RogerBW's Blog

Swastika Night, Katherine Burdekin 13 July 2016

1937 feminist alternate history. Seven centuries after Nazi victory, women are uneducated cattle, and men have eliminated history, books, and creativity.

This is much more a feminist than an anti-fascist book. Nazism is the basis for its dystopian future, but what's being excoriated is nothing specific to the Nazi system; instead it's what one might call performative masculinity, the deliberately violent and brutal philosophy of life that admits of no tender feelings. Most people are unable to read (the only books in existence are the Hitler Bible and technical manuals, and it's not surprising that technology seems if anything to have regressed); women are kept separate from men, prohibited even the basic education the men get, and forced to shave their heads and wear baggy clothing, their only purpose being to produce sons. Even the despised Christian under-race lives this way.

There is some very good stuff here: in particular, the social indoctrination of the characters is so strong that they're literally unable to imagine women as being beautiful or having minds of their own, or an actual history or civilisation before the divine Hitler created everything. Although there are people trying to be "good" and change things, nobody has anything like the whole picture.

But this is more of a tract than a story. Characters are there to provide information, often in extended Socratic dialogues, and have Sudden Awakenings; their personalities are irrelevant and mostly nonexistent. There's very little action, not even a picaresque tour of the world in the style of The Sleeper Awakes, and the ideas often feel as though they would be better in an extended essay than being clothed in the ill-fitting form of a novel.

The book very clearly prefigures Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, containing many of the ideas about the control of history that were key to that later book, as well having as significant plot elements in common. (It comes to rather different conclusions, advocating non-violent education rather than hopelessness.) But what it doesn't have, which Orwell's book does, is a compelling story to carry the reader over the lectures.

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  1. Posted by John Dallman at 10:24am on 13 July 2016

    I read this a few years ago, and found it had enough story to keep me going, and a nicely understated style. The structure is a bit like Huxley's Brave New World, which certainly seems to have been an influence.

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