From ‘Altneuland’ to science fiction nation
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From ‘Altneuland’ to science fiction nation

The Zion’s Fiction team has a vision: to create the first-ever English-language anthology of Israeli science fiction and fantasy

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Proposed cover for "Zion's Fiction" by artist Avi Katz is an homage to a famous photograph of Theodor Herzl. (Courtesy)
Proposed cover for "Zion's Fiction" by artist Avi Katz is an homage to a famous photograph of Theodor Herzl. (Courtesy)

If you browse the shelves of your local bookstore or search online, you’ll find more than 30 English-language national collections of science fiction literature. Many countries are represented, with the Philippines alone boasting seven volumes. But what you will not find is an English-language anthology of Israeli science fiction or fantasy.

Los Angeles-based writer and Israeli science fiction aficionado Sheldon (Sheli) Teitelbaum wants to change that situation. He and a group of like-minded writers, editors, translators and academics are working together to produce a three-volume English-language anthology of Israeli science fiction and fantasy.

They’ve launched their project, titled “Zion’s Fiction,” this week with a $65,000 Kickstarter campaign, to coincide with the 18th annual Icon Festival for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Role-Playing, taking place in Tel Aviv.

“Israel, the start-up nation, is the quintessential science fiction nation,” Teitelbaum told The Times of Israel from his LA home.

“In fact, Israel is the only country that was inspired by a speculative fiction novel,” he said, using an alternate term for science fiction to refer to “Altneuland” (Old New Land) by Theodor Herzl. Published in 1902, Herzl’s utopian novel outlined the founder of modern Zionism’s vision for a Jewish state.

“Altneuland” was itself what some might call a knock-off of the utopian science fiction novel “Looking Backward: 2000-1887,” by the American writer Edward Bellamy. The book was a huge bestseller and highly influential, even inspiring several utopian communities.

The prophet Ezekiel's first encounter with a chariot of fire. By Avi Katz. (Courtesy)
The prophet Ezekiel’s first encounter with a chariot of fire. By Avi Katz. (Courtesy)

More than a century later, there is no lack of Israeli works of science fiction and fantasy. Tens of Israeli authors, including Yoram Kaniuk, Amos Kenan, Nava Semel, Shai Agnon, Gail Hareven, Orly Castel-Bloom, Benjamin Tammuz and Amir Gutfreund have published in the genre.

However, according to Teitelbaum, Israeli works of speculative fiction have not received the widespread attention they deserve in Israel, let alone in the English-speaking world beyond, because of Israel’s historical obsession with political, social and psychological realism.

Author Hareven discussed this in her essay “On The Unimaginable,” which was printed in the 2013 book “With Both Feet on the Clouds: Fantasy in Israeli Literature.” The book dealt specifically with the question of why, when Jewish literature written in the Diaspora has tended toward the fantastical, mythical and mystical, literature produced in the State of Israel has been stubbornly realistic.

‘Israel is the only country that was inspired by a speculative fiction novel’

“Although literature with a blatant political message is not common here, it is reasonable to assume that authors, who are regularly asked to sign petitions written in the first person plural, find it hard to rid themselves of the collective consciousness and sense of mission when they sit down at their desks to write,” she wrote.

“Israeli reality is loud and insistent. Every news broadcast is a rallying call. And in view of the profusion of urgent rallying calls, immersing yourself in alternate realities is often considered self-indulgent, and in any case the ambient noise makes it impossible. Fantasizing is fine, and no one has ever said, or would say, otherwise. But you should be very sure that the fantasy has a point, that it has some sort of connection to ‘the burning reality of our life,’ that it examines some fractured symbol, or in short, as [Russian writer Nikolai] Gogol put it, that it ‘benefits the country.’”

Artist Avi Katz presented this drawing to Leonard Nimoy when he attended ICon one year. The conference always takes place during Sukkot. (Courtesy)
Artist Avi Katz presented this drawing to Leonard Nimoy when he attended ICon one year. The conference always takes place during Sukkot. (Courtesy)

Science fiction and fantasy also deal with existential issues, but they do so in a way that creates an emotional distance between the reader and the subject matter.

“It makes it interesting. You’re seeing your own world though other, fresh eyes,” Teitelbaum explained. “It gives us new insights. We need this. Our focus and perspective has been too narrowed.”

Teitelbaum himself first became enamored with science fiction in 1963, when at age eight, he started watching “Dr. Who” on television in his family’s Montreal living room. He called his mother in from the kitchen to watch with him. But when he mistakenly called the show, “Dr. No” (the title of a sexy James Bond movie), his mother immediately ordered him to turn the TV set off.

“Out of oppression comes obsession,” joked Teitelbaum, who went on to join the editorial board of the seminal Israeli science fiction magazine, Fantasia 2000, when he lived in Israel in the 1970s and ’80s.

‘It will be a window in to Israel’s dreams and nightmares’

While they raise money for securing rights and top-notch translations, Teitelbaum, his co-editor Dr. Emanuel Lottem, a founder of the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the other members of the “Zion’s Fiction” editorial team, have already begun compiling long and short lists of works they are considering for inclusion in their anthology’s three volumes.

Israeli artist Avi Katz will create all the original artwork for the anthology. He has already lent many of his science fiction- and fantasy-related pieces to the Kickstarter campaign, including a series of paintings in which he imagined biblical women in speculative fiction situations.

Artist Avi Katz envisions Abraham, Sarah and Hagar in science fiction setting. (Courtesy)
Artist Avi Katz envisions Abraham, Sarah and Hagar in science fiction setting. (Courtesy)

The editorial team has many different types of readers in mind. Of course, some will be ardent consumers of science fiction. Others may be attracted to “Zion’s Fiction” because of their interest in the marvels of Israeli technology.

“I can also see this anthology attracting people interested in either Jewish or Israeli literature,” says Teitelbaum.

He could imagine “Zion’s Fiction” anchoring a course on Israeli fantasy and science fiction at the high school or undergraduate level, not to mention becoming “the mother of all bar mitzvah books.”

Teitelbaum believes the anthology will be for everyone, whether they love, hate, or are merely indifferent to the very real state that was originally envisioned in Herzl’s fantastical “Altneuland.”

“It will be a window in to Israel’s dreams and nightmares,” he said.

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