I, Mengele: by Philip Challinor

Following on from the author's Foundations of the Twenty-First Century, Philip Challinor's I, Mengele is a rare look into the academic and culture wars of an alternative history. F21C created a world in which Britain had fallen to the Nazi's during World War 2 - it succeeded by sidestepping the gaming mechanics of most alternative histories, instead concentrating on a curiously deft fit of Nazi politics and philosophy into daily English life. The book avoided epiphanies, deliberately so, except perhaps the resolution of duty into horror by means of a narrative that I would describe as speak into memory; by that I mean again that history is written by the winner. 

I, Mengele is drawn from the same alternative history. It is a critical study of an epic film, conceived in Germany, financed in Hollywood, made in Britain. In our history Mengele is famous, or rather infamous. In that history Mengele is neither; victory has rendered him an almost anonymous functionary as the Holocaust has been overlooked by historians of the Reich for obvious reasons. All this is about to change as the cultural custodians of F21C take ownership of some of the less daring yet equally important actions of the war years. But how can mass-murder be reimagined as heroic service to the Reich?

Mengele's life and exploits are presented as epic fantasy, filmed in the manner of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Herein lies the power of the author's imagination: Mengele's victims are become CGI monsters. They are recreated as writhing hordes and dark inhuman masses. Jews, Russians, Gypsies... all are thrown into the CGI melting pot to emerge as the villains of epic fantasy as we know them - the faceless armies of Mordor, or the boundless hordes of Mallorea. As someone who has always found much fantasy to be faintly distasteful, this came as something of a revelation for me as it pinpointed my distress. Perhaps the most striking comparison to be made is with Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream. It hadn't occurred to me until I read I, Mengele that Spinrad's novel can be read similarly - as an attack on the dehumanising East/West divide in fantasy fiction.

The book also provides fascinating background detail, including Churchill's cribbing of Hiro Hito in his surrender speech; and the timetable for the invasion of Russia being moved forward by three crucial weeks to June 1st, just time enough to get the Wermacht to Moscow before Christmas, 1941. It is interesting to compare such details with David Downing's The Moscow Option, another front rank World War 2 alternate.

Ultimately I, Mengele demonstrates that a commentariat can make almost anything acceptable if its cultural context is engineered to reflect the prevailing political consensus.

You can buy a copy of I Mengele here, and its companion volume The Foundations of the 21st Century here.


  1. I re-read Spinrad's book soon after finishing I, Mengele, just to make sure I hadn't ripped it off too egregiously. One might also read The Iron Dream as a sardonic contribution to the debate over whether our worst instincts are indulged or sublimated by books like Lord of the Swastika and The Lord of the Rings - science fiction may turn a Hitler into a harmless entertainer, but conversely it's easy to read Tolkien's epic as a masterpiece of racism and blood-and-soil mediaevalism. One of the fascinating things about writing I, Mengele was how easily the Hollywood-hero template can be applied to him; one need hardly do more than change the rhetoric of freedom to that of racial purity, and let the patriotism and family values take care of themselves.

    Thanks for another generous review.

  2. I agree absolutely, but you've expressed it much better than I could. Apologies for the delay replaying; there was something bugging me all week, I just recalled it today; a BBC series from 1978 called An Englishman's Castle, which had Kenneth More, of all people, as the TV producer of a popular daytime soap in a Nazi occupied Britain. It's well worth seeing if you haven't. Though it's not commercially available, there were some VHS rips doing the rounds on torrent sites a while back.

  3. I've never heard of it, but it certainly sounds interesting. The Wikipedia entry indicates a rather conventional storyline - well-meaning conformist jolted from complacency thanks to an unexpected twist in an intimate - but the appeal of these things usually lies in the details rather than the plot, and the idea of setting the fictitious soap during the Blitz is inspired. Thanks to the miracle of wiki-linkage, I see that the writer, Philip Mackie, shared with Nigel Kneale the distinction of being one of the first writers to be given a proper job by the BBC, and that he also wrote a series about Napoleon starring Ian Holm, which presumably inspired the latter's casting in Time Bandits.

    1. I did manage to find my copy of AEC so if you have trouble turning up a copy let me know and I can pass it along.

      Got my paperback of The Wolf That Will Swallow The Sun in the post recently. :]

    2. Thanks; I might well take you up on that. I hope The Wolf... goes down well.

    3. Apologies for delay, had family visiting all week. I burned these to disc so I can just copy it and send. They're avi files. My email address probably shows up on my comments at your blog so if you want to send an address for posting, I can do that. Otherwise I could maybe upload them somewhere, youtube or VeeHD. I keep wondering why I'm still so incredibly awkward at interweb parlance, despite using it for years.

      I'm hoping to read The Wolf this week, now that I have a bit of time to myself. You were right about the Farris book, All Heads Turn... it is something special, and brilliantly written.

    4. Your comments link to your Blogger profile, which doesn't seem to include an email address, but I can send you a direct message via Twitter.

      I keep wondering why I'm still so incredibly awkward at interweb parlance, despite using it for years

      I know what you mean. I myself still think of a text as being something on paper, often involving vowels.

      I believe Farris said All Heads Turn was extremely difficult to write, which I can well believe. His other work seems to be fairly conventional stuff, ranging from the competent to the ludicrous; All Heads Turn appears to have been an outstanding one-off. I hope The Wolf... isn't too much of a letdown.

    5. Hm, there's an email address for you when you post here, so I thought the same was perhaps true of mine when I was posted over at your blog. Twitter is fine, no problem.

      My only other experience of Farris is The Fury; the film, of course, not the book. I enjoyed that, despite De Palma. I found the characterisations in All Heads Turn worked it for me - they seemed to establish themselves almost without effort, which is the hardest trick of all. I happily read the English interlude at its centre as a separate novella. But, yes, I think I'll be back to it in the future, partly because I didn't quite get Nhora.

      I'm very much looking forward to The Wolf, as ever when I receive one of your books in the post. I have two others set aside to read - I was kind of thinking they're my Christmas week reading. :] Looking again at my review of I Mengele, I regret passing over so much - it's absolutely full of invention and I probably erred on the side of caution in not wanting to spoil it. The first thing anyone ever finds out about me is usually one of my many mistakes, sigh.

    6. I found the film The Fury superior to the book, but then I rather like De Palma. I think it follows the book fairly closely, except that Farris ends on redemption instead of revenge. The only other things I've read by him are The Uninvited, another psychic-teenager novel with some good twists, and Child of the Endless Night, an overlong and idiotic novel about a murder committed during demonic possession and the subsequent court case. All Heads Turn is the only one I've read more than once, and I think I was fairly confused as well as impressed the first time; there's just so much going on there.

    7. Hm, just discovered I have a copy of Fiends. Hopefully I'll get a chance to read it, in the future when all's well... ;]

  4. Had missed Mackie's name on it. He penned The Organisation which is, to my mind, a TV classic. I did watch An Englishman's Castle a few years ago, but almost nothing of it remains in my memory apart from the impression that it was a superior piece of television. My other favourite from that period is 1990.

    I'm almost sure I have all of these series on discs somewhere, but my usual disorganisation precludes me from swearing on it.