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The Classics: 'The Iron Dream'

The Classics: 'The Iron Dream'


You know who else confused truth with mythmaking?

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Iron Dream Classics
Iron Dream Classics

The Classics are must-see, must-read, must-play works revered by The Verge staff. They offer glimpses of the future, glimpses of humanity, and a glimpse of our very souls. You should check them out.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: 90 percent of Norman Spinrad’s satirical The Iron Dream is a science fiction novel written by an alternate universe Hitler. It was published in the 1970s with blurbs from luminaries like Harlan Ellison and Michael Moorcock, who said it was "bound to earn Hitler the credit he so richly deserves." Its plot is a thinly-veiled allegory for the Nazi rise to power, spun in favor of the Third Reich and then punctured by a fictitious NYU professor, who ends the meta-book with an essay on Hitler’s move from pulp illustrator to workmanlike author. It’s as subtle as a sledgehammer. You should still probably go read it right now.

It’s not hard to write a compelling yarn that turns loathsome politics into palatable adventure

The basic conceit of The Iron Dream is that it’s not hard to write a compelling yarn that turns loathsome politics into palatable adventure. Its success is that it does so flawlessly. Lord of the Swastika, the book-within-the-book, is a rollicking post-apocalyptic war story about "true humans" fighting mutants, its paranoid racism still probably tamer than anything H.P. Lovecraft wrote. The whole thing recalls the engineering-heavy style of writers like Robert Heinlein, except that it offers lovingly detailed explanations of designing uniforms rather than building spaceships.

These sections, indeed, are probably the best argument for reading the book. Sure, there’s action, but it’s much more about the process of engineering that action, and how a few pieces of well-placed artifice can turn mundane political maneuvering into an epic struggle. After a while, reading about a man riding a motorcycle through fire becomes less interesting than hearing someone deconstruct its symbolism.

When you expect utopian or dystopian books to illuminate the present, you lose the ambiguities of the real world

Beyond its cleverness, Spinrad’s novel — intentionally or not — gets at something about how even the best allegorical science fiction is discussed. It’s not just that, as The Iron Dream highlights, the triumphalist good-and-evil narrative of heroic fiction lends itself to authoritarianism. It’s that when you expect utopian or dystopian books to illuminate the present, you have to accept that you’re also losing or changing the ambiguities that make the real world what it is.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Science fiction is all about taking something real and running with it, whether that’s a scientific development or a social structure. Back in the present, though, these worlds get referenced without comment as if they’re not just like something real but its inevitable consequence. But not every drug is soma, not every security camera is from 1984, and not every antitrust lawsuit means that someone will have to go Galt. Stories are powerful, but part of accepting that power is realizing that an entertaining or even insightful hypothetical doesn’t equal a well-constructed political argument.

Because you know who else thought that? Alternate universe novelist Hitler.