The OF Blog: Speaking of "marginalized" writers and groups...

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Speaking of "marginalized" writers and groups...

Don't know why I didn't think to ask this in my previous post, but I was finishing up reading Daniel Goldhagen's 2002 diatribe against the Catholic Church's failure to act as a whole during the Holocaust, A Moral Reckoning, when the thought struck me:

"Is there a definable subgenre of SF stories that would be 'Jewish' in character, motifs, outlook, etc.?"

Did find a couple of books related to this theme on Amazon. However, this just leaves me wondering if this paucity is due to a lack of demand for such group-exclusive fictions, if there has been sufficient assimilation going on to make it very difficult to tell if a work is "Jewish" or not, or if there are other, more nefarious factors in action.

Very curious to look into this, as I think it'd be part of a greater future project I'd like to do for my own education, as what I've noticed from most books on the Holocaust (even cultural studies, which interest me the most) is that the Jews are relegated to a mostly passive, "victimized" role that extends beyond the brutality of the actual Shoah, but into their portrayals. Too often historians and others commenting on the Holocaust (even Goldhagen, himself an American of Jewish descent, focuses on the perpetrators to the extent that the horror of the atrocities inflicted is lost into this vortex of almost nameless, formless "Jewish victims") present the Jews as being passive objects of suffering, with only a few books, usually Anne Frank's diary or Elie Wiezel's Night being the two that "average" people know, being held up to demonstrate that the Jewish victims had voices of their own.

Although I'm not Jewish, I certainly would like to know more about their cultures in Europe during this time, how the Shoah was reflected in their literatures, and if Jewish SF might contain traces of this horrific event. If any have suggestions as to books to consider, it'd be greatly appreciated.


Nephtis said...

Don't know about Jewish SF, but after a few moments' reflection I remembered several books with distinctly Jewish characters and relevant themes:

- Hyperion by Dan Simmons - you're familiar with this book

- Michael Chabon's books ( I haven't read them yet)

- The focus of Spin Control by Chris Moriarty is the ongoing war between Israel and Palestine, and almost the entire book takes place there.

- Israel also becomes a key point of contention in Archangel Protocol and its 3 sequels by Lyda Morehouse (in the 3rd and 4th book, specifically); a leader of a Jewish terrorist group is one of the main POV characters, and several aspects of Judaism are interwoven into the story.

- Dante's Equation by Jane Jensen is a science fiction thriller, totally engrossing, about Torah code and one Orthodox scholar who finds doomsday messages in it, and another scholar who perished in the Holocaust and may have uncovered the secret. Several scenes actually take place in a concentration camp.

- The sentient AI in Chris Moriarty's Spin State is Jewish (if that makes sense to you).

I feel like there's more. In American culture, no way are the Jews marginalized or boxed into a victim role (and that's not because I live in New York). The influence of the Jewish culture (and religion) is on one hand very pervasive and on the other, quite distinct. Jewish characters show up often enough in American SF, in a way that's believable - if you can trust one ethnic group to retain cohesion and identity into the far future, through you-name-it social and techological upheavals, it would be Jews.

keele864 said...

I've heard that some of Primo Levi's stories in A Tranquil Star have science fiction elements.

etrangere said...

I think a lot of potential Jewish themes are appropriated by mainstream culture. Even thematics like the Shoah - look how the NBSG is using words like "Holocaust", has episodes titled "Exodus", and various other references.
Do you think the show writers even wondered "hey, could our show be seen as tackling specifically Jewish theme?" I bet not.

I'm not sure that talking about the lack of demand for "group-exclusive" (what an ugly way to say it, as if focussing specifically on one group means we are excluding the others from reading it?) SFF is very meaningful when it's already been quite well demonstrated lately how many prejudices and insularity the SFF milieu is prone to. And, surely, Michel Chabon winning the Hugo prize for Yiddish Policemen's Union would prove the opposite?

That said, they are a few SFF stories with specifically Jewish outlooks, motifs, and characters. Hyperion has a very significant Jewish character - whether that's well tackled or not is disputable, but he's there. Kay's Lions of Al Rassan definitely tries too. Have you ever heard of the French comic book the Rabbi's Cat? (I believe it's translated in English, but knowing you, you'd want to read it in French :) It's magic realism set in Algeria in the early 30s, amongst the Jewish communities that lived there, then. Three Days to Never by Tim Powers has also quite a few Jewish themes and character (although I was quite disturbed by how he treated them - I need to review that book to properly articulate why).

I'm not sure I understand how you bring the Shoah in this post. Honestly you sound as if you think that only the Shoah is a Jewish specific theme to deal with in literature (which is a bit odd, especially in the context of SFF).

mark c said...

The first one I thought of was Marge Piercy's "He, She and It" ("Body of Glass" in the UK) - a cyberpunk dystopia where a hi-tech jewish commune has to build a cyborg to defend themselves from megacorporations - this plotline is linked to a recounting of the legend of the Golem of Prague, which was created to defend Jews' from anti-semitic attack.

I haven't read it for a while, but thought it was pretty good

Larry said...


This post is one of those times where I think I would have gone back and edited it, because my thoughts were in a jumble when I was writing it. What I meant by mentioning the Shoah is how does one treat the idea of a near-complete calamity of mass proportions? How does one cast that well into a fiction? Jonathan Littell attempted that and it ended up being a glorious mess. That's what puzzles me, the thought that maybe there are events so strong that it's almost impossible to render them as a story without all sorts of related questions arising.

Will look into the suggestions everyone has mentioned so far, even if I've read a few of them already.

etrangere said...

Heh, I can understand jumbled thoughts.

That's a very good question, about tackling near complete calamity of mass proportion. I think SFF tends to try to tackled those kinds of theme pretty often, actually. But most of the time, it can do so freely and without much worries because the events they depict are fictional.
When you write about the life of real people; that affected the real world to such an extent, there's a much bigger burden to be accurate and give people involved their due.
Of course, I haven't read Les Bienveillantes (I don't really think I want to).

Have you read Three Days To Never by the way? Because to me, one of the interesting, one of the very distracting thing, was how it pointedly never did mention the Shoah. And I think if it had, it wouldn't have been able to make the same point it did without causing people to throw their books against the wall. This in itself is pretty interesting (and weakens the novel considerably).

Tamara said...

Datepalm from Rans board here-

This is obviously very much an Israeli perspective - I think the diaspora might have a fundumnetally different one when it comes to stereotypes and assumptions about the holocaust:

The historiography (I may be using that word wrong) of the Holocaust has changed a bit in Israel over the years - during the early years, 50s and 60s, there was a major emphasis on the experiences of partisans, ghetto rebellions, etc, rather marginalising the "embarassing" but infinitely more common "sheep to the slaughter" experience. (How jewish communities should respond was a point of friction during the holocaust itself, actually.) which has since gotten "legitimised" - now probably to the exclusion of a more "active" narrative, especially as the issue moves away from first hand accounts and into education and remembrance [personal bias] the current tendency is to go for a wishy washy "oh wasn't it sad and think of the little children" approach, attempting to pretend fundumental moral and historical issues of victimhood, resistance, exile, etc, do not now and have never existed. Harrumph. /personal bias

For a fairly literate country, with a livelish fandom, theres not a lot of Israeli SF&F. I've read a couple of essays trying to explain it, but none have been satisfactory.

Theres "The Blue Mountain" by Meir Shalev, which is quite magic realisty but is maybe more "Israeli" than jewish, and AB Yehoshuas "Journey to the end of the Millenium" which strictly speaking is a historical novel, but had a fantasyish feel to me - its about a group of Sephardic jews moving through Ashkenazi europe in 999. I haven't read it, but apparently "The road to Ein Harod" by Amos Keinan is a dystopia, possibly involving alien abductions (I don't know if its ever been translated, but it was filmed as "Back to Freedom" at some point, in a production apparently involving Mussolinis granddaughter in some way)

My reading in hebrew, however, is not all it could be.

And, well, theres always "Altneuland" :-)

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