Zion’s Fiction returns with a second anthology
By HAGAY HACOHEN SEPTEMBER 20, 2021 20:42
The release of a second anthology of Israeli speculative fiction in English translation will be celebrated on September 23 with a special hybrid panel at the Icon Science Fiction Festival in Tel Aviv. Emanuel Lottem and Sheldon Teitelbaum, pillars of the speculative literature community in this country and the driving force behind the 2018 anthology Zion’s Fiction will discuss utopia, dystopia and limbotopia with fans of the genre at a gathering devoted to More Zion’s Fiction.
This second anthology includes works by well-known Jewish-American writers like David Brin (who wrote a foreword) and Avram Davidson. Israeli writers like Nadav Almog and Rotem Baruchin and post-Soviet Jewish writers like Elana Gomel and Pavel Amnuel appear as well. This gives the reader a bird’s-eye view of the three major playing fields where Jewish destinies played out in the past century.
Davidson’s novelette, “Help! I am Dr. Morris Goldepper,” is a side-splitting gem about toothless, human-like aliens who abduct a dentist to pass as humans and con the US government. He was included in the anthology as a nod to his military service in the 1948 War of Independence. This generosity of spirit is why Amnuel, a Russian language writer of note living here, is also included. One can only hope a third anthology will feature works by Lavie Tidhar and Dmitry Glukhovsky. The first is an Israeli-born English language writer lauded for his achievements and the second is a Russian language writer who holds Israeli citizenship.
In “The Alien with the Yellow Patch,” an essay she published in With Both Feet on the Cloud: Fantasy in Israeli Literature, Gomel points to Israel having roughly one million readers who relish sci-fi, as long as it is written in Russian. Her eye-opening essay shines an important light on how Soviet Jews deeply saw their reflections in – and shaped – USSR sci-fi.
In the first story in this anthology, “The Sea of Salt,” she plunges the yellow patch into a dark and hellish realm. In it, a German woman seeking an entry point into the collective trauma of the Holocaust walks into a different reality where a biological-like structure of a death camp is revealed. The yellow stars of that place feed off the inmates and the Nazi guards have helmets for heads. Oddly, the powerful mythic tale of Lot’s Wife, who turns to salt upon learning hidden things, was also employed by the Greek author Ioanna Bourazopoulou for her 2013 award-winning sci-fi novel What Lot’s Wife Saw.
In their forward, Lottem and Teitelbaum present the reader with the many questions stemming from Israeli sci-fi. “For the first book we rewrote the forward roughly fifty times,” Lottem told me, “this one took a little less work.”
Gomel remarks that unlike their Anglo-American counterparts who imagine new frontiers in space and a linear progression in time, Israelis tend to describe darker realities. Bourazopoulou, who imagined a dystopian post-climate change Europe where the Mediterranean Sea reaches Paris and people are addicted to a salt-like substance, might point to a larger truth. Israelis may not share an American imagination, but they are very much in sync with that of their neighbors along the coast.
Lottem and Teitelbaum claim Israeli writers seem uninterested in exploring the results of an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel or the logical outcome of this country’s population doubling by the end of the century. This seems odd in contrast with American writers who dared to imagine what a nuclear war might do to everyday people such as in the short story “That Only a Mother” by Judith Merril (1948) or the 1973 film Soylent Green, in which a dilapidated Earth forces society to devour itself. Israeli writers seem stuck in limbotopia. Co-coined by Vered Shemtov and Gomel, it means to be stuck in an eternal present.
This, perhaps, is why so many among Hebrew-language writers turn to fantasy. Almog’s “The Thirteenth Fairy” is a dark retelling of the classic fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” and Baruchin’s “Latte, To Go” is a wonderfully imaginative fantasy tale. In it, each city in the country, and the world, has its own spirit and a human guardian must keep the peace to ensure Ramat Gan (for example) will not take over Givatayim. Each spirit dresses and behaves in unique ways that truly reflect Israeli culture. In this story, the guardian is in love with Tel Aviv. He is also stuck in this country for life, as guardians are unable to abandon the cities they need to protect.
Sci-fi uses certain devices. The imaginary technology enables the plot, and the plot is the content, Lottem told me.
“I give discounts when it comes to the device,” meaning he does not mind it if magic is the engine of the story or of the latest scientific breakthrough, “never when it comes to the content. This is why I can tell you that in this land people write good science-fiction.”
While Israeli academics produce impressive cultural studies that use sci-fi as a means to make a point, they tend to ignore Hebrew sci-fi and focus on US examples like Star Trek, a classic TV series. Oren Ben-Yosef, for example, often employs it in his 2021 “Eaters of Worlds” which explores vegan values via the prism of sci-fi. In 2019, Prof. Uriya Shavit released “Meat,” in it, a woman takes her granddaughter to eat beef in a world where the killing of animals for food is forbidden. Ignored by Ben-Yosef, the book shares a lot with “Me and Nana Go Shopping” by Hamutal Levin, included in this anthology.
Writing sci-fi reviews in the Israeli press in the early 1980s, poet Yona Wallach wrote the role of science-fiction is to expand the keyhole from which we can see the present moment. The interest in Israeli popular culture on a never-before-seen global scale (Fauda, Homeland) means Hebrew speculative fiction has never been better poised to reach the stars.
More Zion’s Fiction will be launched during the Icon Science Fiction Festival during a special hybrid panel on Thursday, September 23 at 4 p.m. Speakers include Lottem, Teitelbaum, Gomel, Noa Menhaim and Ehud Maimon. Admission is free but patrons must register to get a ticket to the Icon Festival under the current health regulations. For tickets please email: firstname.lastname@example.org