#1 = Vol 1, Part 1 = Spring 1973
Ursula K. Le Guin
On Norman Spinrad's The
Adolf Hitler's Hugo-winning novel of 1954, Lord of the Swastika, presented
by Norman Spinrad as The Iron Dream (Avon 1972), is an extraordinary
book. Perhaps it deserves the 1973 Hugo, as well.
On the back cover Michael Moorcock compares the book with "the works of
J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and Sir Oswald Mosley.... It is the
very quintessence of sword and sorcery." None of the authors mentioned is
relevant, except Mosley, but the reference to sword and sorcery is exact. The
Iron Dream can be read as a tremendous parody of the subgenre represented by
Moorcock's own Runestaff saga, and by Conan the Barbarian, and Brak the
Barbarian, and those Gor books, and so on--"heroic fantasy" on the
sub-basement level, the writing of which seems to be motivated by a mixture of
simple-minded escapism and money-minded cynicism.
Taken as a parody of S&S, the book hits all its targets. There is the
Hero, the Alpha Male with his muscles of steel and his clear eyes and his
manifest destiny; there are the Hero's Friends; there are the vile, subhuman
enemies; there is the Hero's Sword, in this case a truncheon of interesting
construction; there are the tests, quests, battles, victories, culminating in a
final supernal super-victory of the Superman. There are no women at all, no
dirty words, no sex of any kind: the book is a flawless example of clean
obscenity. It will pass any censor, except the one that sits within the soul.
A parody of S&S, however, is self-doomed. You cannot exaggerate what is
already witlessly exaggerated; you cannot distort for comic effect something
that is already distorted out of all reality. All Spinrad can do is equal the
crassest kind of S&S; no one could surpass it. But fortunately he has larger
game in mind.
There is another kind of book of which this can be said to be a parody or
oblique criticism, and that is the Straight SF Adventure Yarn, as it is called
in manly-modest disclaimer of its having any highfalutin
philosophical/intellectual message, though, in fact, it usually contains a
strong dose of concentrated ideology. This is the kind of story best exemplified
by Robert Heinlein, who believes in the Alpha Male, in the role of the innately
(genetically) superior man, in the heroic virtues of militarism, in the
desirability and necessity of authoritarian control, etc., and who is a very
persuasive arguer for all these things. Here The Iron Dream may have an
effect as a moral counterweight: for in reading it, reading all the familiar
things about the glory of battle, the foulness of enemies of the truth, the joys
of obedience to a true leader, the reader is forced to remember that it is
Hitler saying these things--and thus to question what is said, over
and over. The tension and discomfort thus set up may prove salutary to people
who are used to swallowing the stuff whole.
And, of course, the book is not merely satirizing the machismo of certain
minor literary genres, but the whole authoritarian bag. It is, like all
Spinrad's serious works, a moral statement.
The beauty of the thing is the idea of it: a novel by an obscure hack named
Hitler. The danger, the risk of it is that that idea is embodied in 255 pages
This may not bother Spinrad. There are obvious parodic elements in the style,
which is prudish, slightly stiff, and full of locutions such as "naught
but"; but in fact the style is seldom very much worse than Spinrad's own,
before Hitlerization. Since he is one of the best short story writers in SF,
perhaps the best, I doubted my own instinct here, and checked back with the
stories in the collection The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde (Avon
1970). Vivid, imaginative, and powerful, the stories make their impact through
their ideas and despite their prose. They are mostly written on about the level
of this sentence from "Once More, With Feeling": "There was an
expectant tension in her voice that he couldn't fathom but that rippled the
flesh of his thighs." Like most prose described as "punchy,"
"gutsy...... hard-hitting," Spinrad's is actually a highly over-intellectualized
style. Nobody who responds sensually and perceptually to the sound and meaning
of words could write or can read that sentence with satisfaction. How do you
fathom a tension? with a plumb-line? How does her tension ripple his thighs? does
it make little waves like grass in the wind on the skin, or little ridges like a
washboard?--Of course one isn't expected to ask such questions, one isn't
supposed to react, to the false concreteness of the verbs except in the most
generalized and fuzzy way--just as with political slogans and bureaucratese.
What Spinrad is after is an idea, a moral idea; of the world of emotions and
sensations, nothing exists but a vague atmosphere of charged violence, through
which the reader is hurled forward breakneck towards the goal. To read a Spinrad
short story is to be driven at top speed across the salt flats in a racing car.
It's a powerful car and he's a great driver. He leaves the other racers way
But a novel isn't a racing car. It is much more like a camel caravan, an
ocean, liner, or the Graf Zeppelin. It is by essence large, long, slow,
intricate, messy, and liable to get where it is going by following a Great
Circle. Variety of pace, variety of tone and mood, and above all complexity of
subject, are absolutely essential to the novel. I don't think Spinrad has faced
that yet. His three long books are over-extended short stories. And they have
been relative failures, because you do not make a novel by just stretching out a
But, in this case, does it matter? How can a novel by Adolf Hitler be
well-written, complex, interesting? Of course, it can't. It would spoil the
On the other hand, why should one read a book that isn't interesting?
A short story, yes. Even a book of a hundred or a hundred and twenty pages.
At that length, the idea would carry one through; the essential interest of the
distancing effect, the strength of the irony, would have held up. And all that
is said in 255 pages could have been said. Nobody would ask Spinrad to sacrifice
such scenes as the winning of the Great Truncheon by the hero Feric and the
subsequent kissing of the Great Truncheon by the Black Avengers, or the terrific
final scene. These are magnificent. They are horribly funny. They are totally
successful tours de force. But the long build-ups to them are not necessary, as
they would be in a novel; rather they weaken the whole effect. Only the high
points matter; only they support the ironic tension.
As it is, the tension lags; and I am afraid that those who read the book
clear through may do so because their insensitivity allows them to ignore the
distancing which is the book's strength and justification. They will read it
just as they read Conan, or Starship Troopers, or Goldfinger--as
good, clean fun. What's the harm in that? it's all just made up, it's all just
fantasy, isn't it?--And so they will agree with "Homer Whipple" of
N.Y.U., who provides, in the Afterword, the last twist of Spinrad's knife. After
all it can't, Dr. Whipple says, happen here.
This--the misplaced suspension of disbelief--is the risk Spinrad ran, and
surely knew he was running. If he loses, he loses the whole game. And that will
be a disaster, for he is (unlike most of the cautious practitioners now writing
SF) playing for high stakes. His moral seriousness is intense and intelligent,
but he does not moralize and preach at us. He gambles; he tries to engage us. In
other words, he works as an artist.
He has done, in The Iron Dream, something as outrageous as what Borges
talks about doing in "Pierre Menard" (the rewriting of Don Quixote,
word for word, by a twentieth-century Frenchman): he has attempted a
staggeringly bold act of forced, extreme distancing. And distancing, the pulling
back from "reality" in order to see it better, is perhaps the
essential gesture of SF. It is by distancing that SF achieves aesthetic joy,
tragic tension, and moral cogency. It is the latter that Spinrad aims for, and
achieves. We are forced, in so far 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.