Friday, December 3, 2010

Chanukah Day 2: Guest Post by David Brin and Book Giveaway

Posted by Simcha 12:30 PM, under | 10 comments

In a provocative essay, Jewish Studies scholar Michael Weingrad asked "why don’t Jews write more fantasy literature?... Why no Jewish Tolkiens or Lewises, and why no Jewish Narnias?

Speaking as one who knows many authors in the science fiction and fantasy (SF&F) field, I can assure Mr. Weingrad that such Jewish fantacists exist. Lisa Goldstein won the National Book Award, a decade or two back, with The Red Magician, a golem-like fantasy about the holocaust. Esther Freisner has written humorous fantasies and there are many others. The great Avram Davidson used to probe the marvelous illogic that language imposes on our imaginations. Isidore Haiblum's "The Tsaddick of Seven Wonders" updated storytelling modes from the Pale. My own graphic novel, The Life Eaters (DC Comics 2004) explored the implications, had the Nazis been using necromancy during the Holocaust to revive the Aryan gods.

And yet, Weingrad's point is well-taken. A far higher fraction of Jewish SF&F lean toward the other end of the spectrum, as I do, writing mostly science fiction when they extrapolate into the unknown. Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Mike Resnich and others of the last generation were collected in Jack Dann's anthology of Jewish SciFi Wandering Stars. More recently Harry Turtledove has explored detailed "alternate realities." Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policeman's Daughter" won massive literary acclaim. Michael Burstein brings an orthodox Jewish perspective to hard-tech SF.


In fact, the preference of Jewish SF&F authors for science fiction over fantasy... and their near complete absence from heroic or "elfish" genres, of the sort written by Tolkien and Lewis, may reflect something deep about their attitudes. As Weingrad points out, the feudal settings and magical worldviews harken back to times that offered nothing to Jews. No justice. Only the rationalizations of elites that excused the slaughtering of "lesser" types -- like orcs, or goblins, or people with big noses. Jews are, indeed, "invested in modernity" and are zealous to see the enlightenment push forward. But most fantasy portrays modern life as sterile and regrettable.


My own controversial essay on Tolkien provoked a storm by laying out how romanticism chiefly despises the core modern notion of human progress. There is also an undercurrent of utter selfishness, exemplified by Tolkien's palantir globes -- marvelous magical devices that allow the user to peer at faraway sights and glean vast wisdom at a touch or glance. The seven palantirs are justly kept reserved for mighty lords and kings. How much better than distributing millions of them... like the one on your own desktop... to every peasant and ethnic minority. (Oh, don't get me started on the inherent snobbery and selfishness of Harry Potter's world of parasitical "magicians" - leeching off a muggle world that they simultaneously despise and utterly rely-upon. Dig this Harry. We muggles have been to the moon. And if you ever asked us for help, we'd wipe out Voldemort, like a bug.)


Put aside the blatant fact that the Nazis yearned toward very similar romantic archetypes as Tolkien, the same general mythos -- though JRRT did despise them.

Oh, one can weave fantasy themes into science fiction, all right. My novel Kiln People takes the notion of golems into a near future when everybody can copy themselves -- their "soul wave" -- into temporary clay dittos, in order to be in two places at once. But the underlying theme is right there... the new thing goes to everybody. Not to some untrustworthy (elfish or magical or kingly) elite.

Weingrad has it right. At a fundamental level, Judaism is focused on this world, leaving the next to take care of itself, and this general philosophy informs Jewish authors, e. Even when they project from the here and now, the topic is still this reality of rationality and cause and effect. Tikkun Olam is about rolling up the sleeves and repairing what we see in front of us... or the problems of next year, or five generations from now. It is not about wishing we were gods.

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Enter to win a copy of Before They Were Giants, featuring one of David Brin's very first published stories along with those of many other popular speculative fiction authors. To enter just leave your name and email address is the comment box below.

10 comments:

If the giveaway is open to worldwide entries I would really like to be entered.

Thanks very much.

Carol T

buddytho {at} gmail DOT com

I just read Wiengrad's essay and found it not as provocative as I expected. Maybe I just wasn't surprised by what he said?

this kind of sums it up:
"Judaism is far more skittish about acknowledging the existence of powers acting apart from God, even in rebellion—which leaves a lot less room for magic."

skittish really is the perfect word for it. We love talking about the future, and technology, but in the Jewish worldview, it seems we are uncomfortable with things that exist outside of God.

And Thank you Mr. Brin, for your wonderful guest post! Tolkien has never done it for me, and it's nice to have a little more justification as to why.

and btw, I loved Kiln People!!

I would have to disagree with the comment about inherent snobbery of the wizarding world in Harry Potter re the muggles. It's not so much snobbery as a form of racism/prejudice by followers of the dark lord. In fact there is an increasingly dangerous thread running through the books in which as Voldemort grows in power, so do his followers become more intent on targeting the "mudbloods" for ethnic cleansing.

At the books' simplest level, I think readers get that only evil people think in terms of "pure blood" and "half-blood."

And I'm not sure if the wizarding world is so much leeching off the muggle world than existing alongside it without the muggles' knowledge.

I think I get how you distinguish between SF and Fantasy in that the magic in fantasy is elitist (only the gifted can wield it) while the technology in SF equalizes (everyone has access). I never thought of it that way. Food for thought!

I'm not sure I even agree with the way SF is seperated by Fantasy. I've read a lot of SF where it is the elites that control the technology and everyone is forced to trudge along. Books liks Aristoi are a perfect example of that. I would even argue that Dune follows in that regard with a lot of the benefits of the technology only applied to those that can afford it.

Overall, intersting read and I appreciate the thought behind it.

fforgnayr@yahoo.com

The book sounds very interesting! As a Jewish writer myself, I would love to read this book.

gdblogger1 at gmail dot com

Thanks for the giveaway.

juliecookies(at)gmail.com

The Yiddish Policemen's Union and The final Solution (a Holmesian pastiche)- unless Chabon has put something else out?
I'm enjoying this series.

I always found it fascinating with religion in sci-fi. In fantasy it belongs, but in sci-fi there is always this new meaning to it all. Like with Dune

blodeuedd1 at gmail dot com

I am reading Kiln people right now and very much enjoying it. The populism and respect for the masses is refreshing.
As you say Jews are "invested in modernity", I am curious to see where this leads to. We seem to be at a transition in the US, in Israel, in what and who is supported.

We live in interesting times.

Jeff dot pdx at gmail

Although I'm not sure I agree with everything David Brin says I think it is interesting to look at what makes scifi or fantasy jewish. It is a lot more complicated than 'Jewishing-up' traditional thenes.
A few skullcaps and Shabbat candles do not a Jewish story make.

eshchory AT gmail DOT com

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