(Uncredited 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 kill 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)
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