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The Iron Dream

The Iron Dream is a metafictional 1972 alternate history novel by Norman Spinrad.

The book has a nested narrative that tells a story within a story. On the surface, the novel presents an unexceptional science fiction action tale entitled Lord of the Swastika. This is a pro-fascist narrative written by an alternate history version of Adolf Hitler, who in this timeline emigrated from Germany to America in 1919, after the Great War, and used his modest artistic skills to become first a pulp-SF illustrator and later a science fiction writer in the L. Ron Hubbard mold, telling lurid, purple-prosed adventure stories under a thin SF-veneer. Spinrad seems intent on demonstrating just how close Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces — and much science fiction and fantasy literature — can be to the racist fantasies of Nazi Germany. The nested narrative is followed by a faux scholarly analysis by a fictional literary critic, Homer Whipple, of New York University.

Frame narrative

The book's frame narrative and premise is that "after dabbling in radical politics," Adolf Hitler emigrated to the United States in 1919 and became a science fiction illustrator, editor and author. He wrote the science-fantasy novel Lord of the Swastika in less than a month in 1953, shortly before dying of cerebral hemorrhage (possibly caused by tertiary syphilis); Lord of the Swastika subsequently wins the Hugo Award.

In Whipple's review following the narrative, we learn more about the background of the alternate history in which Hitler emigrated to the United States. Without Hitler, the Nazi Party fell apart, and the Communist Party of Germany succeeded in a socialist revolution in 1930. As this alternate history continues, there is reference to a "Greater Soviet Union" which took over the United Kingdom in 1948, and whose influence grows in Latin America.

Whipple also discloses that the Japanese Empire has retained its militarist ascendancy, with reference to its bushido code of conduct, while the United States vacillates against the Greater Soviet Union's ascendancy. Due to the Greater Soviet Union threat, the United States and Japanese Empire move toward a closer military and strategic alliance and Japanese militarist values are much admired in the United States.

Finally, there is a casual mention of the fact that, while in this history Nazi Germany never came into being, it is the Soviets who undertake the systematic genocide of all Jews - and since this is perpetrated by the Soviets, there is no power left whose armies might stop it and save at least a remnant of the Jews from this version of the Holocaust.

Lord of the Swastika is lauded for its qualities as a great work of heroic fantasy. (To further hammer the point, in an early edition, actual science fiction writers wrote faux sincere "admiring" blurbs for Spinrad for the novel's back cover blurbs, praising "Hitler"'s writing skills.) Irony abounds in Whipple's review, as he singles out the mechanisms such as sheer force, midnight rallies, phallic symbolism and such like that in fact characterized Nazism's rise to power in Germany, blithely assuring us that such a rise would be quite ludicrous to contemplate in real life. "After all", Dr. Whipple says, "it can't happen here."

Novel Within the Novel -- Lord of the Swastika

Lord of the Swastika opens in the year 1142 A.F. - 'After Fire', the global nuclear war referred to as the 'Time of Fire' which brought about the end of the civilization of the technologically advanced 'Ancients' and the current despoliation of most forms of life: the gene pools of almost all life forms are corrupted by the radioactive fallout to the point where few examples of the original form can be seen, and most of humanity are hideous mutants with blue skins, lizard scales or parrot beaks, or the wizened half-breed mutants and normal-seeming but inhuman "Dominators", who desire to rule the ruined world with their mind-controlling powers.

The pure and strong young "Trueman" (so named for the lack of mutations in his DNA) Feric Jaggar returns from the outlands of Borgravia where his family was exiled by the treaty of Karmak with the surrounding mutant states to his ancestral land of Helder ("the High Republic of Heldon"; founded on the principles of killing mutants and keeping humanity pure), only to find its rigor slackened and corrupted by the "Universalists", pawns of the sinister Dominator country Zind, which seeks to corrupt Helder's pure Aryan gene pool into the hideous perversion that rules the rest of the world. Indeed, the very first portion of Helder that Feric enters, the customs fort where entrants are tested to see whether they are pure and free of mutation, Feric is outraged by the fact that mutants were being allowed in Helder on day-passes, that the fort is under the spell of a Dominator, and that the tests are so lax that impure specimens were being granted citizenship.

In Helder proper, whilst dining in the "Eagle's Nest" tavern, and mulling over the decision of how to bring about a change in this situation - should he enter politics or the military - Feric witnesses the oratory of Seph Bogel, leader of the 'Human Renaissance Party', who speaks eloquently but ineffectually to the crowd about the need to reform things. Fired by his words, Feric is inspired to take control of the listening crowd and leads a mob to the border post he had recently entered Helder by, there to slay the Dominator (or 'Dom') who had quietly disguised himself as a clerk to sway the immigration decisions in favor of mutants.

At Bogel's invitation, he assumes leadership of the Party and the two travel on to Walder - the second city of Helder - to meet the party inner circle and begin the great task.

Their journey, however, is interrupted when their steam-powered vessel is waylaid by the outlaw petrol-powered motorcycle gang, 'The Black Avengers'. Jagger, however, senses that these men may be of use to his cause and challenges their leader, Stag Stopa. The rules of the Black Avengers only allow a member to challenge the leader, and so he and Bogel are taken back to their headquarters for Feric to be initiated. Feric acquits himself mainly in the drinking of ale and in running the gauntlet of torches on a motorcycle. He and Stopa duel with truncheons, and Feric's truncheon breaks. Desperately he reaches out and defeats Stopa with the legendary "Great Truncheon of Stag Held" - which may only be wielded by a descendant of the last true King of Helder, Sigmark IV. The Black Avengers immediately pledge fealty to him, and become the "Knights of the Swastika".

From this event, Jaggar assumes a hereditary right to be the leader of Helder and embarks on a violent crusade for genetic purity, drawing a massive following, staging outdoor rallies and raising an army personally loyal to him. He is elected to the Council and stages a coup d'état when he forces the Council to admit to treason and a Zind plot against Helder. Confirming his suspicions, the Universalist member of the Council turns out to be a Dom. Feric summarily executes him with the Great Truncheon, and then has the other members of the Council shot. Immediately after assuming power Jaggar puts down an imminent coup by Stopa (who has been corrupted by the fleshly pleasures of Zind),

Backed by the army and the adoring multitudes, Feric sets about the great task of re-invigorating the military, ordering the production of tanks and fighter jets, the establishment of the Sons of the Swastika - a legion of the purest and most manly men that can be found through the "Classification Camps"' activities, which process all citizens of Helder (killing the Doms and sterilizing or exiling all relatively impure humans).

After repelling a Zind attack through Wolack, Helder razes its western and southern neighbours, beginning with Borgravia. In the course of the Helderisation of its neighbours Jaggar orders, at the suggestion of Bors Remler, that all mutants are to be euthanised rather than exiled.

Months later, his scientists report that they are near to rediscovering the secrets of atomic bombs, but that Zind is making efforts to dig up relics of the Ancients, which might include atomic bombs. Feric orders such research ended, and determines to wipe out Zind and every last Dom before they can unleash the Fire. Soon enough Zind begins to rally its troops from their reverse in Wolack. The final invasion of Zind is hard fought: the main Helder force, under the command of Lar Waffing takes the south western oil fields needed for resupply, while the secondary force fights a delaying action against the vast bulk of the Zind army to north towards the Zind capital, Bora. Needless to say, the forces of Helder prevail and the Zind army is destroyed and burned, down to the last mindless "Warrior". The central city is reduced to a cinder.

The last Dom, apparently a military leader, is discovered hunkered in a bomb bunker. Before Feric has the pleasure of killing him, the Dom triumphantly reveals that they had succeeded in reactivating one of the ancient atomic weapons, and he triggers the failsafe. The bomb detonates, and as the Dom planned, utterly corrupts the gene pool of Helder: if any of its citizens, including Feric, mate, they will surely produce the monsters they strove so hard against.

Feric orders the SS's scientists to redouble their efforts to produce the next super-race by cloning the perfect specimens of the SS. Eventually they succeed, and at the novel's close, a rocket full of SS clones - with a clone of Feric to lead them - are launched into space to colonize other planets. This inaugural rocket, launched on a voyage to Tau Ceti, is but the first of many.

It is a pastiche of Hitler's own life filtered through a fantasy lens, ending not in defeat but in global dominion: the Dominators represent the Jews, Helder represents Germany, Feric Jaggar represents a cliché, wish-fulfillment, almost Mary Sueish self-portrait of Hitler himself, and Jaggar's initial return from Borgravia mirrors Hitler's own birth in Austria.

Critical reaction

The Iron Dream won critical acclaim, including a Nebula Award nomination and a Prix Tour-Apollo Award. Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in a review that: "We are forced, insofar as we can continue to read the book seriously, to think, not about Adolf Hitler and his historic crimes—Hitler is simply the distancing medium—but to think about ourselves: our moral assumptions, our ideas of heroism, our desires to, lead or to be led, our righteous wars. What Spinrad is trying to tell us is that it is happening here."

In 1982, the book was "indexed" (i.e., de facto banned) in Germany by the Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien for its alleged promotion of Nazism; Spinrad's publisher, Heyne Verlag, challenged this in court and, until the ban was overturned in 1990, the book could be sold, but not advertised or publicly displayed.

Ironically, the American Nazi Party put the book on its recommended reading list, despite the satirical intent of the work. In Spinrad's own words:

To make damn sure that even the historically naive and entirely unselfaware reader got the point, 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...
And yet one review appeared in a fanzine that really gave me pause. "This is a rousing adventure story and I really enjoyed it," the gist of it went. "Why did Spinrad have to spoil the fun with all this muck about Hitler?"

References

  • Spinrad, Norman. "On Books: The Emperor of Everything". Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction, January 1988, pp. 173-186.

See also

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