Book Review: The Iron Dream, Norman Spinrad (1972)

(Vincent di Fate’s (?) cover for the 1972 edition)

4.75/5 (Very Good)

Nominated for the 1973 Nebula Award

Simply put, Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream (1972) is a fantastic alternate history novel.  However, unlike a standard “what if this happened instead and now let’s write a traditional narrative” alternate history, The Iron Dream is organized around a powerful metafictional conceit which explicitly serves to satirize pulp science fiction and fantasy and condemn its lurid nature and Spinrad would argue, racist inclinations.

The premise is straightforward: after the Great War (WWI) Hitler comes to the United States (and thus WWII never happens) and becomes a science fiction illustrator.  Eventually he starts writing science fiction and articles in fanzines.  However, he’s considered by the establishment to be little more than a hack writer and lives the rest of his life in squalor.  It is only after he dies (from symptoms related to syphilis) that he receives any critical success. What you read is Hitler’s 1954 posthumous Hugo-winning novel (which he wrote in six weeks), The Lord of the Swastika,  along with a short pseudo-scholarly “afterward to the second edition” by Homer Whipple (246).  The novel within the novel follows Feric Jaggar’s rise to power in a post-apocalyptical future — a series of events that mirrors the historical Hitler’s own rise to power in our timeline.

Remember, you are reading what Hitler would write if he wrote a science fiction novel.

Spinrad himself points out: “To make damn sure that even the historically naive and entirely unselfaware reader got the point [that it in no way endorses fascism], I appended a phony critical analysis of Lord of the Swastika, in which the psychopathology of Hitler’s saga was spelled out by a tendentious pedant in words of one syllable. Almost everyone got the point…”  (Science Fiction in the real world, Norman Spinrad, 158).  The fact that some people might confuse his point shows the effectiveness of Spinrad’s satirical aim — Hitler’s novel and pulp SF/F contain many similarities.  As with the majority of pulp science fiction/fantasy, The Lord of the Swastika spews out over-the-top action, battles and more battles, the most cringe-worthy purple-prose, scene after scene filled with priapic imagery, endless fetishization of uniforms and weapons, effusive (and disturbing) rants about genetic purity, and contains no female characters.

By following the story line that countless SF/F novels have followed, Hitler’s The Lord of the Swastika demonstrates (via hyperbole of course — as all good satire) how these tendencies manifest themselves in both genres.  Spinrad’s pseudo-scholarly afterward, is also a fantastic work of satire.  Homer Whipple, its author, cannot rationalize the sheer horror that is The Lord of the Swastika with the cavalcades of critical and public praise it has received.  Whipple claims that: “Of course, such a man [Feric Jagger] could gain power only in the extravagant fancies of a pathological science-fiction novel. For Feric Jagger is essentially a monster: a narcissistic psychopath with paranoid obsessions” (256).  Whipple dismisses the ideological implications of the novel as simply an imaginative fantasm — not a dangerous work espousing dangerous ideology.  Also, the events in The Lord of the Swastika in no way matches up to Whipple’s alternate timeline.  So, his analysis flails around trying to piece together the chief players and countries and what they stand for.  But of course, we all know that Hitler did indeed killed millions and millions and millions and plunged the world into war….

Highly recommended for fans of satirical, metafictional, and New Wave science fiction.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

From the pseudo-scholarly afterward to Hitler’s novel:

Lord of the Swastika is at least schematically a typical pulp sword-and-sorcery novel.  The Hero (Jagger) receives the phallic weapon as a symbol of his rightful supremacy and then triumphantly fights his way through a series of gory battles to final victory.  Aside from the political allegory and the more obsessional consistency and intensity of the phallic symbolism which distinguishes Lord of the Swastika from a host of similar science-fantasy novels” (from Homer Whipple’s afterward, 249).

Because The Lord of the Swastika — Hitler’s novel within the The Iron Dream — was conceived in an alternate timeline where Hitler immigrate to the United States after WWI and never started WWII, the narrative is a “fever dream” (256) of what he imagined/wanted to happen.   Feric Jagger, Hitler’s supremely brutal and psychopathic protagonist,  comes to power in a way closely resembling how Hitler actually rose to power in Germany.  Of course, Spinrad recounts the historical similarities via the terminology, future world, and narrative common in the pulp sword-and-sorcery genre.  Specific historical facts, like Hitler’s vegetarianism, are recast in this future world: “Meat was, of course, the traditional staple in Heldon as elsewhere, and upon occasion Feric indulged himself with this questionable fare […] Nevertheless, he knew full well that progress up the food chain from vegetable matter to meat concentrated the level of radioactive contamination of foodstuffs, and he therefore eschewed flesh as much as possible.  His genetic purity was not his to squander on the indulgence of his appetite; in a higher sense it was the common property of the community of true men and demanded to be guarded as a racial trust” (33).

In this post-apocalyptical future created by nuclear weapons and filled with mutants created by the radiation, Heldor (a stand in for Germany) considers itself the bastion of the”genetically pure.”  Jagger, born in a nearby region, desires above all else to be labeled a Trueman and a citizen of Heldor.  He soon discovers that the Heldor government does not actively root out, exile or sterilize Dominators (who supposedly use their telepathic powers to control others) and various other mutants.  The Lord of the Swastika is prone to long rants about genetic purity, “swarming on the streets of Gormond was a mongrel horde of Blueskins, dwarfs, Eggheads, Parrotfaces, Toadmen, countless other varieties of pure mutants and mongrelized crosses and human-mutant hybrids; a random collection of bits and pieces of dozens of different species cobbled together piecemeal and dressed for the most part in reeking rags” (31).

Soon Feric encounters the Black Avengers (perhaps referring to Nazis who hunted with Göring as his lodge in the Schorfheide Forest), a group of motorcycle-riding woodsmen who go around murdering mutants.  Feric proves himself in drinking games and hand-to-hand combat and wins the “the Great Truncheon of Stal Held, the lost sceptre of royal power, the Steel Commander” (69).  The Black Avengers become The Sons of the Swastika (the SS).  With the ultimate phallic weapon always dangling at his side in meetings or waved erect over the enemy, Feric manages to convince all in Heldor to exile or sterilize the genetically impure.  It is in the account of Feric’s invasion of Zind (a stand in for Communist Russia) that the narrative departs from the crude historical outline of WWII — obviously, since Hitler was unsuccessful in his campaign against Stalin.  The outcome in Hitler’s dream must have a positive outcome…  Involving, in this case, a plan to “fecundate the stars” (245).

A terrifying work of satire…  I will never read pulp SF/F in the same way…

(Bob Habberfield’s cover for the 1974 edition)

(Rowena Morrill’s cover for the 1982 edition)

(DP  Fact and Fiction’s cover for the 1999 edition)

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

29 Replies to “Book Review: The Iron Dream, Norman Spinrad (1972)”

  1. I read the Avon edition in ’72 when I was eighteen. At the time, I was unconnected to fandom (still am), and knew little of SF&F history (a lack I’ve corrected since). So, I missed the satirical point of Spinrad’s novel. (I think I took it as straight alternate history!) I’m guessing most of today’s SF&F readers, with little interest in the genres’ past, would miss the point too. Not that many would be likely to pick up an old, non-franchise novel like this.

    I’ll be interested to see if you draw any parallels with Of Men and Monsters. Specifically, William Tenn’s Exodus-based “Jews to the stars!” satire of an early SF cliche – the natural, intellectual superiority of the Jewish race (which involves crediting it for all of modern mankind’s advances). An idea that Tenn, himself Jewish, considered a backhanded form of racist thinking.

    1. When you were reading The Iron Dream you didn’t realize that Feric Jagger’s rise to power was almost exactly the same way Hitler actually came to power in Germany? The endless parallels, and the fact that Hitler is writing the novel screams a sort of Nazi fantasy of the future….. But yes, as I pointed out in the review the fact that some people read it as a pulp science fiction novel and not as a satire illustrates what the novel seeks to combat (although, without the “I got it moment”) — he wants people to realize that the many of the ideologies of Sword and Sorcery fantasy and pulp sci-fi are downright racist.

      I really think that Spinrad deserves a revival. He is famous in France and that’s about it… well, and the more well-read sci-fi circles.

      Sounds like you should write a review of Of Men and Monsters 😉 — I think I understand what Tenn is doing but I’m finding the work as a whole rather unremarkable. As I pointed out earlier, I found Galouye’s The Dark Universe (1961) far superior — have you read it? If not, find a copy! hehe.

      1. No, I got the historical parallels. I just didn’t, at the time, get the satire on pulp science fiction and fantasy. So you’ve given me good reason to reread the book!

        What? Me write a review? And subject myself to commenters like me? No way.

        I agree that Tenn’s full-length novel doesn’t knock your socks off. His masterpieces are all in the short forms. Still, it’s fun as an adventure story, and its satire is enjoyable – especially the way he deals with female characters in SF of the ’40s through ’60s. His portrayal of Rachel Esthersdaughter as a Heinleinesque woman is hilarious. Smart, competent, and able to run you through with a spear if she has to. But really at her best when pregnant or in the kitchen (dealing with Mankind’s food problems). Then, too, I love the little jokes he tosses in. Like the one about the Monsters sleeping with the lights on. Or sometimes running away from humans the way elephants sometimes run from mice.

        But back to The Iron Dream … sorry for not being able to wait for your Tenn review.

      2. Ah, the comments are part of the discussion! I often go a few weeks before writing a review — so Of Men and Monsters might have to wait — still haven’t reviewed David R. Bunch’s collection Moderan which was amazing….

    2. Finished Of Men and Monsters…. Liked it slightly more than I did about 2/3rds of the way through — not sure what to think about his treatment of women…. is he trying to be satirical with Rachel’s character? hmm.

  2. Great review of a book I have always been curious about. I now know I need to pick this one up. I love that Bob Habberfield cover on the Panther edition. Just went looking for a copy of that edition (because of the cover) and was kind of appalled to see what they were going for…..

    1. All editions are expensive…. I have no idea why — on amazon, on abebooks, etc. I purchased mine from that online bookstore I told you about (whose owner passed away) for a few bucks 😉

      There is an ebook version BUT, it is apparently filled with transcription errors and costs 8 bucks…

      1. Yeah, the average price is nuts. You got a real bargain. I have zero interest in an $8 ebook, especially one filled with errors. I love that Amazon has Adolf Hitler listed as the co-author of the Kindle edition. Guess I’m just going to have to add this to my hunting list for when I go to used book stores. I used to see that Timescape edition all over the place but I never liked the cover so I didn’t pick it up. (Sadly, this is further evidence that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, I guess.)

        1. Amazon apparently doesn’t get the metafictional aspect of the novel… lame….

          Haha, I have the timescape edition — but that too is expensive. I hate Rowena’s art but that cover actually sort of makes sense — Hitler’s novel within the novel sort of “feels” like that… haha.

          (I’m going to go edit the amazon entry — that is ridiculous — nm, I can’t for the kindle version. I like how ONLY the kindle edition makes that error and not the others. Show the quality of that edition I guess…)

  3. I’m convinced the cover artist for the 1972 Avon edition is Vincent DiFate. I find that he did a few other covers for Avon in the early ’70s. I also did an examination of all DiFate covers for 1971-73 over at ISFDB, and the style of The Iron Dream is consistent with those: the way figures are rendered; the use of washes and the limited use of accidental effects; and especially the division of the composition into monochromatic areas (something I consider to be DiFate’s signature technique) of red and green.

    Funny that Bob Habberfield gets credit all over the place for the Avon cover. You’ve got to love the way the internet multiplies an error (which it seems started at the ISFDB).

    1. Cool detective work — I do like Di Fate (however, I didn’t consider him because the iconic spaceship art he’s famous for sort of takes over my mental image of his “style”). I’ll go ahead and credit it until someone proves it wrong….

  4. I’d like to verify my guess, but I can’t find any contact info for DiFate. Then again, the cover might be from the early career of the alternate reality Hitler.

    1. Oh, and wouldn’t it be a hoot if DiFate actually signed the cover “A. Hitler” but the publisher cropped it off fearing that no one would get the joke?

  5. I tripped over Norman Spinrad in 1969, when I was working in a tobacco/magazine store. We had a couple of spinners on the floor and one of my duties was to remove last week’s titles that didn’t sell and replace them with this week’s.

    The just-published BUG JACK BARRON (1969) caught my attention with its title (I read “bug” as a noun and thought that Jack Barron was a bug), so I took it home (after stripping the cover off of it!) and was amazed by the story and the writing. (At the time, Spinrad was writing in a very Sixties-ish style, with psychedelic allusions and forays into whole paragraphs of stream-of-tripped-out-consciousness.

    I found the earlier MEN IN THE JUNGLE (1967) and was just as astounded by the content and the writing. In 1970, his short story collection LAST HURRAH OF THE GOLDEN HORDE cemented a lifetime’s love for his writing.

    I believe that I have read all of his novels (except OSAMA THE GUN), most of his short stories, and his non-fictional observations of science-fiction.

    Whenever I visit a used book store, I always head to the SF section and look for copies of his books. Certain titles I will buy every copy I find and then give them to family and friends as gifts. My first choice as an introduction to Norman Spinrad is RUSSIAN SPRING with SONGS FROM THE STARS and MIND GAME and GREENHOUSE SUMMER next in order. THE IRON DREAM was never a fave of mine.

    Also seek out his attempt at contemporary fiction, PASSING THROUGH THE FLAME. It is often considered “trash” and I have seen it compared to Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann. Uh-uh. That is not the story that I read! Set in the early ’70s, it deals with a rock group (the lead singer based on Grace Slick but it’s impossible for anyone who lived through the Seventies NOT to think of Stevie Nicks!) and its control-freak manager (who has more in common with Satan than Colonel Parker or Brian Epstein). It is a very difficult book to find off the internet . . .

    I am a bit of a sucker for SF from the “New Wave” era and/or that is DANGEROUS VISIONS-related and consider Mr. Spinrad one of the beacons of the genre for the last fifty years–and he is STILL active! His last novel that I can recommend without reservation is HE WALKED AMONG US (2003).

    Mr. Spinrad has an interesting, rather provocative blog/website: http://normanspinradatlarge.blogspot.com/ . . .

    1. Yes, I follow his blog (and twitter) — some interesting articles.

      Ah, did you have one of the naked women covers or something? Or, why else would you tear it off… haha. I’ve yet to read Bug Jack Barron but I really really want to. I love work from that era about the dangers of media. And of course The New Wave movement….

      I definitely have not read as many of his works as you have — only The Iron Dream (fantastic) and Lord of Chaos (average). But definitely want to acquire everything he wrote pre-1980. I have Songs from the Stars (1980) on my shelf which I’ll read soon. I also have The Solarians but I doubt it’s that good considering it was one of his first novels and very much in the satirical/pulp type style.

      Thanks for your wonderful comment!

      1. In the ’60s, retailers could return paperbacks and comic books for full credit (not cash!) by tearing off the covers and sending them back to the distributor/wholesaler. So, ripping up comics and PBs was part of my job.

        BUG JACK BARRON is definitely NOT about the dangers of the media! The subject is almost NEVER discussed by readers of the book; you must read it on your own. Suffice to say that BJB has been optioned by a number of movie studios through the years, none of whom could find a way to bring the subject matter to the screen Hell, Harlan Ellison even did a screen treatment of the book and it could not be used!

        Mr. Spinrad should be forgiven both LORD OF CHAOS and THE SOLARIANS, his earliest novels. As for his post-’70s novels: I can HIGHLY recommend The Mind Game (1980); The Void Captain’s Tale, (1983), Child Of Fortune (1985); Russian Spring (1991), Deus X (1993), Greenhouse Summer (1999), He Walked Among Us (2003), and his non-SF historical novel, The Druid King (2003). But, once you have read those, you will want to read the lesser works.

        1. Hmm, was the idea that they would rebind it and sell it again? As in all the shelf-wear would be on the cover?

          Ok, I had only read some summaries of the work. I plan on reading it soon as I said…

          Thanks for the recommendations.

      2. There was a book store near my house when I was a teen which cycled through paperbacks by tearing off the covers, then threw all the coverless books in the dumpster out back. A few minutes of dumpster diving there on the way home from school produced hours of free reading enjoyment… But of course, you didn’t get to enjoy the cover artwork!

  6. Whoops! and No! No! No! The books were not shipped back to the wholesaler—the covers were! The idea was that the books sans jackets would have no real retail value and they would be written off the company’s taxes. The covers proved that the books were in that condition.

    The reality was that our store sold the coverless comics for 2¢ (yup, two pennies) apiece and the paperbacks for 4¢ to another local store called Back-Date Books. They in turn sold the coverless comics for a nickel (six for a quarter) and the PBs were 10-15¢ each . . .

      1. MR. BOAZ

        I rewrote my comment above (it is HUGELY expanded) and just posted it on my recently launched blog (www.nealumphred.com) as “Norman Spinrad Walks Among Us.” I do believe that you would enjoy reading it . . .

  7. I just finished this book, and while I really like the idea, particularly the pseudo-afterword, I found the novel within the novel, Lord of the Swastika, a touch drawn out. Every reader knows how its plot will develop, and with Hitler as the author, has more than an inkling how it will end. In other words, it’s an idea for a novella length work, not a full novel (which would also better match it to the length of the Golden Age stories it was commenting on). Whipple/Spinrad’s dozen-or-so-page commentary at the end completes the novel, but not after the reader has waded through 200+ pages of a story you already “know.” It is impossible, however, not to appreciate the manner in which Spinrad deconstructs the classic pulp hero (and gets in a swipe at the Hugos). I think really good but not great novel.

    I’m curious what you think after having the novel under your belt for a couple of years?

    1. JESSE

      Don’t know who you intended this question for, but it was forwarded to my email address so I’ll give it a go. THE IRON DREAM is a tour de force is thought, preparation, and execution, but it has never been one of my favorite Spinrads.

      I agree: it is drawn out – but it did not seem that way forty years ago! It was daring, especially as we were so much closer to the war and what Hitler and the Nazis really meant. I think really good but not great novel.

      NEAL

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