Philip K. Dick, High Castle, and the Book of Changes

ichingIn PKD’s acknowledgements for his Hugo Award winning novel, The Man in the High Castle, he lists the following reference works (plus a personal thanks to the Western writer Will Cook for his help with material dealing with historic artifacts and the U.S. Frontier Period):

  • I Ching or Book of Changes, Richard Wilhelm translation rendered into English by Cary F. Baynes, Pantheon Books, Bollingen Series XIX, 1950, Bollingen Foundation, Inc., New York.
  • Anthology of Japanese Literature, Volume One, compiled and edited by Donald Keene, Grove Press, 1955, New York – (Haiku by Yosa Buson, translated by Harold G. Henderson).
  • Zen and Japanese Culture, by Daisetz T. Suzuki, published by Pantheon Books, Bollingen Series LXIV, 1959, by the Bollingen Foundation, Inc., New York – ( Waka on  by Chiyo, translated by Daisetz T. Suzuki).
  • The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, A History of Nazi Germany, by William L. Shirer, Simon and Schuster, 1960, New York.
  • Hitler, a Study in Tyranny, by Alan Bullock, Harper, 1953, New York.
  • The Goebbels Diaries, 1942–1943, edited and translated by Louis P. Lochner, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1948, New York.
  • The Tibetan Book of the Dead, compiled and edited by W. Y. Evans-Wentz, Oxford University Press, 1960, New York.
  • The Foxes of the Desert, by Paul Carell, E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1961, New York.

iching02Of these, the I Ching merits special consideration. I picked up my personal copy of the 1990, twenty-fourth printing, in one volume, at the Strand in New York City, sometime around 1992.

It is an ancient Chinese divination text and one of the oldest of the Chinese classics. It possesses a history of more than two and a half millennia of commentary and interpretation.  Originally it was a divination manual in the Western Zhou period (1000–750 BC). Over the course of the Warring States period and early imperial period (500–200 BC) it was transformed into a cosmological text with a series of philosophical commentaries known as the “Ten Wings”. After becoming part of the Five Classics in the 2nd century BC, the I Ching was the subject of scholarly commentary and the basis for divination practice for centuries across the Far East, and eventually took on an influential role in Western understanding of Eastern thought.

iching07The I Ching uses a type of divination called cleromancy, which produces apparently random numbers. Typically Yarrow Stalks or Chinese Coins are used to produce the six random numbers between 6 and 9 that are turned into a hexagram, and which can then be looked up in the I Ching book, arranged in an order known as the King Wen sequence. “The interpretation of the readings found in the I Ching is a matter of centuries of debate, and many commentators have used the book symbolically, often to provide guidance for moral decision making as informed by Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.”

Nowadays, the I-Ching is a well known Eastern classic in the West, and there are may websites or downloadable applications that can be used to consult the Oracle. This is one of my favorite sites to do so: I Ching

However, it was the High Castle that introduced the Book of Changes to mainstream Western Culture. According to Sutin, in his seminal PKD biography:

“High Castle holds the distinction of being the first American novel to refer to the I Ching and employ it as a plot device (and deviser). Many who, in the sixties, elevated the I Ching to cult status first learned of it in High Castle.”

Rickman posits that PKD’s use of literary tools (i.e., Game Theory serving as an ersatz precursor to the Book of Changes) to divine reality date back to his first novel, Solar Lottery. He also argues that the I-Ching served as the novel’s ‘spiritual rescuer’ in place of any overt resistance to Nazi and Japanese tyranny in High Castle.

“[T]here is something of Christianity (turning the other cheek) too.”

Anne R. Dick recalls that PKD studied Jung’s volumes: Alchemy and Transformation Symbols in the Mass.  Sometime before or during 1961, she–also inspired by Jung’s writings–bought the I Ching, The Book of the Golden Flower, and The Tibetan Book of the Dead  and some other volumes, including a book about the Hindu Vedas, The Bhagavadgita, and some about Zen Buddhism. PKD became interested in the I Ching and Linus Pauling’s Theory of Synchronicity, which Jung described in his introduction to The Tibetan Book of the Dead. According to Anne, PKD then began to use the I Ching as an Oracle several times a day. A strange new force had entered Phil’s life with roots extending back to three thousand years of China’s history; but PKD used and abused the Oracle. The Book of Changes became a valued touchstone throughout his life, but in later years he no longer consulted it for plot construction. During 1965 he wrote the essay “Schizophrenia & The Book Of Changes,” in which he argued that the Oracle could not predict the future:

“You, too, can use it: for betting on heavyweight bouts or getting your girl to acquiesce, for anything, in fact, that you want — except for foretelling the future. That, it can’t do; it is not a fortunetelling device, despite what’s been believed about it for centuries.”

“But we can’t live by the damn book, because to try to would be to surrender ourselves to static time.”

Anne R. Dick also recalls a scene where PKD in an argument with a friend groused about using the Book of Changes to write his novel:

“Next time Maury Guy came out to visit us he and Phil had a falling out. Maury was studying the [New Age belief system] Subud and the I Ching. Phil told him, “The I Ching is a bunch of bullshit. I’m going to write a novel about it and show it up …”

high_castle_old_01What is certain is that he, in 1961, devised the plot for High Castle (considered to be one of his best) by consulting the I Ching. PKD in a later 1976 interview recounts:

“Without any notes I had no preconception of how the book would develop, and I used the I Ching to plot the book.”

Several of the novel’s characters also consulted the “divinatory text, making its debut in American fiction.” In this alternate history, the Allies lose World War II and the east is governed by the Nazis; while the more humane Japanese, who are less racist, rule the west and draw from the I Ching as a kind of Bible. Even the fictional author within High Castle, Hawthorne Abendsen, presciently uses the I Ching to plot his novel within a novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy; and the “results are impressive: despite the novel’s banned status, it circulates widely, read by everyone from Nazi leaders to fugitive Jews.”


Rickman, Gregg (1989), To The High Castle: Philip K. Dick: A Life 1928-1963, Long Beach, Ca.: Fragments West/The Valentine Press

Dick, Anne R. The Search for Philip K. Dick. Tachyon Publications. Kindle Edition.

Sutin, Lawrence. Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick. Kindle Edition.

Sutin, Lawrence. The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick, Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings, Philip K. Dick, Edited and with an Introduction by Lawrence Sutin, 1995, First Vintage Books Edition.

Dick, Philip K. The Man in the High Castle. Popular Library (1962).

Dick, Philip K. The Man in the High Castle. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

Disclaimer: this is an amateur attempt, and I claim no academic or inside knowledge.  I am only a fan, and in no way affiliated with PKD or his Estate. I’ll make sure to credit my sources, but errors will be made, and I will be solely responsible.  Feel free to correct me, but please do so with a gentle hand. Let’s talk first.