Thursday, 19 August 2010

When Satire Goes Too Far

What happens when satire is misunderstood?

The point of satire is that it should be accessible on two levels simultaneously. The surface text tells one story, the subtext tells another; or to put it more accurately, the subtext tells the exact opposite story of the surface text. We might even say that the subtext reverses the polarity of the visible story, coinciding with it word for word, image for image, but in the wrong direction. In this case, the wrong way is the right way.

Writers of satire are surely always aware that their satire may be misunderstood, that the surface text might be the only one that is noticed, that they might be held responsible for holding views they despise. The history of Literature is full of examples of a general misunderstanding of rather obvious satire.

If blatant satire can be so easily misunderstood, what about the more subtle kinds of satire? Surely an author is deluding himself or herself as to their own intentions and motivations when subtlety becomes the key rule of a satirical text? These authors must be comfortable deep down with the realisation that their satire will be misunderstood. One almost wants to claim that they hope it will be misunderstood.

But why would any satirist deliberately manage affairs to encourage a misreading of their own works?

It’s clear that the psychology of such satirists is more complex than a simple desire to criticise something by mocking it. Some satires are so ambiguous that one is forced to conclude that the author has a foot in both camps, that they are pushing both messages equally, that they stand both for and against the object or force that is the subject of the satire, that in effect they are also satirising themselves and their own satire.

One of the finest satires in modern fiction must surely be The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad. First published in 1972, this novel has drawn praise from Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, James Sallis and many other influential writers and critics. In many ways it is the supreme achievement of the ‘New Wave’ movement that reinvigorated science fiction in Britain and America in the 1960s and 70s.

The central conceit behind The Iron Dream is that the grandiose dreams of most SF writers bear too many disturbing parallels with the grandiose dreams of the Nazis. In other words, the galactic empires, glorification of force and xenophobic elements found in so much science fiction betray a purely Fascistic mentality on behalf of their creators.

In Spinrad’s amazing novel, we are presented with an alternate history in which Adolf Hitler left Germany in 1919 and emigrated to New York, where he became a science fiction writer instead of a politician but with his essential psychology unchanged, a fact that made his integration into the world of pulp SF very smooth indeed. In this parallel dimension, Hitler’s greatest work is a novel entitled Lord of the Swastika, and here at last, in Spinrad’s own book, we are presented with the definitive version. But this is no novel within a novel; Hitler’s novel and Spinrad’s are identical.

The events that propel the main character, Feric Jaggar, to ultimate control over the world, and eventually the universe, parallel the rise of the real Hitler. There are analogues of the SS, the Brownshirts, the Soviets and the Weimar politicians. Instead of democrats, communists and pacifists, the enemies are mutants, mongrels and Universalists. Instead of the clichéd Jew pulling strings in the background, there is the non-human Dominator, a being capable of sapping the will of true men.

Feric Jaggar and his followers wear black leather and are constantly thrusting out their arms in phallic salutes and kissing the tips of shiny truncheons. There are no female characters in The Iron Dream. Everything is masculine and direct.

So this book is a straightforward satire against Nazi tendencies in the SF world? No. Spinrad does something more clever and devious here. He makes it impossible not to root for the wrong guys. The reader is coerced into cheering for Jaggar and his purebred warriors; the reader becomes an authentic Nazi for the duration of the novel, thrilling to the cracking of mongrel heads under the truncheons of the Sons of the Swastika, feeling delight and relief at the incineration of foul Doms by cleansing fire, wishing to participate in the utter destruction of the racially contaminated cities where parrotface mutants openly interbreed with harlequins, lizardmen and blueskins. The reader has no ambiguous feelings at all as Jaggar surges to victory. The reader is one of the bad guys too.

This is a very interesting effect. It is easy to proclaim one’s own superiority in terms of holding correct opinions. I am against prejudice of all kinds, totally opposed to racism, homophobia, sexism. And yet under the surface, perhaps not so deep, I am driven by egotism, intolerance and the lust for power. Just as you are. It’s called the Human Condition and it’s purely a tactical device to pretend that one’s stated beliefs are always representative of the way one feels. Morality isn’t really about not having evil urges, but about having evil urges and declining to act on them. While reading The Iron Dream I felt that Feric Jaggar was in the right. After finishing the book I am free to reject his values, even though I enjoyed them throughout the novel. This novel questioned me, and emotionally I gave all the wrong answers, but that doesn’t mean that my reason has to follow suit.

In one of my own novels, Mister Gum, I attempted to do something along similar lines. I wanted to satirise the teaching of Creative Writing in the same way that Spinrad satirised the SF world. So I created a monstrous egotist whose appalling adventures are designed to be unconditionally enjoyed by the reader while reading them; only when the book is over is the reader free to reverse the polarity of their own opinions on the matters treated by my book, namely power, control, exploitation, solipsism and the sublimation of cowardice. I also attempted to satirise satire itself. One of the first reviews of Mister Gum declared that it was guilty of “feeding the worst tropes of modern culture rather than opposing them.” In fact it does neither on its own, but the reader of my book should do both.

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