The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad

book cover: The Iron Dream by Norman SpinradThe Iron Dream is notorious, or at least it was at some point in the past.

Those who know of it almost surely know the schtick, and those who don’t probably wouldn’t be interested, but the short version is: imagine a world where Hitler, after being rejected from art school, decided to immigrate to the United States. Imagine him falling in with the pulp sci-fi scene, first as an illustrator and, soon enough, as an author of clunky, horrid, and unfailingly popular schlock. Imagine him enjoying a long career as a pro-writer and illustrator, an important role in fandom as a zine-author and trendsetter; imagine his stories being so influential that at con masquerades, fandom started showing up in uniforms based on his characters’ dress. (Swastikas galore, naturally, though in this word the symbol never took on the meaning it did for most Westerners.) Imagine him getting old, and advanced third-stage syphilis driving him out of his mind; and then imagine the last, final novel he would have written.

The Iron Dream is the name of the book containing that novel, which itself is titled Lord of the Swastika, along with a critique written in 1959 by a fictional New York critic named Homer Whipple.

So much for explanation. For a book that is the same age I am (it was published in 1974), how does it read? 

Well, I’ll be honest. After about fifty or sixty pages — yes, I gave it that long — I began to slowly skim. The fact of the matter is, Spinrad’s Hitler is (among many other things) a pretty bad writer. He’s supposed to be (and surely would have been — I haven’t read Mein Kampf but I cannot imagine it being well-penned), so I can’t fault Spinrad for getting it right. There are tics that are unmistakable, such as when the story’s hero Feric Jaggar, repeatedly does silly things with the Truncheon of Held, which is clearly a metaphor for Feric’s phallus (and, Feric being transparently a Hitler-figure, well… you do the arithmetic). Having thugs bend down and kiss the Swastika on the tip of the headball of his great, powerful weapon…

Yes, Spinrad has his fun, and frankly it’s a bit mind-blowing that a white-supremacist reviewing the book could miss this point (or that it might inspire an impassioned psychotic plea like this one): that white surpremacists are very clearly, ahem, cocksuckers. (And I don’t mean people who enjoy giving fellatio.)

He also makes a point that even that white-supremacist caught: that the kinds of genocide we see in SF are echoes of the kinds of genocide we see in the real world, rendered permissible. When Robert Heinlein sends us with his Starship Troopers to clean out a bug infestation in space, in some sense he making genocide palatable, giving us a reason to contemplate wiping out a whole other species — a trend that reaches its nadir in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game books, where genocide is justified, but then critiqued, but justified anyway. (And remember, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, an early critique of Starship Troopers, came out during the same year as The Iron Dream.)

Spinrad isn’t just mocking white supremacists, Nazis, and Hitler, though they all get thoroughly mocked in this book. No, he also mocks our idea that “it can’t happen here” — whether in this world, or in the America into which the book was first launched. The text is atrocious, born of a racist, sexist, and psychotic imagination… and yet, it doesn’t read so differently from the scattered older SF texts from the 1930s I’ve run across, and one blogger suggests that it’s far from impossible to find examples of same in SF today.

There’s some mockery of fandom, as well, but — and this is the more disturbing point made in the essay that concludes the book — the biggest question is SF as a community. The “detached bonhomie” that Gerard Jones describes as being characteristic of early SF fandom sometimes is a bit unsettling in its apparent perspective on “the Mundanes.” There’s certainly a sense of shared elitehood, shared specialness — the same specialness that Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy — and other books that depend on positive conspiracies by elite nerdy geniuses — must have capitalized on.

If there is a pathology in SF literature, as Spinrad seems to argue, it must both mirror the social dimension of SF — what we call fandom — and serve that group’s emotional needs. As I discussed in my comments on Asimov’s Second Foundation when I finally managed to finish it last year, it would be unsurprising if it were found that early SF fandom, as well as contemporary literary-SF fandom, was full of people who fulfilled the criteria for being considered Highly Sensitive Persons. (Indeed, I would be very surprised if the numbers for HSPs were not significantly higher for SF readers!)

Which is something that should give us pause.

At the same time, the reality is that, whatever one wants to say about SF fandom — and nitpicking its various pathologies seems to be an internet sport now — in our world, the craptastic fantasy that forms the basis of this book (and much of its narrative, in allegorical form) actually seduced large enough numbers of German people to make World War II, and the Holocaust, a reality. In a sense, mocking SF fandom for having pathologies is like shooting fish in a barrel; but mocking people for falling for such garbage as the trash that makes up Lord of the Swastika opens up a much bigger can of worms, for after all, unless one is as bigoted as Hitler or Feric Jaggar, one can see plainly that Germans are not genetically special: they’re not necessarily more foolish or stupid than anyone else, and the susceptibility to being seduced by outright crap must be roughly equally distributed among human beings.

In that case, is it Germany’s relative lack of SF in the 1920s — as a route for sublimating this kind of stupid instinct, this kind of sick fantasy — the reason why things turned out the way they did? (Likewise, the Indian Wars in America; likewise, any other genocide.) Can craptastic SF serve a function in both encapsulating and depressurizing the fevered, adolescent imaginations of the masses? Certainly, Azuma Hiroki has argued (as I noted here) that in America, the kind of totalizing, Hegelian stance that came to dominate Nazi Germany was already in retreat, and that SF served as its final redoubt.

(Note, I am suggesting the imaginations of the masses are adolescent; thus the more adolescent SF would service this need of theirs. I am not saying all SF is adolescent.)

It’s a complex mess of questions, and I’m still working my way through them.

Back to Spinrad’s book: as I noted, this is a text I ended up mostly skimming, pausing or slowing down only when I got to the good parts. Am I sorry I read it? No, rather not, but I am glad that I’ve gotten good at skimming again, because the book is somewhat overlong, and ends up feeling like a prolonged setup for the post-novel critical essay punchline. I found myself wishing that Spinrad had written it to about the length of Deus X, as I think that would have been short enough to slog directly through. I think reading this book all the way through in the normal way might have done me in, and yet it’s worth having given it a look.

6 thoughts on “The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad

  1. Yeah… The Iron Dream, a novel-length gag that only required a novella to pull off, but like you say it’s fascinating as a historical document and for the fact that the “story” lampooned remains in favor.

    If you can find it there’s a good book on SF in Weimar Germany: Fantasy and Politics by Peter S. Fisher. The NY Public library had a copy and it was pretty interesting.

  2. Justin,

    Yeah, a novella would have sufficed, but also, we probably mightn’t have read it if that was what Spinrad had written. (Unless it had been published as a “novel” anyway… hmm.) Its continuing relevance vexes me, perhaps more than I should allow it to?

    I’d love to see that book… doubt it’s in any library over there, though, so onto the list it goes. Am I right in imagining local SF to have been as marginal then as it is now? Or was a it a more vibrant and popular genre back in the soon-to-be-bad old days? (I mean, sort of like Korea now? A scene, but a small and isolated one, coexisting with some other stuff some would say is SF but SF people seem to tend to see as nationalist technothriller crap?)

    As a side note, I was thinking about how one could translate this novel into Korean, and figured one would likely have to do what the first SF translators did with Verne in Korean — adapt it to a Korean setting, and make, I don’t know, Hirohito the emigrant pulp author? But I was also thinking how much of the one-(true-)blood mythology still has currency here and so on. (You couldn’t just translate the Hitler thing, I think, as it doesn’t resonate the same way; but Koreans didn’t have a pulp SF scene in the 1920s, so… I dunno. I do know that some of the things Spinrad pinions as the roots of Nazi evil are mythological concepts that still have a lot of currency here. So… hm.

  3. The continuing relevance is vexing because at a certain point these fantasies may be useful, empowering (though not to the extremes Spinrad takes it…), but the vexing element is that people carry them forward into adulthood when they should have put them aside.

    OK. I read the book back in 2006 and didn’t take copious notes. From what I can find the author focused on 30 “books”, whether these were actual novels on par with Wells/Verne or the pulp newspapers of the time, I can’t remember. The author’s slant was that a lot of these sprang up from political groups, both left and right (Hitler even gets highlighted in one as a leader, well before he’s made a career as such), and a number dealt with Germany developing secret weapons (supertanks, mini-warships) to defeat the “oppressors”. So nationalistic technothrillers. The author did mention one book similar to Stapledon’s Future Histories by Alfred Doblin, and I think War of the Newts was also mentioned.

    I wonder if Kim Jong-il / Kim Il-Sung might be a better fit.

  4. Ironically, there was a pulp SF/technothriller novel that was a smash hit in Korea in the 90s, I think it was, in which Koreans from both North and South collaborate on the construction of a nuclear weapon (ha!) for defense against Japan (and maybe America?). I discovered this by asking what the hell was going on in the backplot of a Korean film called Heaven’s Soldiers, in which DPRK and ROK scientists building a nuke together (?!?!?!?) end up being hauled back in time by a comet, to the days of Yi Sunshin.

    (And though ironically it reads well as allegory for the fantastical construction of national heroes in both North and South, it’s far from self-aware enough to actually be such an allegory, and is besides an awful film.)

    I’m pretty sure the Kim Dynasty in the north is a good fit — and apparently SF for kids was a VERY big genre there back in the day — but a little more alarmingly, I find plenty in mainstream Korean media/narratives that fits just a little too well with the ideologies Spinrad is making fun of.

  5. See, I can imagine enjoying a movie like that if it was a comedy. But, like you say, when it’s played in earnest it becomes scary.

    But, again, I don’t see this style of satire being so alien to Korean culture, and can imagine such a thing, even if it’s a b-movie, webcomic, low-alt-culture kind of thing.

  6. Well, it’s kind of comedic-earnest. Nationalist-comic? Sort of like, what if Back to the Future had involved “rescuing” George Washington from mediocrity, so that George Washington could become a hero and then lecture some Republicans and Democrats to try harder to get along and be better right-wing nationalist jingoists, for the sake of “our nation.” I’d say that’s close to what I felt watching Heaven’s Soldiers.

    (Funnily enough, it turns out the film is a remake/ripoff of a Japanese SF film, btw, as I mentioned here a while back. There’s also more in that post on the novel I mentioned.)

    I think such satire’s not unknown, but haven’t seen a lot of it either. The friend who explained it to me seemed disgusted with the insane popularity of that book from the 90s, and its regurgitation in the film, but maybe it was because I’d said how much I hated the film.

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