After a hiatus that was longer than planned, here’s the sixth installment of this series:
Optimism in Israeli SF
By Lavie Tidhar
Israeli science fiction, such as it is, is founded on the most optimistic of novels — Theodore Herzl’s Altneuland, published in 1902. Altneuland (Old-New Land: full text of the English translation here), is a utopian vision of a Jewish state in Palestine, then a part of the Ottoman Empire. Herzl was the founder and leader of Zionism, the movement seeking to establish a national home for the Jews. It is interesting to note that many alternatives to Palestine were suggested at one point or another (including land in Syria, Egypt, South America, the United States and British West Africa), with Herzl negotiating opposite the British government and the Ottoman Empire, but without results.
Altneuland was Herzl’s futurist manifesto, a utopian novel following two protagonists, a Jewish intellectual and a Russian aristocrat, as they visit Palestine first in 1898, when it is a desolate place, and then twenty years later, when they discover a Jewish utopia had emerged during their absence. In the typical fashion of utopian novels, they then go on a guided tour of this new society.
As a novel, perhaps, Altneuland lacks literary merit. As a vision of a then non-existent future, and as a rallying cry for the establishment of a Jewish state, it has been remarkably influential, though Herzl’s vision of a peaceful Palestine did not come about…
In the novel, the port city of Haifa is the main urban centre, electricity powers homes, trains run throughout the country, and European cultural institutes — an opera house, theatres, etc. — are commonplace. The inhabitants speak German rather than Hebrew or Yiddish. And a Third Temple has been built in Jerusalem…
Herzl’s novel is itself pre-dated by an earlier utopia, and the first in Hebrew —
Elhanan Levinsky’s mostly forgotten A Journey to Israel in the Year 2040, published in Poland in 1892. Again, there are electric lights, bustling ports — and airships!
The establishment of a Jewish state in what was by then British Mandate Palestine (The British won it from the Ottomans in First World War) did not go quite as planned. Conflict with both the British, and the Arab population of Palestine, proved costly and increasingly bitter, and the eventual foundation of the State of Israel was done only after the first of many subsequent wars. And over all fell the shadow of the war in Europe and the Holocaust, forever imprinting itself into the collective Israeli psyche.
Which meant optimism in fiction, despite its hopeful beginnings, might have been in short supply.
Israeli literature has always been more concerned with the here-and-now than with the — increasingly uncertain — future. Such stories fitting into a science fiction and fantasy mould were published almost exclusively as children’s books. Perhaps the most notable of these were the three books written by Eli Sagi: The Adventures of Captain Yuno, published between 1963 and 1964. The books follow the adventures of two children, Yuno and Vena, as they stowaway on an Earth spaceship and then become involved in a series of adventures throughout the solar system, in which each planet is populated by different alien races. Earth itself is a sort of utopia, run by the United Nations — and Earth’s space programme is headed by none other than one Professor Asimov… With wonderful illustrations by the master of the Israeli children book, M. Aryeh, the books are nevertheless almost unknown today, and the nearly 50-year old copies fetch high sums — if one can find them at all. Sagi, incidentally, went on to become a successful playwright and, in the 1980s, was the creator of The Big Restaurant, a Hebrew-Arabic sitcom set in a restaurant in Jerusalem which was successful, it was said, across the whole of the Middle East.
The Adventures of Captain Yuno, alas, did not extend beyond the first three books – a fourth book was listed but never published. It is itself pre-dated by The Mystery of the Flying Saucer, by Menahem Talmi, published in 1955, in which a boy from Tel Aviv goes on a journey to Mars and other planets, and experiences the utopian societies of the aliens.
Science fiction only really became widespread in the 1970s — the Hebrew term for SF had to be negotiated first, the earlier “Mada Dimyoni”, or imaginary science, leading at last to “Mada Bidyoni”, or fictional science — and the most important event in this nascent field was the establishment, in 1978, of the first genuine Israeli SF magazine, Fantasia 2000. It was an act of pure, unadulterated optimism, by four young students who, later, would admit that had they known what they were doing they would never have done it in the first place. Nevertheless, the magazine not only came into being but continued for an unparalleled 44 issues over 6 years, translating many of the classic American stories of the genre (but also the occasional French and Russian) and offering the first ever stage for Israeli writers themselves. Though some — many — of the Hebrew stories published in the magazine were not of a very high calibre, some still delight – particularly Mordechai Sason’s “The Beggar and the Tin Man”, about a future Israel in which robots beg on the street and are pursued by the malevolent bank, who wants to destroy them — but in which the Israeli public takes up their cause instead, with both hilarious and thought-provoking results. Another writer making his debut in the pages of Fantasia 2000, Amir Gutfreund, would later become the author of the critically and commercially successful Shoa Shelanu (Our Holocaust) and other novels, and win the prestigious Sapir Prize in 2003.
The 1980s saw the demise of Fantasia 2000 and a long period of drought in Israeli SF that would be, ten years later, spectacularly revived. Of the handful of science fiction books published in the 1980s, however, special mention should be made of another utopia, and perhaps one of the most interesting — and certainly controversial — of Israeli SF novels. Luna: The Genetic Paradise was published in 1985, written by geneticist Ram Mo’av as he was dying of a terminal illness. This extraordinary novel tells the story of a dying scientist who is given the ability to view the future via a device called the Camera — specifically, the future of a utopian settlement on the moon, in which principles of eugenics determine immigration, births and much more. The novel is at the same time a searing indictment of Israeli society — at one point depicting Israeli-born children, or sabras, tormenting the nameless narrator (a Holocaust survivor), in which they are compared to the Nazis — and the story of a multicultural, utopian society on the moon based, as mentioned, on the somewhat dubious arguments of eugenics. While not necessarily a good novel — like Altneuland before it — it is a fascinating novel, though once again its influence may be negligible: as with the previous books mentioned, it is very hard today to locate a copy.
The 1990s saw the first true flowering of Israeli SF, with the advent of the Internet leading fans and writers to get in touch with each other, and subsequently leading to the formation of an Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy, the establishment of national conventions, and to the rise of a new SF magazine — and the first of its kind to be devoted almost exclusively to original Israeli SF short stories.
Chalomot Be’aspamia (the expression can be loosely translated as “pipe dreams” or “daydreams”) was began as a fan initiative but was taken over by Ron Yaniv as publisher, leading to the first magazine since Fantasia 2000 to be distributed in Israeli bookshops. It was edited by Israeli writer and translator Vered Tochterman from issue 1 to 16 (plus a special themed issue, the first original shared-world anthology to be published in Israel), and by Nir Yaniv from 17 to the current issue 20. Another optimistic gesture, the magazine published a wide range of stories and writers but is currently on hiatus, with its future uncertain — though at least one more issue, number 21, is projected to appear. It is interesting to note, incidentally, that the magazine came a full circle recently by publishing, in its issue 19, a story by an older Amir Gutfreund — the only writer thus to be published in both Fantasia 2000 and Chalomot Be’aspamia.
Bur what does the future hold for Israeli SF? While it is unreasonable to assume speculative fiction will ever have a large number of writers in Israel, the future does look hopeful. A new generation of writers is experimenting with short stories and publishing new novels, some with more impact then others. There are now conventions, web sites, forums, even writing workshops devoted to genre fiction. The future, as it is wont to do, remains to be seen.
Lavie Tidhar is the author of linked-story collection HebrewPunk (2007), novellas Cloud Permutations (2009), An Occupation of Angels (2010), and Gorel & The Pot-Bellied God (2010) and, with Nir Yaniv, of The Tel Aviv Dossier (2009). He also edited the anthology The Apex Book of World SF (2009). He’s lived on three continents and one island-nation, and currently lives in Israel. His first novel, The Bookman, is published by HarperCollins’ new Angry Robot imprint, and will be followed by two more.