Let’s face it, when it comes to science fiction, Jews wrote the bible. And they wrote a lot else besides. Ursula Le Guin says that the Frankenstein myth (and Mary Shelley) are the mothers of invention of science fiction, and she may be right (she usually is). But the Frankenstein myth is a variant on the Golem story, the story of a man created without a human soul, and it goes back over a thousand years in Jewish folklore before Shelley created her version, on that dark and stormy night in Switzerland.
Isaac Asimov, the dean of the golden age of American science fiction, (or (better) speculative fiction, or (best) SF) was of course Jewish, born in a Russian shtetl. His first novel, “Pebble in the Sky”, deals with a stiff-necked and rebellious people facing the wrath of a galactic empire, with a central character called Joseph Schwartz. And there are lots of other fine Jewish SF writers, but that’s just data and boring. What are the deeper patterns of Jewish SF? Why bother reading it?
Three aspects of Judaism in SF are culture, politics and religion. The culture tends to be Ashkenaz and Yiddish, featured in stories like William Tenn’s “On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi”; Robert Silverberg’s “The Dybbuk of Mazel Tov IV”; or Bernard Malamud’s “The Jewbird”. Harlan Ellison’s “I’m Looking for Kadak” comes complete with a five page Yiddish “Glossary and Guide for Goyim”. Before the resurgence of Yiddish culture in North America, embodied in the rhythms of Klezmer music and celebrated in festivals like Toronto’s biannual Ashkenaz, it seemed as though Yiddish culture might be relegated into memories of the past or projections into a future, without any toe-hold in the present. Now it is safe from that fate, and the stories can be read without such cultural weight on them.
Other SF explores the politics of being Jewish. There’s Philip K Dick’s wonderful “The Man in the High Castle” which was one of the first and remains one of the best parallel world stories. In the world of the novel, the Axis powers won WWII, and the US is divided into the German East, the Japanese West, and a buffer zone composed of the midwest and south. One of the central characters Frank Frink (né Fink) is Jewish, and his attempt to evade capture is one of the plotlines within the novel. Like all of Dick’s work, there are multiple complex plots and themes (one of which concerns an underground science fiction book that has been written about a world in which Germany and Japan lost WWII, a world that isn’t quite our world either) and any attempt to summarize would only spoil the pleasure for those who haven’t read the book.
Dick isn’t Jewish, but Norman Spinrad is, and “The Iron Dream” is his amazing meta-novel. In the world in which it was written Adolph Hitler fails at politics, emigrates to the US, and becomes an obscure cult SF writer. This book is his magnum opus. Spinrad frames the book with mock scholarly analyses of the Hitlerian themes and obsessions, which heighten the reader’s joy in the conceit. The book itself is a classic badly written violent BEM (Bug-Eyed Monster) novel in which heroic Earthmen bond behind blond blue-eyed hero Feric Jagger, who leads the “Knights of the Swastika” as they defeat the odious aliens who rule Earth and have sullied human genetic purity. But it also is horrifyingly in your face as it suggests how much of SF is fascist and genocidal – in a word, Hitlerian. Think of the inferior race of orcs, murdered in their thousands for our entertainment in the filmic “Lord of the Rings”.
Fiction that makes the reader think about religion is a profound joy, and a personal favourite is Dick’s “The Divine Invasion”. The book has Elijah and Yahwey as characters, though not the central ones. It’s a religious novel that fuses Christian Gnosticism with Kabbalistic theology. Or, if you prefer, it’s a mystery novel about the second coming. And for truly outrageous theological speculative fiction, it would be hard to top Harlan Ellison’s “Deathbird” which posits that the snake is the true hero of Eden, but that God respun the true story, which is gradually revealed as the backstory to Ellison’s narrative. It contains an amusingly real series of questions about Eden that show the contradictions in the familiar story (Number 7. God grew angry when he found out he had been defied. If God is omnipotent and omniscient, didn’t he know? Why couldn’t he find Adam and Eve when they hid?)
But all three thematic strands in Jewish SF are woven together in the tapestry of Michael Chabon’s wonderful “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” which came out in 2007, and won both the Nebula (the SF writers’ choice) and the Hugo (the people’s choice) for best SF novel of the year. It is the story of a detective (think Bogey, think Chandler) in Yiddish Sitka, that section of Alaska to which four million Jews fled after the Arabs won the 1948 war and drove all the Jews out of Israel. The US gave the Jews a 60 year lease which is a month or so from “the Reversion” at the time the novel starts. Sitka is divided between orthodox “Black Hats” and the non-orthodox. Our hero, Meyer Landsman, is a bruised and cynical shammes (detective); we’re told on page two about “the shot glass he’s currently dating”. Meyer is challenged to confront both the powers of wrong and a cruelly ironic universe that has arranged things so that his ex-wife became his supervisor, and his father committed suicide two days after Meyer gave him a letter explaining he never, ever, wants to play chess again. Twenty years later, after much angst and therapy, Meyer discovered the letter, unopened. And then there’s the messianic theme, for as Meyer says, “Every generation loses the messiah it doesn’t deserve”.
The book is exquisitely written, meticulously plotted, fiendishly clever, and so marinated in contemporary Judaic issues and theology that at times you have to fight your way back to the awareness that it’s fiction. Issues of conflict with the original inhabitants of the Sitka and the Jews, possible plans to destroy the Al-Aqsa mosque to build the third temple, concerns over the divided loyalties of Jewish-American politicians are all there, but wrapped in a noir Jewish humour so funny you hardly notice how true it all is. One of the book’s leitmotifs is “It’s a strange time to be a Jew”, which sometimes is answered with, “But aren’t they all?”
SF, at its best, is like a good trip to a foreign land. Not only is the experience a joy in itself, but when you come home you look at your own country differently, seeing it now as just one of the possible ways things might be, rather than just how the world is. You have been opened to other ways of seeing, something essential in the challenge we all face in healing our planet. SF can help to do the same thing, in this strange time to be a human. But then, aren’t they all?