It is set in an alternative 1962 in which the Allies have lost the Second World War, and Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire rule the world, the Germans having developed rocket technology that has allowed them to build rockets that will take them to Mars. In this world, the Nazis have destroyed the African continent, drained the Mediterranean and rule most of Europe as well as the wastern parts of what was once known as The United States of America. The Japanese Empire rules most of Asia and south western parts of the United States. A neutral buffer zone called the Rocky Mountain States divides the German and Japanese superpowers.
The novel follows the Frank Frink, his estranged wife Julia Frink, the small-time entrepreneur Robert Childan, the mysterious Italian assassin Joe Cinnadella, the German agent Baynes, and the head of the Japanese Imperial Trade Mission in San Francisco Nobuske Tagomi in this dystopic world, all of whose stories are interconnected in one way or another even though some of them never meet in person, learning how reality is not always what it seems.
Central objects in the novel are the I Ching book of Taoistic wisdom and a science fiction book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy which describes and alternative, and much better, world in which the Allies won the war.
A TV series loosely based on the novel began streaming on Amazon Video on January 15, 2015.