Sheldon Teitelbaum and Emanuel Lottem have edited an anthology called Zion’s Fiction, a Treasury of Israeli Speculative Fiction, interestingly enough, not Israeli Science Fiction or Israeli SF. Israel is a small country with a potential readership of less than eight million people that did not really exist before 1948, and with an official language, Hebrew, that produced little if anything like speculative fiction before then either.
Therefore there was no real literary history of speculative fiction to speak of, whether in Hebrew, or even in English, in which many of these stories were originally written, before the 1950s. As in many non-Anglophone countries, what began to be published was American science fiction in the original English or in Hebrew translation.
But while the same thing was happening in various European countries during that period, some of them did have pre-World War II literary SF histories. Some, like Romania, were rather avant-garde, some, like Russia, were political underground literature in sheep’s clothing, others mimicking American schlock. However, Israel didn’t really exist as a culture at all; it had to create one out of European Holocaust refugees, a small extant native Jewish population, and Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
Small wonder then that such a young cultural bouillabaisse would end up with its own version, or rather versions, of Israeli speculative fiction. Even as there is a divide in Israel between backward looking, religious, and mythical factions epitomized by Jerusalem, and dynamically modern Israelis epitomized by Tel Aviv, so the stories in this anthology epitomize two dominant threads of Israeli “speculative fiction”; mimetic science fiction, and more or less non-mimetic fantasy, though this being Israel, for better and for worse, they do often mix.
Some of the stories in Zion’s Fiction are more fantasy than speculative fiction, in that they are indifferent to any serious requirement of mimesis. “The Perfect Girl,” by Guy Hasson, for example, is straight fantasy, as are Rotem Baruchin’s “In the Mirror,” Savyon Librecht’s “A Good Place for the Night,” Elan Gomel’s “Death in Jerusalem,” Yael Furman’s “A Man’s Dream,” and Shimon Adaf’s “They Had To Move.”
There are vague speculative set-ups, but they are no more true speculative fiction than, say, Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles collection of stories, or more often than not Harlan Ellison’s best stories, or many of the stories in Dangerous Visions, including my own “Carcinoma Angels,” or for that matter many of the recent winners of Nebulas for short fiction.
Those examples of fantasies in SF clothing don’t have very much else in common, but this stream of Israeli stories, one way or another, to one degree or another, do. The focus, the raison d’être, is internal, not external, more fearful and paranoiac than enlightening or hopeful. The quality of the writing is generally high, not surprising since Zion’s Fiction is an editorial selection of previously published tales. But there is something somewhat more noticeably Israeli than speculative here, the psychological flavor of the general literary culture of a country both ancient and recently born in historical terms, created and inhabited mostly by refugees, a nation that has never known true acceptance from the states bordering it.
But modern Israel is also as post-modern as a state can be in terms of cutting edge technological and scientific prowess, and another stream of science fiction from another Israeli culture, an up-to-date forward-looking popular culture—to oversimplify it, Tel Aviv versus Jerusalem. And a minority of the stories in Zion’s Fiction are from that fictional stream, modern Israel’s Fiction, as it were, rather than Zion’s.
“Burn Alexandria” by Keren Landsman may rely on somewhat rubbery science, but it is not just a simple time travel story. It’s a complexly quantum one, and written with a cutting edge flair. “Hunter of Stars” by Nava Semel may be based on a McGuffin that seems like fantasy, but aside from that extrapolates with believable mimesis. “White Curtain” by Pesakh (Pavel) Amnuel is more or less straight down the middle science fiction.
Lavie Tidhar is something well beyond that. His story here, “The Smell of Orange Groves,” seems to be either the opening of his Central Station novel, which may be a part of an ongoing series, whatever, I won’t go into that because I have already done so in a previous column here. But Tidhar is the best writer in this collection by a wide margin, not only the most significant writer of speculative fiction to come out of Israel, but one of the half dozen or so most interesting and cutting edge writers to emerge in the past few years from anywhere.
Which is not saying that “The Smell of Orange Groves,” set in a speculatively complex and fascinating future Tel Aviv, is not thoroughly Israeli. A coming of age of Israeli speculative fiction—and yes, it is thoroughly mimetic science fiction, and more than that, on the cutting edge of speculative fiction, period.
So in a way, Zion’s Fiction is really the condensed history not of “Zion’s” speculative fiction, which implies biblical roots in the long ago of the Jewish people, but of Israeli speculative fiction, which goes no further back than the existence of Israel itself, influenced in certain unique ways by the long pre-modern Israeli Jewish culture, but born, like so much of non-Anglo science fiction, mimicking American, and, to a lesser degree, British commercial science fiction, the so-called “pulp tradition” going back to a so-called “Golden Age of Science Fiction” in the 1930s.
And because modern Israeli speculative fiction only had brief roots in that “Sci Fi” tradition, it has not really simply evolved from such commercial “Sci-Fi,” but from a mish-mash thereof and its own Jewish cultural emphasis on the characters’ internal consciousnesses and struggles and the understandable paranoia, fears, and psychological negativities of a nation that in reality was born fighting surrounding enemies and still has no easy confidence of continued existence except its own proven technological and scientific superiority to its would-be destroyers.
In a way, then, the short history of Israeli speculative fiction is what the title says, a compressed backward version of the evolution of Anglo-American speculative fiction that was not born of the Sci-Fi Golden Age of the 1930s. A fiction that had a relatively brief secondhand brush with it in the 1950s, but since then has gone its own way—in which, perhaps because of its dominant emphasis on the psychology of the story characters over the exterior surround, with some exceptions, blurs the distinction between mimetic “science fiction” and anti-mimetic “fantasy.”
And, like it or not, this is becoming a literary trend in “speculative fiction” beyond the grandsons and granddaughters of the “Pulp Tradition.” This is in part because of the New Wave of the end of the last century, but also because “science fiction writers” no longer own literary speculative fiction, but share it with authors of talent who may be writing it but don’t really know much of anything about any literary science fiction history at all, or if they do, either don’t give a damn, or avoid “Sci-Fi’s” literary constrictions like the plague they have long since become.
These post-post modern speculative fiction writers may or may not really even know what the laws of mass and energy might be. On the one hand they don’t care about that sort of mimesis, but on the other hand, like the best of Latin American magic realists, once they create the laws of their own purely literary reality, they tend not to violate them by continuing to pull arbitrary rabbits out of their hats.
By: Norman Spinrad