Thursday, March 22, 2007

The acrimonious debate here (alluded to in this K-punk post ) prompted by the animated movie 300 based on Frank Miller's comic book--both of which have been accused of having a proto-fascist fantasy structure that chimes unsavorily with the current geopolitical situation--reminded me of a novel I read as a teenage science fiction nut: Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream. It's an example of my favourite s.f. subgenre, alternative history, and the premise in this case is that Adolf Hitler, the aspiring painter, didn't found the Nazi Party and establish the Third Reich, but instead emigrated to America in the 1920s., where he is drawn into the early s.f. milieu of pulp magazines like Astounding Stories etc and becomes first an illustrator and then a successful novelist. His best seller is The Lord of the Swastika, a thinly veiled allegory of the political present in this alternative history world, where, in the absence of a strong Germany, Soviet Communism gradually over-runs Europe. In Hitler's potboiler, the scenario is a post-nuclear world where racially pure warriors from the land of Heldon fight back against an monstrous Mega-State of degenerate mutants.

Spinrad's premise is inspired, but I don't remember actually enjoying the book that much, mainly because the bulk of it consists of Lord of the Swastika, a parody of an atrocious pulp fantasy novel that is only too successfully executed. Still, that basic proto-fascist fantasy structure--pure-hearted knights versus Evil Empire--underpins an awful lot of pulpy s.f., including Star Wars (which was criticized by some when it first came out for having a fascist-y tinge--the exaltation of the Force, that mercantile/scavenger desert-dwelling race that begins with J- on Luke Skywalker's planet and who are untrustworthy, abjectly money-grubbing, and so forth) and arguably Lord of the Rings too.

The fact that 300 is about Sparta versus Persia also reminded me of Jean-Jacques Burnel of the Stranglers, who wrote a Mishima inspired song "Death and Night and Blood (Yukio)" that includes the lines:

When I saw that Sparta in his eyes
Young death is good
And we decided that to die there was no greater love

and also

I was attracted to a night torchlight parade
And there I came
Home is a black leather jacket fitting sweetly to my brain

Supposedly he did flirt with the extreme right as a youth, did a magazine at school called The Gubernator, Latin for helmsman.

Talking of alternate history, I just re-read Philip K. Dick's The Man In the High Castle, my favourite novel in this mini-genre (well, equal #1 with Ward Moore's if-the-South-had-won-the-Civil-War classic Bring the Jubilee, and Keith Roberts' world-where-the-Protestant-Reformation-was-defeated Pavane not too far behind) It's been reissued in a canon-ising volume titled Four Novels of the 1960s by the Library of America, the others being Ubik, Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Do Androids Dream... Jonathan Lethem edits the volume and presumably provided the excellent footnotes to The Man in the High Castle, which explain some of the more obscure references and what really happened in our world to the historical figures that stalk across the pages of High Castle. The premise is the most over-used one in all of alternate history, "what if the Axis powers won World War 2?", but Dick's version wipes the floor with all other imaginings on this theme, such as the Sound of His Horn or that BBC series of the Eighties whose name I forget. I must have read this one Dick novel about five or six times before the age of 17 (which is when music and the music press definitively eclipsed s.f. as my obsession) and in the storage unit in London have a Gollancz hardback of it with the trademark bright yellow dust jacket that I got much later at a jumble sale. I hadn't re-read it in about 15 years. It's always enjoyable and interesting to re-read something that you loved as a youth, rediscovering aspects you'd clean forgotten about (the entire running theme of the I Ching, in this case), appreciating nuances that you missed, finding other bits less convincing. The alternate historical details are brilliant conceived, detailed and often grimly witty, but what makes this book Dick's finest achievement in conventional literary terms are its characters and dialogue (another thing it has in common with Bring the Jubilee). The cleverest thing about Man in the High Castle, though--and here it resembles Spinrad's Iron Dream--is the book within the book. In the world of High Castle--where the USA is partioned into Japan and Nazi controlled areas with the neutral, cultural-backwater-of-the-world Rocky Mountain States as the buffer zone--the best-seller that everyone is reading and talking about (even in the Reich-controlled territories, where it's banned) is a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, an alternative history about a world where the Allies won. The passages from this novel-within-the-novel are hilariously misconceived: America and Great Britain divided the world, with the Brits not only keeping hold of the pink bits of the globe after the war but extending their benign dominion across Europe and into Russia (red telephone boxes and bobbies on the Volga), and Churchill still the Prime Minister in 1962 (when High Castle and Grasshopper are both set).

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