SF in Israel
Israel, I am informed, seems to be having an SF moment. Or, from the unexpectedly enthusiastic early reviews of the anthology I co-edited with Emanuel Lottem, Zion’s Fiction: A Treasury of Israeli Speculative Literature, SF may be having an Israel moment.
As well it should. After all, the Jewish State drew inspiration from a knock-off of Edward Bellamy’s late 19th-century utopian romance, Looking Backward, 2000-1887, notably, Zionist ideologue Theodore Herzl’s Altneuland (Old New Land). A mere 70 years after its troubled foundation, his dream-child is recognized worldwide as a scientific and technological powerhouse and the purveyor of any number of SFnal inventions and innovations. The modern State of Israel, moreover, straddles a former Herodian fortress – Megiddo, or, as the Greeks called it, Armageddon – Ground Zero for the apocalyptic imagination. Among Israelis, fears of terminal conflagration are never far from the surface.
None of which is lost on Israeli writers, who have, during the last few decades, begun contributing to a burgeoning corpus, in Hebrew, Russian, and English, of Israeli fantastika. Vaunted literary luminaries such as Shimon Adaf, Orly Castel-Bloom, Emil Habibi, Gail Hareven, Etgar Keret, Sayed Kashua, and Nava Semel now compete for bookstore space with avowed genre writers like Keren Landsman, Nir Yaniv, Yael Furman, Ofir Touché Gafla, Assaf Gavron, Yoav Katz, Vered Tochterman, Guy Hasson, Hagar Yanai, and Pesakh (Pavel) Amnuel. Worldclass artists like Avi Katz (who illustrated Zion’s Fiction) now regularly adorn book covers. The country even has its own Hugos – the Geffen Prize, awarded at ICon, one of several annual confabs.
This didn’t stop my agent from running into a wall while trying to sell a book he thought would be a slam dunk. “My shelves,” I whined to him, “are buckling under the weight of compendiums of Spanish, Portuguese, and Finnish fantasy. I’ve got more anthologies of Chinese SF/F than time to read them. The Philippines churn them out with the pace and regularity of visiting typhoons. Not only does my native Canada boast several national collections (with Quebec hurriedly in pursuit), but Montreal, where I grew to my majority, can lay claim to several in both English and in French. And the Arab world seemed to be on a roll, most recently with the anthology Iraq+100. How long before the Druze, Bedouin, Circassians, and, yes, Palestinians, followed suit?”
But as for Israel, where I lived from 1977 to 1986, batich. Gurnischt. Nada.
Why is anyone’s guess. My own was that the Jewish State’s good name, not to put too fine a point on it, was in the toilet. Publishers, I concluded, though none of them ever spoke of this in their rejections, simply didn’t fancy becoming a target of the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement, which is clearly feeling its oats. Or maybe there just wasn’t much of a market in the US for foreign literature in translation. With a few notable exceptions (Etgar Keret, Amos Oz, David Grossman, et al.), Israeli literature never gained much traction in North America, not even among American Jews, who seemed to prefer gung-ho attestations of Israeli military prowess over impenetrable expressions of suburban angst in North Tel Aviv. Israeli SF/F, a niche within a niche within a niche, may simply have been a bridge too far.
The prospects of any English-language anthology of Israeli SF/F, however, didn’t particularly concern Israeli writers or their fans. A mere 20 years ago, one would have been hard put to identify more than a handful of Hebrew-language titles by local authors. Nor did there seem to be an appetite for more. Israeli readers regarded most homegrown material as substandard, preferring translations of English-language SF. Now, not only was there a market for indigenously produced genre literature, but Israeli publishers didn’t even feel the need to peddle the stuff as genre. Their wares, when merited, garnered a modicum of critical attention. And consumers, deprived of genre markers, didn’t seem to make a fuss about inadvertently finding themselves reading SF/F. Magic realism – no problem. Urban fantasy, sure. Horror, maybe. But if they were reading it, surely it couldn’t be SF/F.
In a country that fetishized social realism, that had long disdained most manifestations of the fantastique, that regarded whimsy as a fatal distraction from the exigencies of survival, and subcultural identity as inherently deviant, it was enough that the local SF/F community could indulge their own fanciful predilections without incurring total ignominy. Role-play gamers, for instance, were no longer barred from service in the Israel Defense Forces. Israeli cons provided safe spaces for displays of cosplay. Long disposed to community sing-alongs, Israelis were even starting to filk.
This is a far cry from the Israel I inhabited in 1978 while moonlighting, during my voluntary five-year military stint, as a member of the editorial board of the seminal Israeli SF/F magazine Fantasia 2000. As a freshly minted lieutenant assigned to the Paratroops Corps, for instance, I had to secure permission from the base adjutant to write a monthly roundup review for the Jerusalem Post. The adjutant, a three-felafel (full-bird) colonel, informed me that I would have to donate the meager proceeds to the Lone Soldiers Association. I reminded him that I was a lone soldier – someone who did not have family, or other means of support, in Israel. “So go ask them for money!” he barked.
But that was then, and this is, well, the future, and in this variant, vaunted mainstream writers now think nothing of writing the kind of SF/F you’d expect from folks with deep genre roots. Folks with deep genre roots no longer toil in the shadows, or wax despondent over the unlikely prospect of being published. Major Israeli houses know from SF/F, some even hire fulltime SF/F editors, and they will happily disseminate locally crafted work they deem worthy. Newspaper and magazine critics, who could once be counted on either to sneer at this output or ignore it completely, now muster a measure of enthusiasm and a surprising familiarity with genre tropes.
To mark this sea change, I interviewed some of the newer voices of Israeli SF/F, notably Keren Landsman and Guy Hasson, Yael Furman, alongside literary wunderkind Shimon Adaf, seasoned SF hand Ehud Maimon, and erstwhile Fantasia 2000 editor Aharon Hauptman. Trust them, of course, to throw a good measure of the arguments we made in the introduction to Zion’s Fiction, the link to which is provided here, into complete and utter disarray. Not to beat a cliché into the ground, but above all else, SF/F promises radical change. There is a famous saying I first encountered in Hebrew that goes, “The things that you see from here, you don’t from there.” These are the guys on the ground. Me, I live in LA (okay, Emanuel lives in Tel Aviv, but he’s a translator, and translators don’t get out much). Together, though, I think we’ve got it nailed.
Sheldon Teitelbaum has covered SF/F in the Los Angeles Times, Wired, Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, The Encyclopedia Judaica, SF Eye, Midnight Graffiti, and other publications. He is the co-editor of Zion’s Fiction: A Treasury of Israeli Speculative Literature, published in September 2018 by Mandel Vilar Press. The extensive introduction to Zion’s Fiction can be read at <locusmag.com/introduction-to-zions-fiction>.
Shimon Adaf, a well-known poet, prose writer, musician, TV writer, and university educator, was born in 1972 of Moroccan parentage in the town of Sderot, near the Gaza Strip. He attended a religious school as a child and later segued to an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic junior high school, which he left after six months. Adaf completed his studies at secular schools.
Adaf began to publish poetry during his military service. Moving to Tel Aviv in 1994, he published his first short-story collection, The Icarus Monologue, which won a Ministry of Education award. This and other poetry achieved widespread translation, earning Adaf a reputation as a literary wunderkind. From 2000 to 2004 he worked at the Keter Publishing House as the youngest editor of their original Israeli prose line, discovering such genre stalwarts as Ophir Touche Gaf la and Nir Bar’am. In 2004 he wrote a murder mystery, One Mile and Two Days before Sunset, and a young-adult fantasy, The Buried Heart, the latter steeped in Jewish mythology. In 2008 he published the fantasy novel Sunburnt Faces, Adaf’s biggest hit until his most recent one, Aviva-Lo, about the unexpected death of his sister. In 2010 he launched his Rose of Judah sequence,with the publication of the Delanyesque epic Kfor (Frost) in 2010. Adaf followed this in 2011 with Mox Nox (Latin for Soon the Night), an alternate-history Turn of the Screw-inspired tale, winning the prestigious Sapir Prize. This was followed by Earthly Cities, or Netherworld, in 2012.
“The definition of SF has moved on. Most people do not write science fiction any more, but (rather), speculative fiction. Despite what you see in film and TV, it’s really an obsolete notion in literature right now. But not in Israel. When I use the term, I have to explain and explain. I teach at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, and I gave a class in what I called ‘Speculative Fiction of the 20th Century.’ I only taught science fiction writers. In the introduction to the lectures, I said that you probably can’t identify many speculative fiction writers in Israel, and they couldn’t. I showed them Shai Agnon wrote SF, and other writers, not to mention Theodore Herzl himself.
“Israeli fiction hews mainly to social realism or psychological realism, in a way that I think is really anxious about the reality of things. If you cannot suspend your disbelief even for a second, then you are not inside any literary work. For me it’s the other way around. Most of what’s called realism is, for me, fantasy. Writing SF is creating this space or arena in which I can express real emotions and deal with questions and issues about Israeli life. When you are so adamant about copying reality, not even reconstructing it, just copying it, then you cannot really talk about the real questions. Israelis substitute reality with certainty. But you can look at it the other way around: because your reality is so shaky, once you get into dealing with possibilities, the literature is much more hopeful, and gives you much more certainty about life.
“Genres are not pure any more, unless you write space opera or heroic fantasy. Once you start merging genres, it’s very hard to define what you’re doing. I deliberately wrote a fantasy novel called The Buried Heart. Frost is a part of a trilogy in which every volume is another genre. For me, it is science fiction, while (still) trying to test the limits of the genre. It’s a book that poses many difficulties in translation. I would love to see it in another language. It’s the story of a Jewish community in Tel Aviv 500 years in the future. It’s what you call today ultra-Orthodox, but they are trying to live by the law of the Mishnah (rabbinic traditions, comprising the first part of the Talmud) without understanding that parts of the Mishnah were lost to them. They build this society based on partial books of law. Because of that, the Hebrew in Frost ranges from Mishnaic Hebrew, which is very ancient, to very modern, futuristic Hebrew. I don’t know if you can translate this range. Because it has lots of references to Jewish texts, it might be very hard to translate. You have to be acquainted with Jewish scripture (to truly get it). I hope that the story itself holds without all the inner references, but something would be lost. The Gentiles in the book, for their part, speak Latin, so you can’t use it in substitute for liturgical Hebrew (although they share a somewhat similar function). It’s known to be a difficult book, but most of the SF books I grew up with were difficult. When I think of the novels of Samuel Delany, which I adore, they are difficult. You have to learn a new language; you have to learn a new reality, encounter creatures that are not totally human. It demands, but I think it’s totally worth it. This is the obstacle that, when you overcome it, you get the most profit out or reading. You let go of your definitions of what a genre is. People are always looking for new definitions, to make the literature more accessible to them. If you think about all these subgenres, then Delany was real avant-garde. Like Philip K. Dick, who is a big influence on, for instance, Lavie Tidhar. Osama is a very Philip K. Dickian novel, this kind of neo-noir SF. But was Dick a science fiction writer? I don’t know. I think they are trying to pull him out of SF. He’s now an American author who writes literary fiction, not SF. But these are the writers that I really like.
“When I was a boy, I was educated very heavily in Jewish scripture. The thing I found most interesting about them was the fantastical side. You have all these kinds of exegeses, these stories about rabbis and all the miracles they made, these visions that they had. For me it was meeting fantasy in its purest form. When I went to the library and read translated books, these were the ones that really got my attention. The Wonderland books were the subgenre I really, really liked. All these British kids going through magical portals and realities. When I was a young-adult, the merging of these two literatures led to a fascination with science fiction.
“When you read the stories in the Talmud or the Gemara (the rabbinical commentary on the Mishnah, forming the second part of the Talmud), you see how much witchcraft (though forbidden in the book of Exodus) is being done by the rabbis themselves. It’s amazing. They talk about it. They don’t call it witchcraft, but it’s totally part of what falls under witchcraft. It’s not just the stories. When I grew up, I understood that the way of thinking in Jewish scripture is mostly rabbinical text, not biblical. The rabbinical texts are always kind of speculative. They always ask, ‘What would you do if you find yourself in this or that situation?’ Their way of thinking is, what if? When you imagine yourself in these (mostly unlikely) situations, they become more and more fantastical. There’s a story where Moses goes up to the sky and God takes him into the future to sit in the study hall of Rabbi Akiva, and he hears these discussions, summed up by, ‘We do this because that’s what God gave Moses to do.’ Moses says, ‘But you never gave me these things to do – I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ God says, ‘You don’t understand, but when the time comes, your descendants will understand.’ This is clearly a story about time travel.
“Many people ask whether the presence of Jews in science in the 20th Century has to do with the fact that it’s a way of thinking that’s been taught to them. Science and SF are very close by nature. There’s a way you think about reality – that reality is not enough, or that there is something beyond reality. You doubt reality, and Jewish thinking is all about doubt – that nothing is set in certainty. It crawls into you. I don’t think, for instance, that Asimov was particularly Jewish, but you find stuff in his writing that is purely Jewish.
“I see more and more young Israelis who grew up on films based on SF/F or comics, and they are really used to this language. For them it is part of the way you represent reality. Their writing tends toward those more speculative genres. The more dire the Israeli political situation is, the more you see people thinking about alternatives. I’m predicting there is going to be a boom in writers imagining Jewish existence in alternative realities. What would have happened if Israel never came to be? What can be done to fix the political situation we’re in right now? They will go to science fiction. Even Lavie, who does not consider himself an Israeli writer, or part of Israeli writing, is very political in his speculative fiction. Central Station, which is fully SF, directly addresses political situations in Israel. I think he is leading the way. He is brilliant at what he does.
“This will be the next stage. In my recent SF novel, a huge novel that covers all aspects of writing for me, there is a part that has an alternative Sderot, the town where I grew up. There is this merging of time and space into all these different multiverses. For me it was trying to talk about political situations. Another phenomenon that would encourage the writing of SF is that in world literature you see mainstream writers already doing it because it’s such a successful genre in popular culture. Some, the first attempt is what I consider to be failure. Even Margaret Atwood’s Handmaids Tale is, for me, failed SF, but you see how she has grown into a great SF novelist. She sees this as a natural part of writing fiction. I think this is interesting in light of what’s happening now in Israel.
“When you use SF or other speculative elements in your writing, do not explain, do not apologise. That’s the way you write literature, and, if you are persistent enough, it will be recognized.”
Yael Furman was born in Ramat Gan, Israel, on October 7, 1973 (a day after the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War), and began publishing work of genre interest with “Hatzva’im haNechonim” (The Right Colors) in the online magazine Bli Panika (Don’t Panic!) in 2001. For the next few years she published several well-regarded short stories in Israeli genre publications such as Halomot beAspamia and the annual anthology series Once Upon a Future, for which she was nominated for the Geffen Prize a remarkable eight times. Her novel Children of the Glass House, 2011, is notable as a genuine example of Israeli young adult science fiction. The novel was illustrated by artist Yinon Zinger, and was based on Furman’s earlier short story, “Empty Walls”, winner of a first prize in a 2009 Olamot convention short-story contest. Her latest novel, The Portal Diamond, was published in 2017.
“The development of Israeli SF was very different in Israel than the US. In Israel we started with translations. Original Israeli SF was small-scale from the ’70s and ’80s. After Fantasia 2000 went bankrupt (in 1984) there was nothing until the mid-’90s, when the Israeli Association for SF&F was founded. Women here started writing it when it was already okay to do it. We didn’t invade male territory. It was never a male domain in Israel. Growing up, I read translated F&SF long after women had established themselves in the field in the US. They fought my war long before I knew there was a war to be fought. I didn’t know there was a ceiling to break.
“I write SF and fantasy – a little more fantasy maybe. Since Once Upon a Future started ten years ago I’ve had a story in each annual. My latest novel, The Portal Diamond, is fantasy. My influence as a fantasy writer may have been Christological, but I don’t feature Christianity in my books. Some of my stories were influenced by the Grimm Brothers. Sometimes I’ve just wanted to fix bad stories. Sometimes I work off current events. I don’t write a lot of fantasy with Jewish influence, but some of my friends write with Jewish mythological influences.
“Israeli themes usually include the army, because almost everyone was in the army, and is involved in the wars and troubles here. There are a lot of stories about loss. Some are about war itself. One by Vered Tochterman looked at the (Israeli-Palestinian) Conflict – a spaceship comes and everyone joins up to fight it. Maybe like the movie Independence Day, except the ending is not peace and love.
“Israeli critics don’t write about Israeli SF. It’s disappointing. The mainstream people tend to treat SF/F as sub-literate. I don’t think they don’t like it so much as they don’t understand it. Realism is realism. It can be someone’s fantasy, but it is not genre fantasy. Israel is a complex place and things change every moment, and war can break out any day, and when it does, maybe we’ll have to go into bomb shelters because we’ll have rockets on our heads. Life is not safe, and everything can go boom at any moment, but a story about everyday life is a story about everyday life. It’s not fantasy.
“Some Israelis are afraid of the future, but you can’t live expecting to die tomorrow. We have troubles, yes, but it’s not the worst place in the world to live. Just look at our neighbor, Syria. Most of the world is not so pleasant to live in. Sure there is danger here, but there is danger everywhere.
“I don’t think it’s possible to make a living writing here, unless someone is very lucky, and has some studio buy the rights for their books or make a movie. I don’t think one can live solely on their writing in Israel, whatever the genre. I think a typical title, if it is successful, can sell maybe a few thousand copies. We’re only 8 million-strong, not everyone reads Hebrew, and SF/F is just a small portion. I think we’re going in a good direction.”
Guy Hasson, born in 1971, is an author, playwright, and filmmaker who crafts plays in Hebrew and prose in English. His books were published in Israel (Hatchling, Life: The Video Game, Secret Thoughts, and Tickling Butterflies), the UK (The Emoticon Generation), and the US (Hope for Utopia and Secret Thoughts). He has won the Israeli Geffen Award for Best Short Story of 2003 (“All-of-MeTM”) and 2005 (“The Perfect Girl”). Since 2006 he has been focusing on the production of original films, including the feature-length Heart of Stone and the web series The Indestructibles. Eschewing Hebrew in his SF/F has served him well in accessing a wider readership but has also caused a modicum of confusion at home, especially when some of his work found itself translated back into his native Hebrew. In either language, however, Hasson is a force to be reckoned with, and his work has been translated into seven languages. His stories can be found in the first Apex World SF anthology and in Apex’s Horrorology. In 2013, Hasson created an independent comic book company, New Worlds Comics, and its flagship title Wynter, written by him, was hailed as one of the best SF comic book series in recent time. In 2015 Hasson created an online comic book store for the blind and the visually impaired called Comics Empower. SF/F writer Lavie Tidhar says of Hasson: “In his refusal to compromise on commercial principles, and in his ongoing experimentation with various forms of media, it has become clear that he is following an intensely personal vision; one to which his commitment is whole.” Hasson’s latest book, Tickling Butterflies, was released in Israel in 2017; currently he is writing and directing a feature-length horror film, Statuesque, and writing a new fantasy book series.
“I was born in Israel, and spent half my teenage years in Tucson AZ, where English became my second language. When I was 17 I decided to become a science fiction author. My two languages, Hebrew and English, were equal, and I had to decide which language to write in. The English-reading market was so much bigger for SF that the choice was easy. Being a bilingual author takes you to some strange places. I found myself in the odd position of having my books and stories translated into my mother tongue, instead of the other way around, as these were starting to get published abroad and at home. I could look over my translations and fix them in a way no translator would be allowed to: changing sentences, character names, and more to make them fit the new language.
“My SF writing career was made possible by the internet. When I started getting good at writing stories and books, e-zines were just getting started on the internet. My first stories were published in e-zines. That led to my first book being published as an ebook when digital books were completely new. That led to a publisher taking on another one of my books in both digital and paperback formats, which led to my first book being published in Israel. And so on and so on, like a perfect domino train.
“You know how, as an SF author, you’re sometimes faced with the future you’ve imagined? About a decade ago I wrote a short story called ‘The Emoticon Generation’. The word ’emoji’ wasn’t used then, and if I was writing it today, I’d call it ‘The Emoji Generation’. In any case, I saw these new types of words being used, and just delved into how far that could go and what need it served inside of us. I decided to write it as a journalistic piece, where the journalist starts the story by sneaking into his teenage daughter’s room when she sleeps and looking at her phone (phones weren’t locked back then). He sees some really strange emojis and that sets him off on an exploration deep into what’s been happening with emojis. The piece treats futuristic predictions as if they’ve already happened, and he describes what he finds.
“The thing is that five years later there was a piece in the New York Times about emojis and the way kids and teenagers communicated today. It started exactly the same: The journalist sneaks a peek into his child’s phone and sees things that she can’t understand. I loved that! By the way, 25% of my predictions in that story have come true. 75% have not yet. They’re coming. You can still find ‘The Emoticon Generation’ on Amazon.
“I had a good friend who was suicidal. One time we were on the phone when she was this close to doing it if something in her life didn’t happen in the next few hours, something that had nothing to do with her. Not to worry, she was fine and is fine to this day, but one of the things I realized on that day was that some people commit suicide as an ‘action’ on the living, to teach them a lesson, and to have them learn.
“So I thought: what would happen if the dead came back to see if people learned their lessons? Not in a ghoulish way, no. Let’s create a school for telepaths, where you would train on dead bodies/brains, just like in medical school. The bodies would have to be fresh for the students to explore the neurological pathways that haven’t decayed yet. Now what if a new teenage female student got too attached to a teenage female who just killed herself? What if she identified with her too much? What if she came back to that person’s family to see what they learned? That is how the novella The Perfect Girl was created, and that is the story it tells.
“As I was writing it, it was clear there was so much to tell in that world. That led to two more novellas about this telepath world: What if a telepath tried to read an alien with a completely different mind? What would it feel like if a telepath could read her child while it was still in the womb, forming its first half-emotions, half-thoughts, its senses, and so on? All that came together in a book called Secret Thoughts, which was published in the US and Israel separately.
“The story about the mother being able to read everything in her forming child’s thoughts is still one of the most powerful and evocative stories I have ever written, and it isn’t like any other story you’ve ever read. It’s called ‘Most Beautiful Intimacy’.
“In my first decade writing I wrote prose and theater but did my absolute best to stay away from film. Unlike prose, where you can just write something down and it’s done, or theater, where you can gather a few actors and put on a show for almost no budget, you can’t make a film without a serious amount of money. Even then I knew that the process of making films means that most scripts don’t get made. I didn’t want any part of that. I wanted the pieces I wrote, which I think of as art, to be read/seen/heard/experienced. They shouldn’t lie gathering dust in a drawer.
“However, after my first book came out, an Israeli production company that wanted to develop SF movies for Hollywood contacted me regarding one of my most popular stories to this day, ‘Hatchling’. (Search for ‘Hatchling Guy Hasson’ online and you’ll find a free copy, since it was first published in an e-zine). This is the story that was translated into the most languages and that led me into the film world.
“I helped them develop the film and became their chief script writer. As often happens in the world of film, nothing came of it, and yet, I was in now. I disappeared from the SF community in Israel as I started working on directing a horror series for TV that I had written. At the time no one wanted to hear about horror. I was too early – ten years later, horror became all the rage here.
“A few years later I wrote and directed a feature-length Israeli film called Heart of Stone. It cost $15,000 and had no special effects. It was about alien emotions. A few years after that, I created a short web-series about dead superheroes, The Indestructibles. This one cost $250 and also premiered in ICon. Now I’m working on a feature-length horror film. This one costs only a few thousand dollars. I have now learned to do genre films guerilla style.
“Now I’m going back to my roots. I’m working on an SF book series, and in the back of my mind am trying to find a new way to tell SF stories through apps and games. We’ll see what I come up with.”
Dr. Aharon Hauptman has been a researcher in Technology Foresight since 1988 (first at the Interdisciplinary Center for Technology Analysis and Forecasting and currently at the unit for Technology and Society Foresight) at Tel Aviv University. He received a Ph.D. in engineering from Tel Aviv University in 1986. He specializes in foresight and evaluation of trends in emerging technologies and their impact on our lives. He has been involved in several projects for the European Union, such as future developments in Nanobiotechnology, threats posed by the “dark side” of emerging technologies, “wild cards” related to future innovations, and future scenarios in transportation. Hauptman takes part in the expert panel of the online Technology Forecasting system TechCast, is a member of the World Futures Studies Federation (WFSF), and chairs the Israeli node of the Millennium Project (international think-tank of Futures scholars). In 1978, Hauptman helped launch and edited Fantasia 2000, Israel’s longest-lived and most celebrated Israeli SF/F magazine, and in 1996 was one of the founders of the Israeli Society for Science Fiction. He has written numerous popular science and future-oriented articles in several Israeli newspapers and magazines, both printed and electronic.
“I started reading SF in high school. I regarded myself as an SF fan, but I didn’t really read a lot. Years later, when I met real fans, I realized that every one of them had read zillions of books that I hadn’t read. The first books I read were in Hebrew – the first Asimov translations, and then I found some translations of books by Frederic Brown, specifically What Mad Universe. The title in Hebrew was something like Adventure in Space. There was The Force by Frank Robinson and The Puppet Masters by Heinlein, which was called in Hebrew The Masters. Years later I started to read original English-language fantasy and science fiction.
“Fantasia 2000 came from a chat at t he University of Tel Aviv with friends when I was at engineering graduate school. I had friends from the faculty of law, so it was in their cafeteria. I think it was Dubi Lehrer who asked why there was no SF magazine in Israel in 1976, when there was a boom in translations from publishers like Am Oved and Masada. So one of us, either Elie Teneh or myself, said, ‘Okay, let’s make one.’ It started as a joke but turned into reality. Elie invested the first money. It was expensive, but it was not too expensive. We actually had hopes to turn a profit, but that turned into a dream. It’s almost impossible to make money from magazines in Israel, unless you have a lot of advertising. Many were established and, a short time later, failed. Our model for imitation was Omni. We couldn’t be like Omni in all respects – glossy paper and color photos – but we tried to have a nice, colorful cover and illustrations. We tried to make some reasonable compromises between expenses and quality. The content was inspired by F&SF, thanks to permission from Ed Ferman.
“I’m surprised even to this day that people see my name somewhere or meet me and say, ‘You were one of the editors of Fantasia – you changed my life.’ I feel partly amused and partly proud. I even heard this from people in academia who started careers because of Fantasia.
“We wanted to share with local readers good-quality translated SF stories, but from the start we all agreed there was no point in publishing an Israeli SF magazine without original Hebrew-language stories. We knew it would be impossible to publish only original stories, but we wanted at least a few stories every issue. I think today the situation is completely different. If someone started a new magazine now, they could easily fill it with original stories. There are a lot of people writing now, and some of them are very talented. So I think we gave it a kind of a push in the late ’70s. The Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy was established in 1996 by seven people, and I was one of them, so it’s another milestone in the history of SF in Israel.
“On one hand, local SF really broke through barriers. Books are published and you see they are not ghetto books – they are treated like any other literary publication. But part of the population still regards it as a ghetto. I think the situation in this sense is improving. I don’t think there is a natural tendency in Israel to dismiss SF/F. If there were such a tendency, you wouldn’t see thousands of young people coming twice a year to big conventions. It’s true that a big proportion of them are fantasy fans, but still, there is a lot of SF as well. Every year I am surprised to see many more people. Of course most of them are very, very young, and every year I feel older. But they wouldn’t come if there were such an inclination. As for critics, there are those that like SF – they liked it years ago and they like it now. Most of them know that as in any other field there are good books and not-so-good books and very, very bad books. It’s not different from any other genre. Maybe some people from literary circles regard any genre as something inferior. If it is not inferior, it is not genre. I’m not a member of such circles, so I really don’t care. For me a good book is a good book.
“It’s much easier now than, say, 30 years ago to print a book. The costs are much lower because of digital technology. These days people establish small publishing houses and they publish several books that they like, and maybe they even cover their expenses. But it is almost impossible to make a living from that. I think that’s true not just in SF. Probably the only ones to profit from this are the bookstores, and they’re experiencing difficulties as digital publication changes the environment. In the year 2000, if you would have asked me then if there would be any printed books in 2018, I would have told you no way. It happened in academic publications, but to my surprise books are still printed. I think a normal print run is a few hundred, and if the books sell, they run off another 500 copies. Thirty years ago it was 2,000.
“In terms of indigenous Israeli SF/F, we’ve made progress, of course. There are also successful Israeli writers who publish in other languages. The younger generation is making headway, in fantasy mainly but also in SF. So there is a change, but maybe not the big change we wished for when we established Fantasia 2000. I really don’t think things are that different from other non-English-speaking countries. I also don’t think that the tendency toward fantasy is a purely Israeli phenomenon. People find in fantasy something more escapist (not that part of SF isn’t escapist). This makes sense in Israel, which is a pressure cooker. Sometimes people who are closer to science and technology feel that developments have reached such an accelerated pace and that there are so many technological surprises that people are pulled to SF. I read a lot of articles about science and technology as part of my job, and some of them are so amazing that they sometimes make me wonder if I need to bother reading new SF. On the other hand, I think there must be a lot of speculative fiction that employs imagination far beyond where we are now.”
Keren Landsman, MD, is a mother, an epidemiology and public health specialist, and an award-winning and bestselling SF author. In 2014 she volunteered to go to South Sudan to instruct local health care workers in epidemiology and public health. She is one of the founders of Mida’at, a voluntary organization dedicated to the promotion of public health in Israel. She currently works at a free STD clinic and at a mobile clinic for sex workers. Landsman first started reading SF in school, in spite (or because) of the librarian’s claim that “it’s not for girls,” and has been reading it ever since. Her interests come through in her works, where one may encounter children fighting medically accurate space epidemics. From motherhood to friendship and coping with loss, all these and more find their way into stories that balance emotion, plot, and vision. Landsman published her first story in 2006, winning three Geffen awards, Israel’s top prize for science fiction, twice for best original short story and once for best original book: Broken Skies, a collection of her short stories. Bestselling novel The Heart of the Circle was published in Israel in 2018, and an English translation is coming from Angry Robot next year.
“Like a lot of other people, I came to the field thanks to Asimov. I was 12 and had finished all the non-genre books in the public library. I started with the As, found a robot novel, and after the first page I was hooked. Then I moved on to Clarke, then fantasy, then I joined a Dungeons & Dragons group. A whole new world opened up. I didn’t really separate SF from fantasy. They both give us the ability to ask what if something was different. This is the core and what is most interesting to me. I started writing SF and was surprised to discover I could write fantasy as well.
“The Israeli SF community here is a bit different from others. We have a very young crowd, a lot of cosplayers, anime fans, roleplaying gamers. We also have second generation, even third-generation fans. Many bring their kids in. We have a lot of young children. I was in a Rocky Horror production on stage with my daughter when she was six months old. They grew up in this community. The community promotes values that are important to us, like equality and justice, and liberty and tolerance. It feels like family. Certainly among the ones who write or are interested primarily in literature – we all know each other. We’re a very young group. Most of us started writing in the last 20 years, when women writers had become more predominant in the SF community abroad. We grew up in a community where women could write, and therefore we could write as well.
“I personally think that the lines that we draw between subgenres and special interests are way too thick. If someone comes to a convention because they are looking for people who like the same anime shows, or they don’t think the First Law of Robotics was correctly represented, I think the same thing draws the same people – ‘let’s use our imaginations.’ I don’t care why people come as long as I can talk with them, and they read. They read a lot – a lot more than me. I remember a convention when a friend of mine was having a real dispute with a 12-year-old about an Asimov story. It was really passionate – they were arguing and arguing. I was standing to the side cheering the next generation of new people. Most of the people who attend my lectures are over 15.
“I’m a bit envious of the kids who were able to grow up in this community. The main thing for them is which convention do you want to attend, whereas I grew up when they didn’t have conventions. They grew up in these internet bubbles whereas I didn’t have the internet. They have their own challenges, but community-wise we are taking good care of them. The community is very accepting.
“Of course, the media always looks for the freaks. You don’t want to go into a convention and take pictures of people sitting on panels. As long as they’re talking about conventions in ma instream media, I’m cool with that. I want kids to know that we exist, that they have a home and that we’ll accept them. If it comes with the cost of being portrayed as the weirdos who can quote from Star Trek, well, good luck with that.
“A lot of our work is done in short form. In long form we have (seen) a huge rise in YA. My last book was urban fantasy, and it was a bestseller. People read it, people buy it. A good critic will give you a sense of the cultural context of a book. Most of the books coming out in Israel are Israeli, and critics are talking about Israeli books coming out in Israel. This is their job. Our job is to tell them to read what we write. I don’t think that we should look for the approval of critics. If the people who read erotica wait until the critics acknowledge them as a huge market, they will never get a book. You have to write what you want and you have to read what you want, and if you wait long enough, the critics will come.
“I wrote ‘Burn Alexandria’ for one reason. I wanted to write about my very good friend Ehud Maimon, and to put him in a dress with pineapples – the most ridiculous image I could come up with. The Israeli summer should dictate a whole different line of clothing. I don’t understand walking around in pants when it is 40 degrees Celsius out. You always feel better wearing a nice dress. Then I turned him into a robot, and then the aliens showed up, then time travel, and then everything seemed like a blur.
“I don’t know how to outline. I either do too much or not enough. Also, it takes out the fun. I don’t like to plan anything. And I just love discovery writing. I write a scene and then I write another scene and everything comes together at the end, or I have to rewrite everything from the beginning. A lot. A friend of mine said ‘Burn Alexandria’ reminded her of a very weird Doctor Who episode. Of course, I had to burn the Great Library of Alexandria. I don’t want to mess with something that is working for me. My last book was supposed to be a very short story but it turned into 60,000 words. More characters came in and demanded their own attention. I know a little bit about my characters at the beginning but not a lot. For many years I thought that I did not know how to write. Then I realized that there is such a thing as discovery writing and that there are people who are good at it, and that I am not so special.”
Ehud Maimon is the editor of anthology series Hayo Yihye (Once upon a Future) and of the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy website, and was the editor in chief of the society’s journal, Ha’meimad Ha’asiri (The Tenth Dimension); he is a longtime lecturer at Israeli conventions and one of the organizers of Meorot (Lights), a convention about science fiction and science co-sponsored by the society and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Maimon was born on Kibbutz Tzora, but only became involved with Israeli fandom after moving to Jerusalem, while studying for his degree in Islamic and Middle Eastern history.
“It’s weird to think of myself as an ‘elder of Zion’s Fiction.’ I always think of myself as a latecomer. I wasn’t around for the formation of the Israeli Society for Fantasy and Science Fiction, but I edited its semi-prozine, Ha’meimad Ha’asiri (The Tenth Dimension), and it’s my tenth year editing Hayo Yihiyeh (Once Upon a Future), our best-of-the-year anthology. About ten years ago, we decided that The Tenth Dimension, which came out every four months with mostly translated stories, was not doing well. We wanted to offer more Israeli content, and we decided that the society’s money would be better spent putting out a year’s best anthology.
“SF in Israel has become more Israeli, not only in settings but in characters. In the last Hayo Yihiyeh, Yael Furman did a tribute to Star Trek with an Israeli officer who is serving on different planets, but she is dreaming of going back to Petach Tikvah. She misses her husband and kids. We see Israeliness in other forms. Israeliness means the protagonists are Israeli, not just by name but by attitude – you know them when you see them. There is more dealing with futuristic Israel or fantastic Israel. For instance, Rotem Baruchin is writing a series of stories called The Townkeepers. Each settlement has a guardian spirit, so there is one for Tel Aviv, one for Jerusalem, and they embody that particular place. You see it in Hagai Averbuch’s work. There was a story published a few years ago about an alien species that comes to Earth, and encounters a protagonist who is doing his yearly miluim – reserve army duty.
“Most of the stuff I see is near future. Israel in these stories is not hugely different – you get new technologies in a recognizable Israel. I think Shimon Adaf’s Shadrach, which is very Israeli, as it takes place just off the Gaza Strip, depicts a very different future Israel. It takes place farther in the future, after some catastrophic events, when, as in Adaf’s Kfor, Israel goes back to its religious roots. Shadrach is one of the best novellas I’ve read. Hebrew is a gendered language. Shimon tries to write non-gendered Hebrew. He’s like an Israeli Anne Leckie, except Leckie depicts everyone as female unless they are viewed from outside the culture. But because of the nature of Hebrew, that kind of experiment is more difficult.
“We now see improvements in our older and more experienced writers, and we have younger writers who are exposed because of the Internet and e-books and come into it more prepared. I recently read a short story by a 14-year-old. It didn’t quite pan out, but it showed real promise. There’s more awareness of international and indigenous SF in Israel. We thought no one was looking at us, and we could do what we wanted, engage with material from abroad, adapting it in crude form instead of writing our own stuff. You have more people reading SF and you get caught (usurping tropes and plots). In writing forums, we said, ‘Ok, we see who influenced you, now let’s see something more original.’ This is indeed what happened. I’m talking to people 20 years younger than me, and they say they read English and are more versed than I am in stuff being published abroad. Things you could do 15 years ago are not going to fly today.
“Last year I finished reading all the stories for this year’s Hayo Yihiyeh. There were 40 stories submitted. This year I got over 70. Most of these were rejected, but we’re starting to see a local subgenre. We’re starting to see more novels (!!!), not just stories, getting published by major publishers, because they are good and because we have a generation of editors who grew up in SF. There is quite a lot of YA. There is some good stuff being written even there. Then you start getting books that are mainstream/SF. It’s due to this generation of editors that is not afraid of SF, do not think it’s a low form of literature and are actively seeking out to publish it.
“The Israeli media’s invariable focus on the freak show aspect of cons really bothers me. It is the default. Israeli SF (obviously) has a problem of image. I hope this will begin to change, but I’m not sure how to do it. If I had time, my one goal would be to try changing the image here. The problem is, it’s just a tiny, tiny market. A publisher once told me if he sells 700 copies of an SF book, he considers it a huge success. The smaller presses like Sial and Graff and Yanshuf are edited and published by fans. They mostly publish translations and they want to see the stuff they love out there. Some use crowdfunding for seed money. I’m skeptical that they can ever even break even. It’s one of the reasons Yoav Blum and Keren Landsman (to name a few) are not branding their books as SF. I think we’re getting stuff in under the radar. You are reading SF and you don’t know it. Orly Castel-Blum, for instance, one of the great and most celebrated Israeli writers – everything she writes is either SF or fantasy, but people don’t see it as such because she is a mainstream writer. What we now need is an Israeli Asimov or George R.R. Martin.
– Ehud Maimon
This report and more like it in the November 2018 issue of Locus.
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One thought on “SF in Israel”
I loved this article on the Speculative Fiction scene in Israel. I’ve read quite a few Jewish writers of note and their stories have engaged me again and again; the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Aleichem; Chaim Potok and Eli Wiesel, Lavie Tidhar, whose Lady Cleopatra de Winter, I adore. I’ve read about dybbuks and the Golem and other mystical creatures; I’m sure that I will enjoy many of these writer’s stories and I anticipate them with pleasure – after all I live to read and discover.