The Iron Dream Is Alive and Well and Living In Science Fiction

I posted the following to my livejournal back on July 22, 2008. As well, I cross-posted it to a number of communities, including one called _bookish, where it garnered some response from a couple of denizens of the Analog message-board.

without going into details, suffice it to say I'd touched several nerves (if you care to seek them out) and found myself being accused of "hat[ing] science fiction", among other things.

Truth is, I like SF arguably more than I should. But I've grown weary of adolescent power-fantasies dressed-up as novels, no matter how entertaining or well-written they might be. Mind you, Norman Spinrad reached the same realization quite a few years ago.

* * *

Childhoods (Should) End

The Iron Dream Is Alive and Well

by Geoffrey Dow, July 22, 2008


The Iron Dream

There's little in this world quite so insulting as the realization one has been played for a fool. Whether in affairs of the heart or of the mind, discovering one has been suckered creates anger and embarrassment, resentment and shame.

Quite by coincidence, I finally read Norman Spinrad's 35 year-old satire of SF's fascistic power-fantasies, The Iron Dream, finishing it the same day that I finished the latest serial in Analog, David R. Palmer's novel, Tracking.

And the latter, a three-part serial I had been quite enjoying along the way, left me feeling wach one of emotions mentioned above.

* * *

Almost certainly excepting a few short stories, until this week I knew Norman Spinrad only by reputation, as one of those important novelists who I had somehow neglected to read over the years; and as one of the only reasons to pick up the occasional issue of Asimov's Science Fiction, for his occasional and usually very thought-provoking essays on trends and patterns within the fields of SF and Fantasy.

One of the novels I was most curious about (admittedly for prurient reasons which soon will be self-evident) was The Iron Dream, a science fiction novel ostensibly written by none other than Adolph Hitler, and one also apparently taken as deep and wounding insult by many among SF's legions of stalwart Fans.

Always happy to rubber-neck at a literary bun-fest, I was pleased indeed when a tattered copy recently came into hands.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Lord Tubby of Fleet, Before the fall
Lord Tubby of Fleet
Before the fall.

One sometimes thinks — as when a comedian has done a particularly devastating lampoon of an idiot president, or a satirist has effectively pricked the bubble of self-righteous pomposity hitherto surrounding a self-important former press-baron — that the world not only will change because of the absolute Truth of the performance or writing, but that is it already is of changing, because who could possibly ever again take seriously the emperor after a child has pointed out his clothes are not real?

And what man or woman would dare show his or her face in public again after such a humiliation, let alone attempt to re-take his or her place among the great? Surely not after having had one's soul revealed as the twisted, or banal, or merely rapacious monster that it is?

Alas, experience shows all too well that hubris knows no humiliation and so each generation is in need of its own Swift, every sub-culture its contemporary Spinrad.

In a nutshell, The Iron dream is a commentary on — and a condemnation of — those Fans whose definition of "good" science fiction seemed (to Spinrad, then) and seems (to me, now) to have been set, as an immovable prejudice by about the age of 12. (Note: Spinrad was a vocal proponent of SF's New Wave, one of those movements determined to "modernize" its chosen field - in this case, arguably achieving at least some success in pushing traditional literary values, such as the importance of character development and a more sophisticated understanding politics and sciences other than physics. The Iron Dream must be understood at least in part as a polemical volley in a broader sub-cultural war.)

Set in an parallel universe, one in which World War Two never occurred, because Adolph Hitler emigrated to the United States following the First World War, where he instead became a leading Science Fiction writer of his age.

The Iron Dream is presented as a scholarly edition of one of his most popular and enduring novels.

The plot, such as it is, concerns one Feric Jaggar, the preternaturally perfect Aryan hero if ever there was one.

Finally, there emerged from the cabin of the steamer a figure of startling and unexpected nobility: a tall, power-fully built true human in the prime of manhood. His hair was yellow, his skin was fair, his eyes were blue and brilliant. His musculature, skeletal structure, and carriage were letter-perfect, and his trim blue tunic was clean and in good repair.

Feric Jaggar looked every inch the genotypically pure human that he in fact was. It was all that made such prolonged close confinement with the dregs of Borgravia bearable; the quasi-men could not help but recognize his genetic purity. The sight of Feric put mutants and mongrels in their place, and for the most part they kept to it.

There is little subtle about the book's surface humour — in the afterword, written in mock-scholarly fashion by one "Homer Whipple", much is made of the rampant homo-erotic undertones and the pathological blood-lust coursing through the narrative (though, ironically, he scoffs at the idea that "Hitler's" rabble-rousing lunatic of a hero could ever in real life take power.)

Of course, such a man could gain power only in the extravagant fancies of a pathological science-fiction novel. For Feric Jaggar is essentially a monster: a narcissistic psychopath with paranoid obsessions. His total self-assurance and certainty is based on a total lack of introspective self-knowledge. In a sense, such a human being would be all surface and no interior. He would be able to manipulate the surface of social reality by projecting his own pathologies upon it, but he would never be able to share in the inner communion of interpersonal relation-
ships.

Such a creature could give a nation the iron leadership and sense of certainty to face a mortal crisis, but at what cost? Led by the likes of a Feric Jaggar, we might gain the world at the cost of our souls.

No, although the spectre of world Communist domination may cause the simpleminded to wish for a leader modelled on the hero of Lord of the Swastika, in an absolute sense we are fortunate that a monster like Feric Jaggar will forever remain confined to the pages of science fantasy, the fever dream of a neurotic science-fiction writer named Adolf Hitler.

I won't go beyond that in detailing the plot, as it is simply a litany of impossible (and unbelievably brutal and bloody — veritable slasher porn) victories as Feric's genius leads the racially pure human beings on a successful attempt to entirely exterminate the monstrous mutants and Communist stand-ins from the face of the earth. A power fantasy of how Hitler no doubt had wished his Reich had begun, with at least a thousand years ahead of it.

Not a gut-buster by any stretch, it evinced occasional chuckles of recognition and sometimes of surprise. An enjoyable, but only slightly stinging, lampoon of the sort of adolescent power-fantasies still today so prevalent in popular culture — 300, Batman, Torchwood, the list is practically endless.

And yes, I recognized myself as being at least sometimes among the book's targets, as one who has known more than his fair share of power-fantasies over the years. Despite my middling literary pedigree I confess I also kept reading super-hero comics into my 20s and sometimes indulged in Star Wars-like shoot-em-ups well-into my 30s. I'm not one to deny the primal pleasure that many, perhaps most of us, can get at seeing Imperial Storm Troopers wiped out by the hundreds, as earlier generations lapped up westerns featuring "Red Indians" dropping from their saddles like so many Cylon ships exploding in the vacuum of space.

But even when much younger than I am now, and though I might occasionally argue that this or that particular exemplar of the form had some "redeeming qualities", most of the time i realized I was watching (or reading) the intellectual equivalent of cheap rye and flat Diet Coke drunk in some damp alley at best — a sordid, stunted sort of pleasure.

The Iron Dream is a frontal assault upon the sort of 40 year-old mind that has not grown beyond that pleasure — at least so far as to admit it is a guilty pleasure. 35-plus years down the line, it's not a significant novel — except probably historically — and I wouldn't even be talking about it here were it not for the fact that I cracked the October 2008 issue of Analog, in which it struck me I was reading the third part of a serialized novel, that was in most ways precisely what Spinrad published as satirical pastiche more than 35 years ago.

Tracking - Detail; Illustration by William Warren
Detail of illustration by William Warren
(Source: Analog SF.)

David R. Palmer's serial, Tracking reads eerily like precisely the sort of novel Spinrad demolished so long ago.

Not only do both take place after (presumably) a nuclear war has nearly wiped out life on earth, both contain Absolute Villains and Absolute Heroes, and a remarkable emphasis on bloody carnage as a suitable solution to all of life's problems.

  • Post-apocalyptic setting? Check.
  • Utterly Evil Villains? Check.
  • Clear distinction between super-humans (good) vs. "sub-humans"? Check.
  • Completely unbelievable good-guy/bad guy body-count ratio? Check again, except that in The Iron Dream, the Good Guys do actually incur some casualties.
  • Utterly impossible James Bondian hero to save the day single-handed or close to it? Check again.

Oh, there are some differences. For one thing, Tracking's hero is in fact a heroine — an 11 year old girl named Candy Smith Foster, homo post hominem. Or, as she likes to refer to herself, "Plucky Girl Adventurer". And indeed, albeit female, she is the stereotypical adventure story hero: brave, (mostly) courteous, intelligent and resourceful. And also a highly-trained killer, able to take down, not just one, or three but easily a dozen armed men twice her size in mere seconds. (There are SFnal explanations for her superior abilities (remember homo post hominem?), but nevermind. She is a Superman, the best of a new race of supermen, and that's all we really need to know.

And as the primary narrator, the Plucky Girl Adventurer is in fact a charming character, balanced between the cusp of womanhood yet still clinging to the tendrils of her childhood roots. She is wise enough to amuse the reader with her ironic wit and to draw the reader in to empathize during her moments of doubt and even weakness. Palmer tells a fun story, an old-fashioned, rollicking adventure with a voice that sounds modern, not dated, and the reader can happily suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride.

Unless said reader stops a moment and actually considers the content of what he or she is reading.

The story begins when Candy gets word that her father — long presumed dead — is in fact alive. Alive, but imprisoned by the very villains who (in a prequel I do not recall reading) were responsible for the near-death of both human races, the old and the new, and who are determined to finish the job. Candy quickly arranges to steel an airplane and high-tails it up the western coast of north America, across the Bering Straight and then flies over much of Siberia before landing just outside enemy headquarters.

She soon infiltrates the enemy camp and learns that not only is her father a captive; and not only do the Bad Guys hold prisoner 20 or so children of the homo hominen (who are not only tortured but sexually abused), but they have also managed to re-arm some old Soviet ICBMs and are only a couple of days away from launching a pre-emptive strike against her own people.

Bad guys really don't get much worse than that, do they?

And so the reader is expected to lie back, guilt-free, while indulging in the fantasy that he or she is Candy, an unlikely but utterly righteous avenger for all that is Good and Right in the world.

The carnage that follows is pornographic in the pleasure with which Palmer recounts the shootings, beheadings, the broken noses shoved-into-braincases, shattered limbs and stabbings. By the end of the action, Candy has (probably — there is no doubt a further sequel in the works) rescued Daddy, definitely rescued the captured "homo superior" children and has personally killed several dozen soldiers in close combat and by stealth and many more through the free-hand use of a small cannon.

Further, before taking off in her over-loaded plane, she has ensured that her Daddy's sabotaging of the the nuclear warheads will go undiscovered, so that they go Boom! right there on the ground in Siberia, taking out any surviving Bad Guys along with everything within a 50 mile radius (as well as any incidental humans, of course; oh well).

And so it seems we've come more than full-circle, really. From A.E. van Vogt's seminal superman story, Slan, to the ludicrously simplistic libertarianism of the likes of Rand and Heinlein, to Spinrad's satire and, finally, to right back where Spinrad started, with a pro-eugenics fantasy disguised as "innocent fun and adventure".

It may be the case — and I suspect that it probably is the case — that Palmer was only composing an homage to the stories he had enjoyed as an adolescent himself, something light and frothy, to be enjoyed with a cold beer or lemonade on a hot summer's day; the literary equivalant of Star Wars or Indiana Jones (about both of which — much as I enjoyed them, I could say many of the same things I am saying now), but it behooves any artist to consider the subtext of what they say.

It also may be that Palmer meant it to be taken as moral support for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, or that he simply thought the times were right for such a work to be commercially successful. In either of which case, I can only acknowledge that our values differ widely.

Whatever the case — avarice, innocence or patriotic fervour — it is my belief that the world needs to get beyond such simplistic dualisms if we are to survive much longer — and I can't, in good conscience, let such a vile message, published in my favourite SF magazine, go unremarked.

That Palmer chose to employ an 11 year-old girl as Tracking's instrument of righteous destruction and slaughter only makes the moral perversity behind this kind of thing, all the more startling upon reflection. Sure, it's fun to imagine being a kid who could trade quips with James Bond, but the gender-reversal doesn't make this a "progressive" novel in any important sense of the term. The moral — if it has one — remains the same: that The Other must be destroyed, lest it destroy Us.

When all the fun and games are done, and the piles of Enemy corpses have been cleansed with nuclear fire, we are left with a "happy ending" that would not have been at all out of place in one of the novels by Spinrad's "Adolph Hitler": The solution to all the world's problems is to exterminate 99% of the human race and to then hunt and put to the sword those survivors who don't like the New Order.

I know, I know, I know; it's just a story, nobody takes this kind of thing seriously.

And there's truth to that, I know there is. Tracking is just a story and, taken as such, it is a reasonably enjoyable one. But after the fact, I felt kind of dirty, kind of used, kind of played, as if the charming voice of the killer super-child had hypnotized me into taking poison, as if Iry had just come from a community theatre production of Henry V only to discover the proceeds were going to support the Aryan Nation.

Leaving aside the moral and ethical concerns, I am weary.

I am tired of stories in which politics is defined as Good vs. Evil, rather than the complex interplay of conflicting needs, desires and opinions it (to over-simplify myself) is in reality.

I am tired of mass murder dressed up, not as a regrettable necessity, but as a desired goal.

I am tired of the assinine conceit that "might equals right".

I am tired of artists who are too lazy to think beyond a cliche and write something interesting about the human condition.

I am tired of fascism and genocide brought to me in the guise of light entertainment. (Merciful heavens! Even Doctor Who — a children's television show! — at least addresses questions of morality when killing is necessary.)

It's time we left adolescent power-fantasies where they belong — with adolescents themselves, as something they must struggle to out-grown — rather than feeding and coddling those all-too-real impulses in ourselves.

Spread the word!

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

superb book, must read

Scotch is an African-Canadian high school girl in Toronto. She's fighting with her parents, her brother is just out of jail, and she has started to get blemishes on her skin. chaos is a wonderful novel. it is a must read item. thank you.
as seen on tv store [Gratuitous, spam-link deleted. — Ed]

Re: Superb book, must read

Your spam is of a lesser order, though; but bringing in Naolo Hopkinson's excellent novel almost fooled me.

The Chaos is an excellent novel, and one I've already reviewed.

Look dipshits: just posting coherent English sentences isn't good enough. Your spammy links give it all away.

I'd like to point out that

I'd like to point out that Tracking is a sequel to the hardly-ever-read Emergence, which itself is a quite good book which actually addresses most of your concerns. Tracking is a horrible piece of writing, but I'd encourage you to try to find a 50-cent copy of Emergence for a uniquely-styled rollick.

I did know about the prequel ...

And in truth (as I thought my review made clear, but it's been a while), one of the reasons I was so violent in my reaction to Tracking was that I actually did enjoy reading it. Only, after the fact, I felt "dirty" for doing so.

So your comment makes me worry. If Tracking is "a horrible piece of writing" in comparison to Emergence, I shudder to imagine how I'll feel in the morning.

But if I come across a copy, I'll still give it a try.

Emergence

You really ought to make it a point to find a copy of Emergence - it's worth the effort. I found it quite extraordinary - and it's (almost) completely missing the bloodiness of Tracking. It made quite a splash when it was published, but that was in - wait for it - 1984. Yep, 26 years ago. Seriously, though, worth the trouble to find and read.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Image CAPTCHA
Enter the characters shown in the image.