Science Fiction Studies

#1 = Vol 1, Part 1 = Spring 1973

Ursula K. Le Guin

On Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream

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 of--inevitably--third-rate prose.

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 behind.

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 story.

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 bitter joke.

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.

Portland, Oregon

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