22 August 2007

Books Update: Iron and Clay

Due to various external sources of hassle, it's been over two months since I last updated you on my reading habits.

It feels longer, for some reason -- so long I can barely remember what I thought of some of the following at the time of reading. Nonetheless, I did resolve to write at least two sentences about everything I read this year, even (well, implicitly) if those were trade-paperback comic compilations read in a blatant attempt to bring my reading rate back up to a book a week for 2007.

Roughly in reading order, then...

Collapse was fascinating, an involuted and in-depth attempt at anatomising the process of major societal collapse, as seen in numerous historical and present-day cultures. Like Jared Diamond's earlier Guns, Germs and Steel, it's theoretically a work of history, but one with polemically strong scientific interests and a scope so broad as to be more typical of... well, science fiction.

The most interesting part of the book for me -- and happily also the longest -- was the examination of the fates of the various Norse colonies in the North Atlantic, and in particular that of the Greenlandic Norse, whose demise is in stark contrast to the contemporary (and continued) thriving of the Inuit in the same location.

While learning about other cultures and their history is always fascinating, Diamond's style is abstract and and his descriptions of, say, Polynesian or Maya or Anasazi culture can end up a little alienating. The close connection between Norse history and my own (like most English people I almost certainly have Vikings among my ancestors, the Old English I studied at university was very close to Old Norse, and I've actually visited Iceland) made these chapters feel a lot more vivid.

Diamond assumes throughout that all his readers will be more interested in North America and its neighbours than anywhere else. This and his tendency to focus on the minutiae of agriculture, lead him to start he book with an extensive, rampantly dull exploration of current farming practices in rural Montana, to ease the reader in gently with something reassuringly familiar before heading off and examining scarily exotic cultures like Northern Europe.

Nonetheless, Diamond's central thesis -- which I've summarised briefly here -- is compelling and disturbing, and needs to be heard. I'd recommend the book to anyone who really cares about the future of human civilisation. Although you might want to skip some of the lengthier descriptions of soil degradation that get you there, and just take Diamond's word for it that this is the sort of thing that happens.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is the second book I've read by the excellent Michael Chabon, the first being the very fine The Final Solution. His prose has a roomy, open feel to it, his characters have depth and unexpected corners, and their experiences can be deeply affecting. Like The Final Solution, Kavalier and Clay concerns Jewish refugees during the Second World War, but these ones, instead of going to the Home Counties and meeting the octogenarian Sherlock Holmes, end up writing comic books in New York.

There's a great deal about the early history of superhero characters, and about the general theory of comic-writing, which shows that Chabon really knows his stuff. Other metaphors pressed into service include the art of stage magic and the staged escape (Joe Kavalier, who draws the adventures of the superhero, "The Escapist", whom his escapological escapades have inspired, is an escape artist in every sense)... and the Golem of Prague, whose artificial existence is somehow tied up with that of Joe and his oddly-named New York cousin Sammy Clayman.

It's a deceptively complex novel, and one I need to reread to get the nuances. Fortunately it's also an unmitigated joy to read, and I'm keen to follow it up with The Yiddish Policemen's Union when I get hold of a copy.

(My father-in-law liked it, too.)

I've already mentioned the release of the latest, and assumed final, Time Hunter novella, Child of Time by George Mann and David J Howe. I've now read it, and it's a pleasant if inconsequential conclusion to Honoré and Emily's adventures. It is in many ways a homage to the series' inspiration, Daniel O'Mahony's exceptionally fine Doctor Who novella The Cabinet of Light, and on a purely narrative level it nearly succeeds. Unfortunately, it's a far cry from being as well-written as several of the other Time Hunter books, a fact which becomes especially clear when it reprints Cabinet's prologue as an epilogue.

Given the efforts Time Hunter has made to carve a niche out separately from its parent series, it's a little sad that the best thing about Child of Time is a guest appearance by the Doctor himself. Disguised though he is under the cunning and copyright-defying pseudonym "Dr Smith", Mann and Howe do well in recreating O'Mahony's version of the character as seen in Cabinet (and indeed the book's conclusion makes his identity very clear indeed). It's good that the series has come to a definite conclusion rather than petering out, but a shame it couldn't have gone out on a more triumphant high. Ah well.

Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream is a novel that requires some explanation, and a certain amount of apology. It's the epitome of high concept,being the novel Adolf Hitler would have written if he'd given up on radical politics, emigrated to the U.S.A. in 1919 and become a hack author turning out pulp S.F. by the yard.

To be strictly accurate, though, that novel -- Lord of the Swastika -- comprises about 95% of The Iron Dream, the rest being a minimalist framing narrative consisting of a blurb, an author biog and a deliberately fatuous critical essay dissecting "Hitler"'s work. It's the latter which delivers the allohistorical punchline: in the absence of German expansionism, the Greater Soviet Union has risen to unquestioned dominance over Eurasia, and Hitler's novel -- not to mention the colourful eye-catching swastika iconography which he created for it -- has become an inspiration for a generation of Americans desperate to resist the Red menace.

"Hitler"'s narrative is a full-on psychotic foaming-at-the-mouth power-fantasy, where blond, muscular Trueman Feric Jaggar returns from the mongrelised mutant state of Borgravia to his ancestral fatherland of Heldon, siezes power through petty political thuggery (nobly described, of course), and then proceeds to cleanse his post-apocalyptic Earth of every nuclear-spawned mutant (especially the loathsome, insidious psychic parasites known as Dominators) to deviate from the true (and, it implicitly appears, exclusively Aryan) human genome.

Spinrad's aim is to highlight the inherent fascism -- the racism, the sexism, the militaristic fetishism, the sublimated homoeroticism -- of a good deal of ancestral pulp S.F. I certainly found myself overwhelmingly reminded at times of E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman heptalogy, whose hero, eugenically bred by the noble godlike Arisians to rid the universe of the loathsome demonic Eddorians, rises to dominance over... well, you can probably fill in the rest.

I admit I found Spinrad's point a little... well, obvious... but that may be down to my having been born at around the time he was writing the thing, and having lived through a generation's worth of deconstruction surrounding these early texts and archetypes.

My real problem with The Iron Dream is that Lord of the Swastika is, of necessity, a very bad book indeed. There's a certain amount of fun to be had with stylistic pastiche, with phallic symbolism and Hitler's leather obsession, but this -- I promise -- palls very, very quickly. The reader gets the joke -- that this is alt-Hitler's fantasy of how his long-abandoned plans for political domination might have played out -- within the first few pages, and is left facing chapter after chapter dealing with a protagonist with no sense of irony or self-doubt, written by a "writer" equally devoid of both qualities, in which violent boorishness and unthinking kneejerk bigotry are elevated to the status of moral absolutes.

Someone with a monomania about racial and genetic purity may be capable of causing far more harm to the world than someone obsessed with train timetables, but they're not noticeably more interesting to read about.

Since Spinrad's "Hitler" controls the narrative, there aren't even any of the setbacks or "unexpected" twists which make a genuinely unironic adventure story palatable. A genuine pulp S.F. novel with this premise would at least have built up to a revelation that -- shock! -- Feric Jaggar, who controls an entire nation of Truemen with the force of his will is in reality (and unbeknownst to himself) not a Trueman at all, but a vile Dominator! ...Or that -- horror! -- despite their beliefs the Helder are not in fact unmutated humans, but are themselves mutants of some eventually-revealed kind, the true True Human Genome having vanished generations earlier.

Any decent pulp S.F. author would have seen the need for these or something similar, but "Hitler"'s utter confidence in Jaggar's divinely-ordained rightness rules out any such possibility. And so we slog through 235 pages of dreary, soul-pounding thuggery and self-aggrandisement to reach the (admittedly clever) punchline. Spinrad's novel could have worked so much better as a short story -- a lengthier critical essay, say, giving more historical and biographical background for the alternative Hitler and his world, and quoting frequent extracts from Lord of the Swastika to back up its points.

The actual existence of those 235 pages achieves nothing whatsoever that couldn't have been achieved by simply telling us about them. By writing them out in full, Spinrad has wasted hours of my time and I dread to think how much of his own.

The central conceit of The Iron Dream is, ultimately, quite a neat one, but it's nowhere near enough to power a novel. The book's also somewhat embarrassing to read on the train, emblazoned as it is with a swastika and the legend "A SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL BY ADOLF HITLER!"

(...I should write about comics now, but this is long enough already, and I have a festival to flap about. I'll have to come back to those in a week or so's time.)

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