JEWISH SCIENCE FICTION – by Ilene Schneider
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, that he is a Jew by accident of birth only (and was asked to write the introduction to the book because he didn't change his name to something that would have been more palatable to 1930s science fiction readers)? His stories are not in the least "Jewish," at least on the surface; yet he is identified often as a Jewish writer. In fact, his contribution to _Wandering Stars_, "Unto the Fourth Generation," he comments elsewhere, was the only Jewish story he'd ever thought to write. And it is interesting that "Unto the Fourth Generation" is one of his very few fantasy stories: (p. 4 ff). There are two anthologies of Jewish science fiction of which I am aware: the aforementioned _Wandering Stars_ and a second volume by the same name. _Wandering Stars_ includes quite a bit of fantasy, as well as 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" into a Jewish story, it is necessary to subscribe to the demeaning stereotypes of the interferring, bossy Jewish mother. The story by itself may be amusing; including it in an anthology of Jewish science fiction is an insult, as is Jack Dann's introduction to it: (p. 185). There are also a category of books, such as 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. Nor is a book which, by its title, is assumed by the unsuspecting to be Jewish: _A Canticle for Leibowitz_ 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 is question is founded upon a fragment of a shopping list written by a scientist named Leibowitz is purely coincidental. I do not plan to deal here with fantasy; first, it is not a personal interest of mine; second, fantasy begins to get into the realm of folk tales, mythology, superstitions, and mysticism. It is easy to see how these lines are blurred when we consider the stories of Isaac B. Singer, whom no one will deny is a Jewish writer. Whether he is a writer of fantasy or a reteller of Jewish folk tales is open to debate. What is particularly interesting to me are not the short stories on Jewish themes, but the weaving of Jewish subplots into science fiction novels. There are several recent 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 exiled Israeli, exiled because in their near-future world the State of Israel has been taken over by a coalition of fundamentalists, including Jewish fundamentalists who have returned to a strict Biblical interpretation. In addition to rebuilding the Temple and reinstituting animal sacrifice, they have destroyed the Kibbutzim and outlawed all forms of Judaism that does not agree with theirs (p. 252). Mike Resnick, whom I have never met in person but have chatted with electronically via modem, would deny writing any books with Jewish themes (with the exception of _The Branch_). In fact, his latest 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 Mike 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, Mike'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 Mike'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. Mike'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. (p. 138 ff.) (I have threatened Mike that I am going to write a scholarly analysis of the Messianic thread in his works.) It is, of course, 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 I cannot, off the top of my head, recall any women science fiction writers whom I would classify as Jewish, whether by birth or by theme, except Marge Piercy, who has written one science fiction novel that is mostly a vision of the ideal feminist utopia. Many women – although by no means all – write fantasy rather than science fiction.) Joel Rosenberg, for example, another electronic acquaintance, 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. Joel's latest science fiction book (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 (Joel is known primarily for his fantasy). The Metzadah Mercenary Corps is the primary occupation of the remnant of Israelis who have been relocated to a distant planet (front piece). Joel takes the opposite tack of those who portray Jews as submissive, helpless, and defenseless and instead 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 Joel's society is also Biblically fundamentalist, and yet he has gotten many of his facts confused, ignoring 1000s of 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 and indulge in an orgy of tref gluttony: (p. 102). Although there are numerous 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 (mostly parents of teens!) 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.