
Skim milk masquerades as cream.
* Wanted to mention that a sequel to this novel was started by Dick, and the first two chapters can be found in the collection of essays The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick, edited by Lawrence Sutin. The two chapters make a lot of the ambiguous things concrete at the end of the novel. In some ways, it spoils the interpretations that can be made, and that is why I believe Dick stopped writing the book. It would almost raise the same arguments he argues within the novel--against himself and his new book. Still recommended for historical interest.