Book Reviews, Novels

The Tiptree Awards: Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night (1937)

There’s a lot to admire with Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night. Published in 1937, she foresaw WWII, the holocaust, the endgame of nationalism, and even the entire plot of George Orwell’s 1984. I didn’t enjoy Swastika Night much, despite that — despite how much I can admire the writer of this story and the ideas it presents.

Set 700 years after ’37, our experience of WWII was instead the Twenty-Year War — a war survived only by Germany and Japan’s diseased nationalism. Hitler won. Minorities have been extirpated except where otherwise desired for slave labor. The German people are heralded as the master race for their pure Blood (with a B). But — even Hitler’s warped, stupid philosophy couldn’t survive forever, and the world of Swastika Night isn’t just a static continuation of Hitler’s racist obsessions. His philosophy was perverted further by subsequent leaders, most notably by an overbearing misogyny.

Burdekin-swastikanight-coverIn the Third Reich’s future, women are forced into slums and slavery, largely kept out of the way of men and Men’s Business. Their sexual identity is removed — they all share a similar appearance: Shaved head, rag clothing, a wristband if their owned by a man — and they’re relegated to a tool of procreation. A gross, undesired necessity to make that next generation of perfect, beautiful men. A feminist warning, Swastika Night‘s still a story of men in a society of men.

After a brilliant, uncomfortable opening at a church for Hitler (the only and only true God), the story shifts to a loyal German, Hermann, entertaining his English friend Alfred. An intellectual engineer, Alfred is on a spiritual journey to visit the many holy sites of Hitler while questioning the reality of the Germans’ elitist philosophy. On his first night in town, Hermann witnesses a young Nazi assaulting a Christian girl and responds in anger, beating the boy to death for daring betray his Blood by laying with a dirty Christian. Alfred’s dangerous beliefs come to a head when he accompanies Hermann to report the incident to the local authorities.

From here on, the story progresses almost exclusively through philosophical conversations between Alfred, Hermann, and von Hess, an elite Knight and leader of the local authorities. This is where I started having issues with the narrative: By dropping the mixture of dialogue and action in favor of nothing but philosophizing dialogue, the story becomes more about Burdekin’s message as a blunt instrument. The characters are shells to push a political message — a mixture of revolutionary and dated ideas by this point. It’s not fun anymore, and the shallowness of the characters bleeds through. (Hermann especially, whose only defining traits seem to be that he’s obnoxiously dumb and wants to be told what to believe with minimal thought. His stupidity is brought up repeatedly by the narration and every single character — including himself.)

Burdekin’s second best-known feminist SF novel is Proud Man (1934), a more direct exploration of gender and inequality

Katharine Burdekin foresaw a lot of our world as it is in 2018. Grossly nationalistic and misogynistic. Anti-intellectual. Pushing blatant falsehoods as truth. Some of her prescience is chilling, other times it’s cornily off. Yes, despite suffrage and the ’60s, despite so many pushes for sex and gender equality, 2018 is still grossly misogynistic, but the misogyny that rules the modern-day West isn’t pushing women into sexlessness and embracing homosexuality as Burdekin envisions. Swastika Night heavily focuses on implied homosexuality between its broad male cast, and a bizarre disgust for the female body (instead of the hyper exaggeration we see instead).

That Burdekin spied the absolute idolatry of an idiotic man, Hitler, in 1937 amazes me. I feel like my education included a narrative that the worst of Hitler wasn’t really understood or acknowledged by the rest of the West until we were already deeply involved in WWII. The slaughter of minorities was even an intensely-debated rumor at one point. Yet here in ’37 we clearly see the hyper-nationalistic, anti-intellectual endgame of Nazism was pretty well understood.

But, even though I respect it, I didn’t enjoy it.


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