The Iron Dream, Norman Spinrad

Timescape, 1972 (1982 reprint), 256 pages, US$3.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-44212-0

Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream has attracted its share of controversy in the twenty-five years since its original publication. And for good reasons: You see, The Iron Dream‘s nothing more that a repackaging of “Lord of the Swastika: Adolph Hitler’s best Science-Fiction Novel!”

Interested, yet?

Spinrad takes one premise and runs with it: What if Hitler, instead of staying in Germany and taking control of the Nazis, had emigrated to America and become an pulp-SF author? What kind of novel could have been written by Hitler?

So we get Lord of the Swastika: A 240-page epic in which perfect-hero Feric Jaggar goes from a humble exile to becoming Master of the World. The plot is straight power fantasy stuff: The introduction of a good-but-powerless hero, his acquisition of a mighty weapon, his rapid ascension to the throne, etc… This is pulpish stuff at its most extreme, consciously pastiched by Spinrad: The intent is to ridiculize the Nazi mystique, and he goes at it with big guns. The prose is suitably bombastic:

“The victory of Lumb had buoyed the spirits of the Helder race, while the realization that it was only a matter of time before the Dominators would once more unleash their ghastly minions against sacred human soil moved them to incredible feats of fanatic self-sacrifice and unprecedented energy.” (Page 168)

I started smirking on page one, and chuckling on page two.

The novel’s afterword is a delight in itself: written in tedious academic jargon, it makes most of the points I wished to enumerate in this review: The obvious phallic symbolism, the ridiculously repetitive imagery, the absence/irrelevance of female characters, the Dom/Jew analogy, the classic heroic fantasy structure, etc… At the same time, the afterword presents a nice little piece of irony in its picture of the alternate world in which Lord of the Swastika was written. Even without WW2, history isn’t necessarily better…

This book can, and should be read on many levels: As a ridiculous send-up of power fantasy, as a warning of the appeal of totalitarism, as an alternate history, as self-conscious macho trip and -my favourite- as an insidious satire of Science-Fiction itself.

Because frankly, I thoroughly enjoyed the adventures of Feric Jaggar. He might be a mysoginistic, racist, totalitarian bastard, but nothing stands in his way. Realistic heroes might have flaws, but flawless heroes are far more fun. And there lies the lesson of The Iron Dream, as banal as it is: Power fantasies are amusing, as long as they remain fantasies. It’s when they ooze into the Real World that people start to be hurt.

It’s frightening to see how easily I, as a reader, was seduced by the omnipotence of heroes like Feric Jaggar. There’s a solid lesson there about the appeal of SF, and how even bad fiction can start re-writing your brain without your permission. Other pulp-era SF stories may have been more benign in intention, but an awful lot of them relied on the same levers than Spinrad’s straight-faced satire.

As a powerful but one-note gotcha!, The Iron Dream doesn’t get my highest commendation… but it’s certainly a classic SF novel for none-too-obvious reasons.

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