Monday, February 17, 2014

"The Iron Dream" by Norman Spinrad [Review]

The Iron DreamThe Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Iron Dream is a book within a book. It's a sci-fi adventure novel framed by analysis of the text by a fictional critic. The novel tells the story of a stalwart hero whose strength and charisma allow him to lead a post-apocalyptic future nation against the evil mutant hordes threatening to wipe out humanity.

It's a very familiar and even stereotypical premise for a sci-fi novel. What makes Iron Dream unique is that the novel is called Lord of the Swastika, written by Adolf Hitler. The framing of the novel is that, in an alternate reality, Hitler emigrated to the US instead of becoming leader of the Nazi party. The Nazi Party never rose to power, World War II never happened, and Hitler became a popular science fiction writer and illustrator.

Would Hitler have been a popular sci-fi author? Of course, the answer we'd like to believe is "no." However, Spinrad makes some compelling arguments that he very well could have been.

Lord of the Swastika is set in a distant future where radiation from nuclear war has mutated most of the plants, animals, and even humans into monstrous freaks. The few who have remained recognizably human live in a fortified nation called Helder. Helder is threatened by the mutant races, led by the human-like Dominators who use psychic powers to manipulate and control the world. The hero Feric Jaggard, descended from royalty, returns to Helder to take control and lead its people to their rightful place as ruler of the world.

The Iron Dream, in reality, is a satire intended to illustrate how many science fiction stories subtly or overtly express elements of fascism. Lord of the Swastika is a roman a clef where the mutants are non-white races, Helder is Germany, the Dominators are Jews, and the hero is Adolf Hitler himself. The novel is about the rise to power of Hitler, and his fantasy about what would have happened if the Nazis had succeeded in their mad plot to conquer the world. By taking these science fiction tropes and applying them to a Nazi fantasy, Spinrad is saying, "Look how easily these cliches fit into a fascist framework." It does a superb job, uncomfortably so, and made me think hard about so many movies and novels I'd read and what views they expressed.

Quickly, let's review what fascism is, courtesy of Wikipedia:
Fascist movements shared certain common features, including the veneration of the state, a devotion to a strong leader, and an emphasis on ultra-nationalism and militarism. Fascism views political violence, war, and imperialism as a means to achieve national rejuvenation and asserts that stronger nations have the right to expand their territory by displacing weaker nations.
Sound familiar?

How many science fiction stories portray Earth as the greatest planet in the universe? Doctor Who? Star Trek? Replace "Earth" with "America" or any other nation, and you get stories of fanatical nationalism.

How many science fiction stories pit humans up against invariably ugly monsters, and can only be stopped by extermination? Independence Day? World War Z? Couldn't many of these stories replace "space aliens" with "illegal aliens" and tell dark tales of oppression and genocide?

How many science fiction stories champion military might as the solution to social problems? Starship Troopers? Star Wars? Does reading or writing a novel about soldiers and war machines promote militarism?

How many science fiction stories have had bold and valiant heroes who lead the oppressed people to victory? Star Wars? Dune? Isn't the sort of blind hero worship inherent in these stories ripe for exploitation by real power-mad dictators? In the real world, don't these type of potential saviors turn out to be manipulative politicians?

I could go on, but you get the point.

As a satire of sci-fi, The Iron Dream is occasionally pretty funny. The novel is written completely straight, but there's humor in how the story is told. It has all the awful trappings of cheesy pulp fiction. Everything is ludicrously over-the-top. All humans are beautiful and clean, and all mutants are ugly and dirty. The exaggerated descriptions of Jaggard's beauty, strength, and intelligence make him a perfect Mary Sue that will be familiar to anyone who's read bad fan fiction (or bad published science fiction, for that matter). Supposedly written in the fifties, it revels in the "futuristic" technology of gas-powered cars and atomic weapons.

What isn't so enjoyable are the battle sequences which drown in graphic descriptions of violence. Jaggard and his armies are fond of bashing skulls with truncheons in vivid detail. Of course, the purpose is to critique the bloodlust some sci-fi authors seem to revel in, but I admit to skipping whole chapters out of nausea. Many reviews have said Lord of the Swastika goes on too long, and I have to agree. At a certain point, the analogy hits home, and continuing to read the story becomes as uncomfortable as reading actual Nazi propaganda.

The crowning achievement of Iron Dream is the closing essay, which proceeds to analyze and criticize every flaw in Lord of the Swastika, from its overly gory combat to the lack of female characters, making it clear that the author intended every single one. The critic comes to the unmistakable conclusion that Lord of the Swastika is the work of a madman that only other madmen could appreciate, which makes its supposed popularity a pointed barb at the sci-fi community.

Ultimately, do I think reading sci-fi will turn people into fascists? Do I think Adolf Hitler will walk into San Diego Comic-Con and turn it into a Nazi rally? Not really. But one thing sci-fi readers love to say is that the genre is about ideas, making people think, and causing change through its message. I think The Iron Dream asks the important question of what messages we're getting across.

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