THE LANDSCAPE OF JEWISH SCIENCE FICTION

Published in Attitudes, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 2002

Once upon a time, in a galaxy quite close by, there lived a peaceful, childlike people on a beautiful, idyllic planet ruled benevolently by an omnipotent, omniscient entity. All the entity asked is that it be worshiped and admired. In return, the inhabitants would know no sickness or hunger or suffering. They would live forever in a state of childlike innocence and have no need to reproduce. Nor would they ever need to produce anything for themselves.

One day, an outsider visited the planet and told the inhabitants that they would stagnate and never develop to their full potential unless they gained knowledge and overthrew their reliance on the all-powerful entity. The inhabitants learned to kill and be killed. The entity lost its power to control them. The inhabitants lost their paradise.

The story of Adam and Eve from Bereshit? No, the plot of one of the original episodes of Star Trek. (For those of you for whom such information is crucial, the episode is “The Apple,” written by Max Ehrlich & Gene L. Coon, originally broadcast on October 13, 1967. Oh, and the Stardate is 3715.3.)

It’s not strange to find Jewish themes such as the Garden of Eden reproduced in contemporary science fiction. After all, one of the most pervasive themes of science fiction – that of human beings creating life and then losing control of its creation – originated in the Jewish legend of the Golem. Even J.R.R. Tolkien paid homage to this creature of clay with the character of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, and most literary scholars point to the Golem as the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein monster. Androids and robots, too, owe much of their existence to the Golem.

So, are Star Trek and Frankenstein and Data examples of Jewish science fiction? First, we need to set up some definitions. To begin with, what is science fiction? It’s not a frivolous question, because much of what is called “science fiction” is, to my mind, fantasy. One of the best descriptions I’ve read of what defines science fiction is in Planet of the Jews (Creative Books Art Company, 1999), by Philip Graubart, who is a rabbi. One of his characters, the publisher of pulp science fiction magazines, complains about a new installment in the series “Planet of the Jews”: “It’s not about anything having to do with sci-fi. There’s no fancy gadgets, no battles. . . no social predictions. . . no science.”

Fantasy, on the other hand, is closer to legend, fairy tale, myth, and therefore more conducive to Jewish themes. It often takes place in an unearthly, but not alien (as in outer space), environment. Picture a dream scape that is part Renaissance Faire, part Camelot, part Middle Earth, populated by fairies and elves and wizards. Whatever happens defies rational explanation and can only be the result of magic. Ironically, Planet of the Jews, which begins as science fiction, by the end has become fantasy.

I do not plan to deal here with fantasy; first, it is not a personal interest of mine; second, fantasy, as mentioned above, begins to get into the realm of folk tales, mythology, superstitions, and mysticism, even when the setting is contemporary. It is easy to see how the lines between folklore and fantasy are blurred when we consider the stories of Isaac B. Singer, whom no one will deny is a Jewish writer. But whether he is a writer of fantasy or a reteller of Jewish folk tales is open to debate.

If science fiction has to, at the very least, include scientific rather than magical or supernatural explanations for events, then what defines Jewish science fiction? When discussing Jewish science fiction, as with all Jewish literature, there is one major question to be answered (and for which there is usually no one answer): Is a story “Jewish” because of its theme or because its author is Jewish by birth? For example, are the works of a Philip Roth, the quintessential example of the “self-hating Jew,” any more “Jewish” than the works of a James Joyce, the quintessential Irish Catholic, who created Molly Bloom?

In the area of science fiction, how do we deal with an Isaac Asimov, who admits in his introduction to Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Jack Dann (originally published in 1974 by Harper and Row; reissued by Jewish Lights in 1998) that he is a Jew by accident of birth only? He further explains that he suspects he was asked to write the introduction, titled “Why Me?”, because he hadn’t changed his name to something that would have been more palatable to 1930s science fiction readers.

Asimov’s stories are not in the least “Jewish,” at least on the surface; yet he is often identified as a Jewish writer. In fact, he comments elsewhere, his contribution to Wandering Stars, “Unto the Fourth Generation,” was the only Jewish story he’d ever thought to write. To complicate matters even further, “Unto the Fourth Generation” is one of his very few fantasy stories.

There are three anthologies of Jewish science fiction of which I am aware: the aforementioned Wandering Stars, a second volume called More Wandering Stars (also reissued by Jewish Lights), and Jewish Sci-Fi Stories for Kids, published by Pitspopany Press in 1999. It’s quite possible that there are others – a search on Google.com came up with 123,000 listings under the topic of “Jewish science fiction.” Many of the entries (and I have to admit that I sampled only a fraction of the 123,000 sites) are lists of books and short stories which the compilers consider to be Jewish science fiction and/or fantasy; the ones I checked seemed to list all the same stories.

There is a reason why the two volumes of Wandering Stars are subtitled “An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction.” The books include quite a bit of fantasy, far more it seems than pure science fiction. And the first volume includes at least one story which I feel should not have been included at all, as its theme is not Jewish. In order to make “City of Dreams, Feet of Clay,” by Robert Sheckley, into a Jewish story, it is necessary to subscribe to the demeaning stereotypes of the interfering, bossy Jewish mother. The story by itself may be amusing; including it in an anthology of Jewish science fiction is an insult.

The third anthology, Jewish Sci-Fi Stories for Kids, really is misnamed, as almost none of the stories conform to the definition of science fiction. They are almost exclusively fantasy.

What is particularly interesting to me are not the short stories on Jewish themes, however, but the weaving of Jewish subplots into science fiction novels. There are several examples: Gregory Benford and David Brin in Heart of the Comet describe a group of people who are exploring Halley’s Comet. One of their scientists is an expatriate Israeli, exiled because in their near-future world the State of Israel has been taken over by a coalition of fundamentalists, including Jewish ones, who have returned to a strict Biblical interpretation. In addition to rebuilding the Temple and reestablishing animal sacrifice, they have destroyed the Kibbutzim and outlawed all forms of Judaism that does not agree with theirs.

Mike Resnick, whom I have met at the two World Science Fiction Conventions I’ve attended and have chatted with via modem, would deny writing any books with Jewish themes (with the exception of The Branch, discussed below). In fact, most of his more recent efforts center on Africa and traditional Kenyan society. Yet, there is a thread running through most of his works which could be called “Jewish”: most of his protagonists, including an alien whose society Resnick modeled on the matriarchy of elephant herds, have what could be called a “Messianic mission.” Perhaps, “prophetical” would be a better description. Like the prophets of old, Resnick’s protagonists are reluctant to assume their roles, yet they are also compelled to find some meaning to life, to “save” humanity (or life forms).

The only one of Resnick’s books with a Jewish theme, The Branch, actually describes what would happen in the future if the Hebrew Biblical Messiah (not the Christian Messiah of love and peace) were to come back to earth. Resnick’s Messiah is greedy, egotistical, power hungry, vindictive – he seems to have been modeled after some of the televangelists. He is opposed by most of those in power -Wall Street,the Israeli government, the Catholic Church, organized crime – but has a popular following of millions.

There is another series of books, written by Harry Turtledove, which present an alternative history, one in which the earth is invaded by lizard-like extraterrestrials at the beginning of World War II, leading to strange earth alliances of, for example, Nazis and Jews. (I have to admit that I haven’t read the books, because alternate history isn’t an interest of mine. I enjoy “what-ifs” as projected into the future, the extension of societal trends to their logical – or absurd – ends. My husband has read the series, though, and, except for the presence of aliens, believes them to be closer to fantasy than science fiction.)

It is sometimes difficult to know when a writer is projecting his own points of view and when he is creating a character that would be antithetical to his own values. (I am saying “he” because most women – although by no means all -write fantasy rather than science fiction.) Joel Rosenberg, for example, another internet acquaintance whom I’ve also met at Worldcons, has created extremely misogynistic characters, yet his mother-in-law is a former state president of NOW and he and his wife were married by a woman rabbi.

One of Rosenberg’s science fiction books (he writes mostly sword-and-sorcery fantasy), Not for Glory, is a far-future tale of the Metzadah Mercenary Corps, a group which has appeared in several of his other science fiction novels). The Metzadah Mercenary Corps is the primary occupation of the remnant of Israelis who have been relocated to a distant planet. Rosenberg takes the opposite tack of those who portray Jews as submissive, helpless, and defenseless. Instead, he portrays them as warriors who will fight for anyone for a price. And yet, his Jews are still strangely submissive, helpless, and defenseless, since they are at the mercy of the ruling galactic government, their planet has no natural resources, and the only thing they can do to support themselves is fight on the behalf of others.

An interesting side-light is that Rosenberg’s society is also Biblically fundamentalist, and yet he has gotten many of his facts confused, ignoring two thousand years of Talmudic precedence. For example, he quotes the entire Biblical passage about halitzah (the ruling that a brother must marry his childless brother’s widow), implying that it is the law of the land, yet the woman in question has children from her dead husband. It is unclear to me why he cited the Biblical law. I also found very distasteful his depiction of the actions of the non-observant: when they are off-world, they indulge in an orgy of tref gluttony.

One of the few women science fiction writers whom I would classify as Jewish, whether by birth or by theme, is Marge Piercy. Better known as a poet and a “mainstream” novelist, Piercy has written two science fiction novels. One, Woman on the Edge of Time, is mostly a vision of the ideal feminist utopia, but does have strongly-identified Jewish characters. The other, He, She, It, does qualify as Jewish science fiction. It explores a Jewish woman’s relationship to a cyborg and uses the story of the Golem as a thread weaving together the past and future.

There is another category of books which seem Jewish from their titles, or their authors’ names, or their publicity blurbs. One such book is Isidore Haiblum’s The Tsaddik of the Seven Wonders, hyped on the cover as “The First Yiddish Science Fantasy Novel.” The book was written in 1971 in English. A smattering of Yiddish words does not make a book Yiddish, nor does it make a book Jewish. It is an amusing book, dealing with time travel in a way that combines fantasy and science fiction; but it is not particularly Jewish in theme

Also not Jewish in theme is a book which, by its title, is assumed by the unsuspecting to be Jewish: A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr., is a wonderful novel, a classic in fact, describing how the world puts itself together again following a nuclear war. If anything, it is Catholic in theme, as the Church is the one constant throughout. That the Church in question is founded upon a fragment of a shopping list written by a scientist named Leibowitz is purely coincidental.

Although there are numerous other examples of science fiction which have Jewish themes and of Jewish authors who have written science fiction, I have found most of it to be curiously unsatisfactory. Some of it plays for laughs, relying on offensive stereotypes (such as the lead story in Wandering Stars, “On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi”); some of it is inaccurate in its portrayals of what Judaism may become in the future, based upon faulty or incomplete knowledge of Judaism; some of it is so heavily fantasy that it is a separate subgenre of literature from science fiction. On the other hand, what exists, deficient as it may be, can be a useful educational tool. It is much more palatable to students to learn something through an interesting story, especially one that doesn’t seem to be “educational” and may even have the cachet of being slightly disreputable, than from any classroom lesson or discussion. And finally, despite what critics claim, science fiction is not escapism. Good science fiction projects into the future the logical consequences of our contemporary actions. Far from being unrealistic, science fiction can help us confront what is wrong with our society and can be a means of helping us to understand it.

2 Comments

  1. Jewish fiction - Religious Education Forum said,

    […] Fiction Why There Is No Jewish Narnia Jewish Fantasy, The Conversation On the fundaments of fantasy THE LANDSCAPE OF JEWISH SCIENCE FICTION Is there Really No Jewish Fantasy Literature? The Ongoing Debate Over Jewish Fantasy Literature […]

  2. Leybl Botwinik said,

    I’m not sure you’ll see this, but I’ll try contacting you by other means.
    I write SF in Yiddish. One novel (Di Geheime Shlihes – 1980) and many short stories (1 trilogy translated into English – see my website “Leyblsvelt”).
    There is also a literary stream of Utopian novels and stories in Yiddish written in the early part of the 20th century. It’s true, though, that Yiddish lacks real SF as you defined it.
    I have a few un/published Yiddish SF stories, and a 12 year-old girl just published a Yiddish SF children’s adventure novel of a trip to the Moon (I haven’t seen it yet) + there are new/recent translations of the Little Prince, Hobbit, and the Fellowship of the Ring.

    BTW, Farmer (I heard he was Jewish) has Israeli soldiers as prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp in one of his Riverworld books.

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