When I heard that Amazon was doing a miniseries based on Philip K. Dick's Hugo-winning novel from the Sixties, I realized that it had been sitting on my shelves between DeLillo and Didion for years. But somehow I'd never gotten around to reading it. Once I picked up the old paperback and dusted it off, I couldn't put it down.
Dick created something amazing: a beautifully-written dystopian sci-fi thriller (with a twist) that's also a spy novel and a psychological portrait of people living under occupation. That occupation doesn't just affect their lives, it changes the way they think and his prose reflects it.
The set-up is dazzling: Japan and Germany have won the war and divided the US between them, but they're rivals and since German has the bomb, it plans to use it on Japan once Hitler dies and a new leader takes over. Germany also has space flight and super-fast jets. Meanwhile, lesser mortals struggle to survive, to accommodate themselves to a new world where values have shifted entirely--just as they did all across occupied Europe in World War II.
And that's what the series is doing so brilliantly. It's not just that Japanese flags, Nazi swastikas, bowing and Sieg Heils are ubiquitous. The producers have made the streets and clothes themselves feel imbued with moral corruption and decay--what you might imagine any European country would have become after several decades of Nazi rule. The war may be over but everyone comes across as either besieged or as if they're engaged in battle, especially since there's a Resistance, and because between Japanese and German territory there's a murky Neutral Zone.
Not surprisingly, Germany, with its technological edge, has its eye on taking over the Japanese territories that were once California, etc. How far will they go?
The series opens up the book in fascinating, even horrific ways, makes its hero Frank more of a common man who audiences can relate to, and adds some insidious villains who are far too believable. At every turn, I find myself thrilled by how the book's been expanded and enriched without betraying the source material.
I completely disagree with the New York Times reviewer who thought the series slow and clichéd, based on just the six episodes he watched. As the former crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press and a thriller buff I've read and seen plenty of clichéd dialogue. These people aren't stick figures, though there are touches now and then of 2015 in how they characters speak, not 1962--but that's a minor flaw.
Amazon's adaptation of Dick's novel feels fresh, tense, and exciting--sometimes even harrowing. I've been mesmerized by this miniseries, as I was by the novel. It's all fantastically well-done, down to the editing and the soundtrack. There's never been anything like it, and each episode is more powerful and intense than the one before it, building the way that House of Cards does.
Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie and 24 other books available on Amazon.