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Mel Brooks promised us something we never really saw.
Mel Brooks has a lot to answer for. Many years ago in my teens, wanting to write about Israeli science fiction, I contacted the eminent translator and editor Emanuel Lotem. Ironically, of course, the modern genre of science fiction owes much of its existence to Jewish writers. He founded the magazine Amazing Stories inand launched the genre as we know it today. And inGernsback created the Science Fiction League, creating chapters of young fans in cities around the United States and ushering in the modern era of fandom.
It is a sad reflection of the period that many of his writers referred to him as Hugo the Rat, a hint of the anti-Semitism that was never absent from the field. Jewish writers flocked to this new literature.
Before long he was writing his own stories, among them the classic Robot series and the Foundation a retelling in outer space of the fall of the Roman Empire. But there are no Jews in these worlds. And the editor who published them, John W. Campbell, Jr.
So Asimov—who feared he would have to change his name for being too Jewish, as had happened to another Campbell author—removed any mention of aliens from his work. At the same time, young Jewish boys were inventing a new kind of storytelling. My own later novel, The Violent Centurytouches on these themes. There were, still, no Jews in space. It might be worth noting how many comics artists did change their names, incidentally.
But the result was to make the name unmistakably Jewish in America. But like Asimov before them, they seldom wrote explicitly Jewish stories. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, a different group of science fiction writers was flourishing.
The most prominent were the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. They survived the Siege of Leningrad as children. Their Jewish father did not. The Strugatsky Brothers went on to write such classics as Roide Picnic and the many tales of the Noon universe, which imagines a Socialist utopia extending far into space.
In Poland, the Jewish Stanislaw Lem became one of the leading writers of SF in the world: he is best known in the West for his classic novel, Solaris They may be coded or in disguise, but neither American nor Soviet SF seemed much interested in the idea of anyone other than the dominant heroes going into space. In the meantime, however, the dream of space slowly went from being fantasy to reality.
Ironically, much of the US space program was built on the work of Nazi scientists. Wernher von Braun, father of the V-2 rocket the building of which relied in part on the use of Jewish slave laborwas recruited after the war in the American Operation Paperclip. The operation scoured Germany for rocket scientists, repatriating them to the US, sometimes under new identities, in order to work on the new Space Race.
And as the US and Russia competed to see who would first get into space and then the moon, it was the Soviets, remarkably, who really did send the first Jew into space. Cosmonaut Boris Volynov flew into Earth orbit on the Soyuz 5 mission as flight commander in There have been some fourteen Jewish astronauts so far, though two of them died tragically—Judith Resnick in the Challenger disaster, and the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, in the Columbia disaster.
Space travel, ly the domain of science fiction, has now become a facet of contemporary life and death. In literature, meanwhile, Jews were still mostly absent. Growing up on a steady diet of translated American SF and the occasional odd work of Hebrew, I scoured the shelves for them. They were there but… they were… strange. They have apparently hidden out in space for millennia, maintaining the old ways all the while. Jews in space!
And as Herbert died a year later, we never did get to find out what they were doing out there among the stars. It was truly a Judaeus ex machina ending. Rosenberg wrote several novels in this milieu. These books were few and far between. Moav, dying as he wrote the novel, offers both a searing critique of contemporary Israeli society in the novel, while advocating a deeply uncomfortable eugenicist philosophy for the future.
It makes for strange reading. The one author who did feature Israelis of sort in his novels, however, was not in Israel. Philip K. Dick—then an obscure SF writer, though later his works would become a mainstay of Hollywood films—was fascinated by the idea of the Israeli kibbutz. We will set up our first kibbutz there, one of these days. Mars is, so to speak, one great Negev.
We will have orange trees growing, someday. Dick, The Simulacra. But like the moon landings themselves, much of this potted history is just that—history. These books and fragments remain anomalies in the field to this day. But on the whole, Jews in science fiction stories—Jews in spaaace! Will things change? There are plenty of Jewish writers in SF, but a scarcity of Jewish characters. Perhaps, then, let this be an open call. Jump in. Used with the permission of the publisher, Head of Zeus. Created by Grove Atlantic and Electric Literature. Via Head of Zeus.
By Lavie Tidhar. His latest novels are the Locus Award-nominated Unholy Land and debut children's novel Candy He works across genres, combining detective and thriller modes with poetry, science fiction and historical and autobiographical material. His work has been compared to that of Philip K. Close to the Lithub Daily Thank you for subscribing! July 23, by Katharine Schellman.
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