The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad
Gregg Press, 1977
Originally published by Avon Books, 1972
Price I paid: none
Renowned science fiction writer Adolf Hitler’s Hugo Award winning novel!
Ferric Jaggar mounted the platform. A swastika of flame twenty feet high stood out in glory against the night sky behind him, bathing him in heroic firelight, flashing highlights off the brightwork of his gleaming black leather uniform, setting his powerful eyes ablaze.
“I hold in my hand the Great Truncheon of Held. I dedicate myself to the repurification of all Heldon with blood and iron, and to the extension of the dominion of True Humanity over the face of the entire Earth! Never will we rest until the last mutant gene is swept from the face of the planet!”
I’d had my eye on this book for a while, and I figured it was just about time I tackled it. Originally I wanted to read it for my own edification, but as I dove in I found that I had some things to say and I wanted to say them, so here we are, talking about a masterwork of the science fiction genre…sort of.
This book has a few odd things going for it in regards to my usual review scheme. I got a library copy of the book, the 1977 Gregg Press edition, which doesn’t have any cover matter at all. At first, I assumed it was just library binding and that I could find the cover art online, but nope, it was sold this way. It’s a lovely volume, worthy of a place of pride on a shelf. Still, I put image covers on these reviews, so I nabbed the cover from Avon’s first edition from the ISFDB. It seemed like the most appropriate one to go with since the text of this edition was a photographic reprint of that edition.
Since this edition also didn’t have any back jacket copy, I nabbed some from Amazon. I’m not sure which edition this refers to. If you know, please inform me.
And then there’s the text of the book. Never before have I reviewed a book that was intentionally bad. Furthermore, this book had a fictional review of itself at the end, and so I also have to keep that in mind. I’m reviewing a review.
This book deserves a lot more study than the 2000 words or so that I’m going to give it, so let’s not waste them and dive in.
The Iron Dream is a three-part affair. Parts one and three are very short. The volume opens with a bit of backstory, preparing you for the metafiction involved here. It’s about a page long. The third part is the review of the middle part. The middle part is a roughly 250 page pulp science fiction novel by Adolf Hitler called Lord of the Swastika.
In the metafiction of this novel, Hitler never became Führer. Instead, a failed attempt at a political coup in the 20s caused him to immigrate to the United States. He did visual art for a while, working for various science fiction magazines before finally deciding to tackle fiction writing himself, writing such works as Emperor of the Asteroids, The Builders of Mars, The Triumph of the Will, and the volume we’re about to read, Lord of the Swastika. This novel is Hitler’s last novel, written just before his death of what is presumed to be syphilis. It won the Hugo in 1954.
You might be wondering just what Spinrad’s goal here is. Fortunately, I read the Wikipedia page on the book and Theodore Sturgeon’s introduction to the novel before I dug in, so I didn’t have to wonder all that much. Spinrad is largely taking the piss out of pulp science fiction, and he’s not doing it out of a place of love. He’s got some valid beefs with the genre, he makes it clear, and he’s not in the least bit subtle about it. This novel is by and large a rundown of all the worst elements of pulp: übermensch protagonists, glorification of violence, toxic masculinity, idealization of fascism, and prose so purple it made my head hurt. He might have accomplished all this without placing it in the words of a fictionalized Adolf Hitler, but I think it would have lost something. He is attempting to make a very clear statement, and he doesn’t want anybody to miss it.
Hilariously and/or distressingly, it seems a lot of people did miss the point, at least according to some of my research.
There’s some other stuff going on here, though, and maybe those things are a bit more subtle. Spinrad got into the head of one of the worst monsters our species has ever produced and wrote a science fiction novel from his point of view. It’s clear that Spinrad set out to actually understand where Hitler was coming from when he undertook this project. I think this is a valuable lesson. We’re living in some scary times right now, and part of the problem on all sides is a complete lack of any attempts to understand those who disagree with us. Now, I want to make this clear: understanding does not mean acceptance. Trying to understand the worldview of somebody you consider vile is a painful and difficult process, whether you’re talking about some white nationalist touting his views on television, a congressperson attempting to deny the fundamental rights of other human beings, or Hitler himself. With this in mind, I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor, if only because meeting somebody head-on with your contrasting opinion, even if it’s the most just opinion in the world, is unlikely to work. People don’t often change their opinions, even when faced with overwhelming evidence. The solution, then, is to meet somebody on their own ground. Fight them with their own ideas. Learn the inconsistencies in their own worldview and fight them there.
I’m not saying that this is the only way to go about your struggles, but I still think it’s a valid thing to keep in mind. It’s possible to accept that that Nazi is just a scared little boy inside while making it clear that his hate is not acceptable. Maybe you punch him.
Heinlein might have put it best in Stranger in a Strange Land when he said that the Martians felt that to truly hate something, you had to grok it just as much as if you loved it.
Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I guess we can talk about the book a little bit.
Feric Jaggar is the hero of Lord of the Swastika. He’s a pure human in a world where that distinction is wearing thin. At the beginning of the story he’s traveling from a mutant-infested hellhole to the land of Held, where true humans live. Our setting is something like two thousand years in the future. Nuclear war has devastated most of the Earth and the human race has fallen into mutant degeneracy. There are various types of mutants described, from bird-headed people to toad people to dwarfs, and Feric hates them all. Worst of the lot, though, are the Dominators, folks who look human enough but have considerable psychic powers that they use to control people of insufficient will.
Feric, of course, has a huge repository of will. This is a result of his pure genes. This book has a lot to say about genes in that way that doesn’t make any sense if you’ve taken a basic biology class.
He finds himself in Held, but things aren’t as great as he’d like them to be. The tests of pure humanity are lax and he thinks that subhumans are being granted citizenship. He even finds a Dominator has infiltrated the customs office that accepts him into the country.
With this in mind, Feric sets out to correct this wrong. He meets some like-minded individuals and begins his campaign of racial purification. He joins a small political party but finds it inadequate. Later he meets a group of motorcycle bandits when they attack his train. Instead of fighting them, Feric learns that they have many of the same opinions as he does, so he sets out to join them. He undergoes trials of manhood and succeeds mightily. At the end, he comes face to face with the Steel Commander, a truncheon once wielded by the kings of Held. The truncheon is a bit like Mjolnir in the Marvel comics and I wonder if there was an intentional influence there. After all, isn’t Thor the ultimate Nordic superman? The truncheon is too heavy for regular people to pick up, but the ancient technology stored in it is able to scan the genes of the wielder and determine their worthiness, at which point it’s as light as a feather but hits with the force of a mountain. Feric is, of course, the one worthy enough to pick it up, and he does. The motorcycle gang joins behind him and he sets back to civilization to fulfill his destiny.
This book has so much destiny in it. One has to wonder if free will is a thing at all. Of course, this is such a common occurrence in pulp that you know it’s intentional.
What follows is fairly predictable to anyone who knows how Hitler came to power. It’s almost tedious in its familiarity, except there’s more mind control in this version of the story. Plenty of rallies, though. And violence in the streets.
Taking over the country, Feric sets out to purify it. He sets up camps to determine who is a true human and who is less than that. Ridding the country of mutants and Dominators, Feric builds and army and takes over the surrounding countries. Finishing up there, he sets out to take down Zind, the land of the Dominators.
The Doms are pretty clearly a combo of Jews and Communists, although it’s a bit muddled in some places. The Dominators are not only mutants themselves, they also harness mutants to do work. They breed them.
“Hitler” goes to extraordinary lengths to convince us of how disgusting the mutants are. They’re always subhuman. Often they have no control over their own actions, and the text seems to have a lot to say on the subject of bodily excretions. There’s never any hint of humanity. Even animals don’t escape his attempts to disgust us. So the fact that the Dominators openly embrace this kind of thing is the ultimate sign that they are totally degenerate and deserve to be extinguished from the Earth.
So that’s what happens. This book has a lot of battle scenes in it. I’d say that at least a quarter of the text features Feric heading up a battle someplace. There are motorcycle cavalrymen, tanks, jet aircraft, and so forth fighting gigantic mindless beasts under Dominator control. It’s pretty exciting, endlessly fetishized, and it starts to drag. I feel like this was also intentional.
The Dominator capital gets firebombed and they are wiped out. Never once do we feel like our heroes are going to be defeated. There’s no chance of it. Sound familiar? If not, read almost any other pulp novel. If you don’t feel like it, I’ve reviewed more than a few that you can feel free to cross-reference.
There’s one last Dominator left. Feric faces off against him in a contest of will. It turns out that this Dominator has control of some nuclear weapons left over from the time the world got blasted apart. The Dominator uses them not to directly destroy Feric’s nation, but instead once again to pollute the gene pool so that even the most pure humans are no longer viable under the rules set forth by Feric’s regime. Feric responds by bashing the Dom so hard that he splits in half.
Even Feric himself isn’t immune, so what he proposes is that everybody in the country gets sterilized and they resort to cloning perfect humans. That’s what happens. The story ends with perfect humans being launched into space to colonize other worlds.
The metafiction doesn’t end there, though, because the last bit of the book is a review of Lord of the Swastika by “Homer Whipple,” who is an effective parody of stuffy academics. His review of the book concentrates strongly on the phallic elements, which are certainly there, but says little about the horrifying racist and totalitarian elements of the book. When he does mention them it’s almost comic, since those elements are the ones he finds most unbelievable. You know, the things that actually happened in our timeline.
The postscript/review does come pretty close to outright explaining the joke at times, which I’d find annoying if it weren’t for the fact that I’d already established that this book is not subtle and had no intention of doing so. I’m reminded of a Larry Niven quote:
If you’ve nothing to say, say it any way you like. Stylistic innovations, contorted story lines or none, exotic or genderless pronouns, internal inconsistencies, the recipe for preparing your lover as a cannibal banquet: feel free. If what you have to say is important and/or difficult to follow, use the simplest language possible. If the reader doesn’t get it then, let it not be your fault.
Whether or not Spinrad had this quote or a similar sentiment in mind when he wrote this book is perhaps debatable, but seeing as how I agree with it, I certainly think that The Iron Dream is a success on that level.
Of course, there are plenty of people who didn’t get it then. I read here that the American Nazi Party embraced the book. Spinrad himself said
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?”
―Science Fiction and the Real World, pg 158
I’m going to go out on a limb and say this book is the most important book I’ve ever put on this blog.
I not only encourage you to read it if you haven’t, but I also encourage you to give it to friends, family, library patrons, and strangers on the bus. Maybe work it into a school curriculum. Talk about it with your kids.
I want to go on and on and on about everything about this book, but I won’t. You probably don’t want to read what I have to say. I, however, want to read what you have to say. Let’s do this thing.