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Review © 1999 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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This is a novel that is in many ways unique in science fiction. It's an alternate history within an alternate history. Spinrad postulates a world that is almost entirely communist-dominated, where Adolf Hitler did not in fact rise to power in Germany in the 1930's, but instead emigrated to the United States a decade before, becoming an illustrator for the SF pulps, then a popular SF novelist in his own right.

The bulk of The Iron Dream comprises the complete text of Hitler's final, posthumously published novel Lord of the Swastika. That story concerns a young, genetically pure "trueman" named Feric Jaggar who lives in an alternate Earth which has suffered thermonuclear war and whose population is mostly made up of mutants and the evil, telepathic "Doms," whose agenda is to infiltrate the idyllic haven of Heldon (the fatherland of the Truemen) and corrupt its genetically pure populace. Jaggar was born outside Heldon itself (like Hitler, a German born in Austria), and upon reaching manhood he travels to Heldon to pronounce his genetic purity and claim his legal citizenship. But no sooner has Jaggar crossed the border than he discovers the horrible subhumans have made greater headway than he realized, and in almost no time at all, Jaggar attracts a fanatical following of angry Truemen and founds the Knights of the Swastika. Massive rallies follow, and Jaggar's hereditary right of leadership is proven to the masses by the fact that he alone is able to wield the legendary Truncheon of Held (like only Arthur could wield Excalibur, you see). Thenceforth, we witness the ghastly pageantry as millions of loyal Truemen follow their fearless leader on his quest to destroy all genetically impure peoples in their path.

Spinrad has done a remarkable and very deliberate job of making Hitler's novel genuinely, almost laughably awful. The thing is written in the consistently histrionic tone of hate propaganda or fanatical religious literature. Jaggar is utterly invincible, a superhero whose enemies are depicted as so obviously and loathsomely subhuman that there is virtually no conflict to the story at all, although there is violence so excessive it's almost pornographic. It's as entertaining as it is outrageous.

But though this book nabbed a National Book Award nomination and won the Prix Apollo, the most enthusiastic thing I can think to say about it is that it's a fascinating experiment in fiction writing. I must say that for the most part, "alternate history" as a genre has rarely grabbed me. It seems far too gimmicky. What if they had Uzis in the Civil War? What if the Roman Empire had kept going and developed tanks? What if Napoleon had won at Waterloo? And then, from that lone concept, a whole novel is borne, which turns out to be more of an exercise than a real story. Now, one might argue with all that, replying that most science fiction is no different: an act of "what if" extrapolation by an author. Yes, but I think there's a significant distinction to be made. I guess it just boils down to taste in the end, but in general SF, the "what if" involves a little bit more intellectual and imaginative drive than simply pinpointing a particular historical event (usually a war), then just as simply saying "But what if the other guys won?" Though, to the credit of alt-history writers, the expertise in such fields as history, sociology and anthropology required to tell convincing alt-history stories is formidable.

Now, Spinrad is certainly doing more than that here. The alt-Earth in which his alt-Hitler wrote this as well as several other novels (with such unsubtle titles as The Master Race and The Thousand Year Rule) is finally unvieled at the end of The Iron Dream, in a critical essay by one "Homer Whipple" which ridicules the story's literary excesses while remarking upon its popularity — it went on to win Hitler a posthumous Hugo, you see. This essay is the best part of the book and a wonderful punch line that nails fandom where it lives. But behind the lampooning of a "literary totem...written in six weeks by a commercial pulp writer who never displayed serious literary talent," is the sobering truth that, in a world in turmoil, a crazed, maniacal leader like Adolf Hitler or Feric Jaggar would have an easy time of it, rising to power with the full support of people like us. In short, it can happen here. It did in the real Germany. And, as I write this at the turn of the century, there has been in the United States a dramatic rise in hate groups and hate crimes, making the message of The Iron Dream more relevant now than perhaps it was in 1972.

Still, your tolerance for The Iron Dream — more accurately, for Lord of the Swastika — will be found squarely in your willingness to read an experimental book that eschews virtually every component of good traditional storytelling: believable characterizations, a well-structured plot with conflict and dramatic tension. (Perhaps this concept might have been even more successful as a novella. Part of the problem with Spinrad's experiment is that there are 250-odd pages of it to read and you kind of get the joke early on.) Spinrad has convincingly translated the hysteria and madness of the real Hitler's oratory to his fictional Hitler's fiction. Depending on one's receptiveness and tastes in reading, it's the kind of success that could work as much against The Iron Dream as in its favor.