Science fiction has flourished since the mid-20th century in Japan, France, Germany, the United States and the former Soviet Union. But young Israel, focused on the more practical dream of establishing a modern state, was late to the sci-fi party. The first magazine devoted to the genre in the Holy Land didn’t debut until the late 1970s, and the genre didn’t really thrive until the last 20 years or so. It is not surprising that the first anthology of translated works from Israel has taken so long to arrive.
Here, at last, is Zion’s Fiction, edited by Sheldon Teitelbaum and Emanuel Lottem. I’m an avid writer and reviewer of science fiction, but it was my own Israeli heritage that guaranteed the book would be a must-read for me.
The anthology contains 16 stories written by a mix of natives and immigrants, roughly evenly divided between men and women (nine and seven). The themes vary nicely, too, with many eras represented—from the present to the near future to centuries hence. The editors have given us an authentic snapshot of the state of science fiction in Israel (though there are no stories by Arab Israelis).
Despite the diversity of the volume, I was left with an impression of overall sameness. Not in terms of quality, which for individual stories ranges, in my opinion, from two to five stars, but in tone. Many are set in Israel, and most of the character names are Israeli. But the commonality is more fundamental than that.
For instance, missing from this volume is any evidence of human space travel. Cyborgs and advanced artificial intelligence? Check. Parallel time tracks? Absolutely. Telepathy, telekinesis and teleportation? All present and accounted for. Biblical miracles? Natch. But despite the decidedly nifty cover by Avi Katz that depicts a Trekkish Theodor Herzl in orbit around an alien world, in every predicted future for Israel, whether utopian or apocalyptic, Eretz Yisrael is a terrestrial enclave.
Also, while there is wonder aplenty in Zion’s Fiction, with many truly imaginative twists on seminal science fiction themes, one thing I didn’t find is any trace of humor. Rarely are the stories even cheerful, though Gur Shomron’s Two Minutes Too Early about a puzzle competition in 2037 might qualify. Yiddish-speaking Jews were the pioneers of modern ironic comedy in the United States, so the serious tone of these stories written by their Israeli cousins came as a surprise.
That said, there is much to enjoy. Guy Hasson’s The Perfect Girl, depicting the connection between a telepath and a recent corpse, is a poignant masterpiece. Gail Hareven’s The Slows manages to be prophetic, horrific and beautiful, all at once. Keren Landsman’s Burn Alexandria has one of the most interesting protagonists I’ve encountered as well as some excellent twists. These stories, and editors Teitelbaum and Lottem’s excellent introductory essay, are alone worth the cover price.
Zion’s Fiction is a worthy addition to any bookshelf. I’m eager to see Volume II.
Gideon Marcus is an award-winning science fiction author, space historian and founder of the Hugo-nominated blog and fanzine Galactic Journey.
Originally published in Hadassah Magazine, on July 1, 2019