A young man steps off a ship into a crowd of aliens. He's an exile, raised in another land but finally returned home with his dead father. All is not right in the futuristic country to which Feric Jaggar has returned. Psychic enemies weave plots, breed terrible mutant armies in their far off fortresses, and it looks like the few remaining “true” humans may never recover from the nuclear holocaust that left them facing the monstrous hordes. Ahead, Feric will gather comrades, find a legendary weapon, crash through enemies, face treachery and survive plot twists as he remakes the world to ensure a future for humanity.
In 1972, Norman Spinrad wrote a novel, The Iron Dream, which begins just like this. The prose is a bit purple, but not in a way unusual for sci-fi, especially of a particular time now dubbed “classic.” It won't win any nods from the literati, and the gore gets a bit much, but it’s a page-turner — all in all, the sort of book that, if penned in the ‘50s or early ‘60s, would've won praise for its “imagination” and “controversial politics.”
Before Star Wars, before The Lord of The Rings movies, before first-person shooters full of exploding bodies, professional HALO players and drone strikes, Spinrad nailed a very, very dark strain in the way we view heroism, conflict and enemies. Regrettably, The Iron Dream was forgotten, and while it won plenty of acclaim in its time, Spinrad's work slipped out of print for decades. This was unfortunate, because it has one important kicker, one key element that adds a blood-cold shiver to the usual pulp antics even critical media consumers have become so accustomed to: It reads “By Adolph Hitler.”
“My Commander, look!” Best suddenly shouted, pointing up the avenue with the barrel of his submachine gun. A rude barricade of beams, crates, and all manner of garbage and rubbish had been thrown across the street up ahead to bar the passage of motorcycles. Behind this stood a mindless horde of filthy, pathetic Dom-controlled rabble, armed with clubs, cleavers, knives and whatever else came to hand; these wild-eyed wretches choked the street ahead as far as the eye could see. Fluttering above this sordid mob were greasy, tattered blue rags bearing the yellow star-in-circle—the battle flag of the Dom-controlled Universalists.
“Don't worry, Best,” Feric said, “we'll make short work of these vermin!”
— The Iron Dream
Much science fiction, indeed much of the best science fiction, openly addresses questions of social morality, but unfortunately the majority of science fiction novels published are action-entertainment formula stuff in which the major moral conflict is simply between the good guys (us) and the bad guys (them), itself a paradigm that does not exactly promote peace and understanding.
There is something deeply disturbing in the congruence between the commercial pulp action-adventure formula and the Ubermensch in jackboots ….
— Norman Spinrad, “Psychopolitics and Science Fiction: Heroes—True and Otherwise”
We've now got a name warning writers away for what Spinrad was doing — Godwin's law — because comparisons to the Third Reich have always been a tricky business. Godwin’s bit exists for good reason; when it's the go-to insult for even garden-variety political differences, Nazi comparisons are appropriately used in exceedingly rare circumstances.
But Nazism and similar movements the world over didn't spring from nowhere, and it’s important to occasionally break the rule and break it hard. I recently interviewed Spinrad for The Old Iron Dream, my project on the influence of the far-right on sci-fi, and he noted that he wrote The Iron Dream in part because he never entirely believed purely economic rationales for the rise of fascist dictatorships.
The conceit is simple, but creative. The Iron Dream is presented as a 1956 sci-fi novel, The Lord of the Swastika by Hitler. It's from a world in which he, like many of his countrymen, left Germany after World War I, finding work in pulp sci-fi as an illustrator, then as a writer. Spinrad pounds his points home with an additional fictional academic essay by Homer Whipple dissecting Hitler’s novel and noting that sci-fi cosplayers have adopted both the symbolism and aesthetics of the book. Upon The Iron Dream’s publication, Spinrad played up the point further with quotes from sci-fi notables lauding the work of alternate-universe Hitler; “If Wagner wrote science fiction this is the way he would do it,” blurbed sci-fi author Harry Harrison (ostensibly).
This was 1972, when Vietnam was still ablaze and Nixon was still in office. The Iron Dream was part of a massive wave of science fiction taking a hard look at the old, enshrined customs of the genre's ancestors. The “gookification” of enemies, in Spinrad's words, drew an ugly connection from the slaughter of faceless Orcs to the willingness of a populace to root for brutal war politics.
In a series of essays throughout the ensuing years, Spinrad expanded on the theme, naming the formula he takes aim at in The Iron Dream as “The Emperor of Everything.” Noting that “the action-adventure parameters themselves are not necessarily a foolproof formula for crap,” Spinrad saw works like Dune, for example, addressing the arc in a more mature way. While they followed a similar path, tackling the same themes but with a core of tragic irony (Dune's hero spends the novel trying desperately not to become a warlike messiah and failing) that made them a meditation on power rather than masturbation to it. But most of the works starring an inherently powerful, brutal boy becoming emperor of all that he surveys aren't Dune. To a subculture, then as now, that still caters far too much to the whims of adolescent males, the idea that there is some innate superiority in them waiting to get out and win is as toxic as it is engrossing.
Spinrad wrote The Iron Dream as exorcism of The Emperor of Everything. He wrote in as blunt terms as possible because you don't cast out demons with subtlety. The prose are intentionally terrible, the language stilted — but all in that pulp-pitch way that keeps the reader going as Feric Jagger luridly demolishes, with his giant truncheon, another horde of mutants and the sinister genetic “Doms” controlling them. In Spinrad's alternate history, Hitler's brain is on its last legs as he's writing this, so the scenes get more and more surreal as the novel winds its way toward a properly insane conclusion. As Spinrad explained in his essay, “The Emperor of Everything,” “the reader who has been getting off on this stuff finds himself confronted with the awful revelation that he has been getting off on the racism, military fetishism and inner psychic imagery of the Third Reich itself.” He goes on: “The Emperor of Everything really is Der Fuhrer, suckers, and you have been marching right along behind him.”
Five years after The Iron Dream’s publication, Star Wars hit the screen — just around the same time that the imitation Tolkien industry ramped its poisonous stranglehold on popular fantasy into a never-ending succession of slaughtering ugly species and the “dark lords” they served. While his books have a bit more depth, Orson Scott Card's Ender Wiggin is a brutal boy's dream if ever there was one, kicking a classmate to death before moving onto exterminating an entire species. Spinrad even noted that sci-fi fanzines praised The Iron Dream for its action while missing the point entirely.
When The Iron Dream was written, sci-fi remained far more of a niche, if an often influential one. But times changed and the culture changed with them. Star Wars enshrined a version of the space opera pulp into a mainstream cultural juggernaut and spawned imitators. The Tolkien imitators took the themes of epic struggle and handled them with far less empathy and nuance. The “formula for crap” Spinrad highlighted is successful and easy for a reason. It plays to the appealing side of the brutal boy's tale without the “burden” of nuance in works like Dune, which might get their audiences to think, just a bit, about the implications of the fantasies they're embracing.
In the late '90s, more happened to keep the Emperor on his throne. Video games became huge, and they largely went from surreal animals and plumbers to cribbing plots from the legion Tolkien imitators and the pulp-influenced side of space opera — exactly the targets of Spinrad's attempted exorcism. First-person shooters started taking their plots from heavy metal-influenced offshoots of the pulp-themed slaughter of the anonymous horde.
Ironically, the main gripe leveled against such games is that they're a spur for gun violence or mass shootings, which is horseshit. But that problem's illusory nature doesn't mean there aren't real problems with bigotry and misogyny in video game culture, many of them fueled by the same Emperor complexes Spinrad took aim at before video games even existed.
As for sci-fi, it's currently roiled by fights over the very demons Spinrad was trying to expose. In 2012, the writer N. K. Jemisin issued an eloquent call for the genre to fight the strains of racism and patriarchy that have gone unquestioned for too long. A candidate (fortunately unsuccessful) for the presidency of the Science Fiction Writers of America responded by calling her a “half-savage.” Even just establishing basic anti-harassment policies for conventions has seen genre elders and younger misogynists rally to halt the basic insistence that they behave like half-functioning adults.
Spinrad’s exorcism was dead-on; the madness it attacked all too real. Sadly — over 40 years later — the Emperor of Everything marches on.
David Forbes is a journalist and writer based in Asheville, North Carolina. He spends way too much time investigating the bleak parts of the present for local papers and the stranger parts of history, politics and culture for his own curiosity. He’s written for NSFWCORP, Sunlight Foundation, Coilhouse and his own intermittently updated blog, The Breaking Time, among others.
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