לייבל באטוויניק כותב על הסיפורים הקצרים באסופת סיפורי מדע בדיוני ישראלים שתורגמו לאנגלית More Zion’s Fiction. הרשימה באנגלית.

COVER OF ZION FICTION

Congratulations to Emanuel Lottem and Sheldon Teitelbaum (L&T) on the release of yet another collection of Israeli SF&F short stories in English: More Zion’s Fiction (launched September 2021)!

I must admit that it’s still too early for me to make an all-encompassing statement regarding the anthology, since I’ve only just begun getting into it. As with the previous collection, you will have to bear with me as I read through each story, and pass judgement on my feelings and findings – presenting one or two story reviews, periodically, in our monthly issues of CyberCozen.

In my review of Teitelbaum & Lottem’s first collection, “Zion’s Fiction”, which contained 16 stories, it took me 13 issues to cover the entire collection (from January 2019 to May 2020). This time, we have 17 stories – so patience, my dear friends, patience!…

I feel, somehow (perhaps) like an archaeologist, who must be very careful in his/her diggings, lest some damage may occur to the overall ‘find’ – that this exploration may well uncover some historic gem or two, but we shall see…

In the meantime, here are my very first impressions:

COVER OF MORE ZION FICTION

Cover art

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Interesting, but not as interesting and imaginative as the cover of the first anthology (A quick skim through does, however, show Avi Katz’ vivid imagination and keen talent in his other sketches throughout the book).

Forward by David Brin

Very (very) short, at one-and-a-half pages, Brin gives us a very brief overview of other collections of SF by, or about, Jews or Jewish themes, and an even shorter overview of some of the works in this collection. Sorry to say that I wasn’t terribly impressed.

Introduction by Emanuel Lottem and Sheldon Teitelbaum

The intro by the two editors, on the other hand, was very interesting and a worthwhile read. I love the way they present a series of ‘issues’ that are (or are not) covered in Israeli SF&F. Moreover, rather than just giving their own opinions, theories, and/or ‘research results’ – they present numerous quotes from the authors themselves, as well as other Israeli SF writers and people in the know. These are all worthwhile reads.

They make a point about “The Situation” and “The Conflict” – concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict and how these themes are virtually ignored/avoided in Israeli SF&F:

“There seems to be a general reluctance among Israeli SF/F writers, unlike their mainstream counterparts, to deal with any of The Situation’s multiple facets. They tend to fixate on other issues, that is to say, on their personal concerns.”

Then L&T seem to step back, and correctly ‘realize’ that it’s not fair to accuse the writers of mostly ‘ignoring’ THE SITUATION/CONFLICT, and state: “Instead, they are accused by some – unfairly, we believe – of contemplating their respective navels.”

They then quote Ehud Maimon, the editor of the annual Hebrew-language series of Israeli SF/F anthologies, “Once Upon a Future” – who rightly put it:

“The younger [generation’s] writing has become more personal and less national. It deals with the individual as an individual, not as a representative of a generation or society at large. The focus is on quotidian rather than national issues.”

L&M conclude that Israeli S/F today is more concerned with life and living, than problems that are ‘bigger than life’, that since we can (rarely) find a solution to them, it may seem best to just let things work themselves out on their own.

That having been said – they do mention a trend to deal with ‘dark issues’ including suicide (and death, in general) – possibly proportionately more than expected. Their take on this is worth contemplating. The reverse, they say, is also of note: “very little humor in Israeli SF/F”. This is not ‘traditional’ to Jews who count among them some of the most famous – or at least most notorious – comedians in Western culture (Marx Brothers, Mel Brookes, Jackie Mason, Joan Rivers, Carl Reiner, to name just a few).

They mention the fact that almost no short story has Arab protagonists, or mention the Iranian threat:

“But try as we might, we could find not a single Israeli short story that has this threat as its subject or even as a part of its subtext.”

I guess they never saw my story “natsyonaler reynikungs tog” [National Cleanup Day] (2007) – Then again, it is in Yiddish.

Their explanation is: “I think many of them are just sick and tired of the Situation and have nothing to say about it. This brings to mind Ludwig Wittgenstein’s 7thproposition: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.'”

– I believe a better quote would be “Pick Battles Big Enough To Matter, Small Enough To Win” (Jonathan Kozol) … Some things are just too big for us.

L&T make some very good and astute arguments – as well as a very good use of quotes from actual Israeli SF/F writers (Well done, guys! I like that). However, the following statement (actually made twice in this 10-page intro), is, in my opinion, wrong: “As noted above, Israel is politically split right through the middle.” I believe it is not a two-way split, but rather a multi-faceted cracking – possibly even a fluid breaking-up and re-shifting – that pits so many different factions against each other, but often makes strange bed-fellows too!

This is very typical of Israeli politics – that’s why we have so many political parties and splinter groups. And so many jokes about this, such as “When two Jews at a street corner argue, they represent at least 3 political viewpoints/parties…” – So much so, that the coalition government of 2022 contained some of Israel’s fiercest/proudest extremes (left-wing Meretz party working together with secular right-wing Yisrael Beyteynu, and Islamist Ra’am, and religious rightists’ Yamina… If that isn’t SF/F …).

All-in-all, a very well written intro that intrigues at moments, and maybe upsets – but neatly offers up a very good overview of what SF/F writers in Israel are (mostly) writing. It’s good food for thought, and whose quotes and viewpoints will make excellent talking points / topics of discussion, for years to come.

Well done L&T!

===================

On a personal note (and I’m probably going to get some flak for this)

My main concern about the main Intro is that it is significantly ‘politicized’. True, everyone has an opinion (and sometimes more than one) concerning the Middle East and Israel, but I would have hoped for a more neutral presentation. They have done their best to present more than one viewpoint, but there are many instances of one-sidedness.

For example:

“Palestinian territories, moreover, remain under occupation or siege”

My understanding was that they are ‘disputed territories’. In addition – unless I’m mistaken – Jews historically originate from Judea, and Arabs historically from Arabia…

“The Conflict between Israel and the Palestinians”

Might it not be the other way around (i.e. reverse the order: The Conflict between the Palestinians and Israel)? For example, this was very recent “PA[Palestinian Authority]: Israeli President Lighting Menorah at Cave of the Patriarchs Is ‘Declaration of War’ ”…, not to mention the suicide bombers, car rammings, thousands of rockets from Gaza targeting civilians, and more …

“Muslim and Arab-Christian citizens remain marginalized”

Israeli Arabs can be found in so many key sectors of everyday Israeli life: doctors and nurses, dentists, pharmacists, as well as TV, film, and other entertainment personalities, policemen, hi-tech professionals, university students(***), and more – right up to parliament members and members of the current reigning government coalition.

I have personally met, worked with, and studied with many Arabs (both Muslim and Christian) in these last three sectors.

===================

For further reading

See their website at “http://zionfiction.com/

The Amazon webpage actually permits you to read a sample from the book (by clicking the book cover on the left side of the webpage), and this includes both intros and the first story! Enjoy!

By the way, there is a very nice piece about the book and about the two editors here:

http://zionfiction.com/

The Sea of Salt – by Elana Gomel

Elana Gomel’s very interesting 16-page story is the first in the anthology. It takes place in Israel, at the Dead Sea, where a portal opens to another place and time. Here, a cruel German scientist has been continuing his Nazi experiments on Jews (and possibly others) – creating morbid mindless monsters.

One of the interesting points in this story is the remorse and wanting to ‘set things right’ of that Nazi’s granddaughter who comes to Israel and seeks the portal so she can go kill her murderous grandfather (the mad Nazi scientist).

Although this review is quite short (I didn’t want to give too much away) it’s really a well-written horror-SF story that is worth reading.

Schrödinger’s Gorgon – by Keren Landsman (e-Book: p50-79)
(Translated by Emanuel Lottem)

This is a great story. Well written, and with a good flow. (There’s a ‘BUT’ here – although no reflection on the author, only on the editors of this collection – see at the end).

Before getting into the storyline itself – if you do plan on reading the story – it’s worth a quick detour to the meaning of the two parts of the title, for those unfamiliar (or you can skip these links and go on to the rest of my review):

Schrödinger’s cat – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schr%C3%B6dinger%27s_cat_in_popular_culture

Gorgonhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gorgon

Keren Landsman’s story takes place somewhere in outer space on a ship that’s quarantined itself due to an unknown epidemic that’s killed everyone except one survivor. You’ve surely seen or read many similar stories of an unknown disease and either someone in the crew tries to find an antidote before it’s too late (as in the start of this story) – and/or some medical team comes aboard to try and save the day (also, as in this case). For example, the original Star Trek series has at least one such episode.

‘Epidemic’ stories – and particularly films – are, apparently, a dime a dozen, and probably as popular as zombie and other horror films (Here’s a list of 79 movies). This one seems very realistic. Landsman, according to the bio preceding the story, is “a medical doctor specializing in epidemiology and public health, and an award-winning SF author”. This gives the story particular authority and a ‘real’ feeling. Many of the procedures and terms used throughout (and it’s detailed!) are probably based on real-life situations, possibly with some extrapolation to probable future technology, tools, and methods. Emanuel Lottem did a great translation job (though I haven’t seen the original Hebrew). I’m pretty sure it wasn’t easy, given the great number of epidemiology and other medical terms and descriptions that Landsman has in her story. One term Rating threw me. It describes some of the personnel on the ship, and particularly from the medical team that comes to investigate the epidemic. Merriam Webster has it as “chiefly British: a naval enlisted man”.

The story is a good one, with a fascinating ending which I will not divulge – which is kind of too bad, because I would otherwise compare it to similar such stories – but then I’d be giving away the ending… So yes, I do recommend reading it – and although not too familiar with Landsman’s writing (I did enjoy “Burn Alexandria” and reviewed it in the March 2019 issue of CyberCozen), she is considered a high-level storyteller and has won numerous prizes for her writing.

BUT: That having been said, the story – unlike “Burn Alexandria” – has no connection to/with Israel, or Jews, or anything Jewish. This is one of my main critiques concerning the choice of stories (and I’ve mentioned this before). I don’t think that such a story, that is devoid of any connection to Zion/Israel/Judaism belongs in a collection titled “Zion’s Fiction”. I wouldn’t have included it in this anthology because I would consider it misleading to a reader who wants to read “Zion’s” science fiction – i.e. SF stories that reflect Zion/Israel or some connection to Judaism. If I had been asked, I would have suggested including this story in a collection with a different name. Maybe something like: Best SF&F by Israeli writers.

I will say that There was a sub-title for “Zion’s Fiction” – “A Treasury of Israeli Speculative Fiction”, and for the current “More Zion’s Fiction” – “Wondrous Tales from the Israeli ImagiNation”. But, in my personal opinion, I still don’t think that’s enough…

The Assassination – by Guy Hasson (e-Book: p81-106)
Another great story. This one deals with ‘Politics’ as well as the generation gap clash of old agers and youth. Originally published around 2010, the story takes us back to the final years of the British Mandate – from the World War II year of 1942 to about 1948 and independence for the State of Israel.

The premise is, that Israeli technology has developed a proprietary – actually secret – apparatus with which the intelligence and security services can listen in on past events – limited to about the last 70 years.

  In the story, there is a confrontation with a retired and controversial Israeli national hero. His past ‘heroic act’ that made him who he is, comes into question after the ‘time-listening’ device picks up potentially troublesome sound snippets from this person’s past.

As a history buff, I particularly enjoyed the speculative part of the story: Technology that is able to pick up the authentic sounds and conversations from specific periods and geographic areas in the past. The depictions of the time, the characters, and the events that led to the creation of the State of Israel sound very plausible and realistic. The story underscores the power of technology that, used (or misused), could veritably ‘change History’.

Five Four Three Two One – by Hila Benyovits-Hoffman
(e-Book: p107-141) Translated by Rehavia Berman

Another great story. The premise is, that in the future of the 23rd century, overpopulation has forced the government to allow families to have a child only via a lottery. However, they also tried a different method in parallel – an experiment – to maintain genetic matter: Splice 5 DNAs into one fetus, such that once in each 23 hours the child will transform into one of the 5 humans. This 5-way being is dubbed a Hydra. It takes about 1 hour for the transformation to occur, because some of the genetic details cause the body to slightly shift into another shape, but one thing stays the same: in the case of the story’s Hydra, the 2 boys and 3 girls that occupy the body, are all in a female body… with the related repercussions, in addition to all other issues of ‘living’ only once in 5 days, while the world around goes forward. – Thus, relationships with other people are also affected. The story covers one such family of siblings and both their personal and their common issues, and how they communicate by a logbook that contains messages from the previous day’s sibling’s experiences, etc. Fascinating idea!

Note: There is nothing inherently Jewish or Israeli about the story, other than the names of the people that are all common Israeli names like Avi, Orna, Doron, Yoel, etc.

Oh, and I love the artwork by Avi Katz:

zion's fiction avi katz
zion’s fiction avi katz

The story also reminded me of the 2017 movie “What happened to Monday? [AKA Seven Sisters]” – from the point of view of overpopulation and allowing families only one child.

From Wikipedia:

The plot follows a family of identical septuplets (seven genetically identical girls) who live in a world where due to overpopulation each household is allowed only one child.”.

Obviously very different stories, but there is still a kind of kinship in how governments may deal with overpopulation issues in the future

Help! I am Dr. Morris Goldpepper – by Avram Davidson
(e-Book: p141-160)

This is the first Davidson story I’ve ever read. It recounts the meeting of a group of high-ranking members – an executive board – of a dental association, deliberating on a very important situation: the emergency meeting has been called to discuss the kidnapping of one of their members by a race of blue-mouthed, toothless aliens that are pent on invading the USA.

Davidson’s story is very humourous and reminded me of meetings I had been present at, of pompous gentlemen (mostly elderly) of various communal and social, a well as of cultural associations. As much as I enjoyed reading it – I don’t see how this story fits into the “Zion’s Fiction” anthology. It’s about an invasion of the US, written by an American Jew. True, he did live in Israel for a while and also served in the Israel Defense Forces in the 1948 War of Independence, and also worked in an Israeli hospital – but I don’t believe that this makes his story ‘Zion’s Fiction’.

I’m not familiar with Davidson’s writing, but I’m wondering if there might not be some SF that is more related to Israel than to the US, that could have been showcased in the anthology. Although there are a few Jewish-sounding family names, there is nothing inherently Jewish or Israeli in the entire story.

Dragon Control– by Rami Shalheveth

Translated by Rehavia Berman

(e-Book: p162-163)

This is a very very short story – with a great deal of tongue-in-cheek humour, particularly for Israelis. The story is a dialogue at a security checkpoint at the airport (presumably in Israel, but possibly also at other airports where travelers are about to check-in or board a flight to Israel). I don’t think it’s quite handled this way, or that the same questions are asked, in other airports for other destinations.

Shalheveth‘s story about boarding with a live ‘pocket-dragon’ is thus very Israeli, and also winner of the 2004 Geffen Award (The prestigious yearly contest by the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy, for best SF stories).

The Thirteenth Fairy – by Nadav Almog

(e-Book: p178-199)

Nadav Almog’s short story is neither a Science Fiction nor Speculative Fiction story, but rather a Fantasy Fairy Tale. It reminded me of such magical tales as Sleeping Beauty, Grimm’s fairy tales, etc., and other similar children’s or adult fairy tales (though I wouldn’t read this to a child). It is not, however, more imaginative nor with some unique twist as compared to the standard ones.

There is also no connection to Israel, Zion, Jews, or Judaism, nor – as mentioned – even to SciFi.

I don’t quite understand how this story fits the title of the collection.

Above the Clouds, Above the Mountains, Above the Sky…

By Pesach (Pavel) Amnuel (Translated by David Reid)

(e-Book: p200-232)

Amnuel has written a very enjoyable story, reminiscent of Plato’s tale https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegory_of_the_cave. A young man seeks to go beyond the physical boundaries of his life of drudgery. His people have lived for many generations in a literal fog that covers the Earth and have created a religion/mythos based on their circumstances, and the way of life that they eke their living from.

Although this is a good read, it is yet another story that has no connection to Israel, Zion, Jews, or Judaism. I don’t quite understand how this story came to be added to the collection…

Composting By Galit Dahan Carlibach (Translated by Ronnie Hope)

(e-Book: p260-268)

The 14th story in the collection is actually quite intriguing. It’s about a woman who has passed away and is reminiscing about all her colleagues and friends and husband. Her remarks are partly about memories of people and events, and partly a real-time account of her funeral and of her body decomposing 6 feet under (i.e., in her grave in the ground) – worms and all.

The story takes place in Israel, so according to Jewish burial rites, she is wrapped in a shroud and placed right into the ground, and not in a coffin first. But don’t worry, it’s not all that grave (pun intended) and her account has some tongue-in-cheek moments, as she criticizes her husband and others she knows. It’s well written and interesting.

Set in Stone By Yael Furman

(Translation – Sarit Shalhevet)

(e-Book: p269-297)

The 15th story also has no connection to Israel, though it does have 2 main characters with Israeli sounding names: Tzahi and Esty.

The story reminds me a bit of the 2006 movie “Night at the Museum” and is about a statue who can see and think… This tale is markedly different, in that it is more akin to a horror story like one of those wax museum horror movies
(see “https://www.comingsoon.net/movies/features/769127-9-weird-wax-museum-horror-movies)

Interestingly enough, Marleen S. Barr makes a similar connection to the same movie, in her expose found as the Afterword to this collection of SF stories on page 381, regarding “The Language of Israeli Science Fiction”.

With regard to this particular story, she writes:

“Israeli science fiction uses words differently. Yael Furman’s pervasive use of the word “guard” in “Set in Stone” … exemplifies this point. Her story about museum statues coming alive uses “guard” in a manner differing from how this word is understood in the film Night at the Museum.

Unlike the film, Furman’s story evokes concentration camp guards. Reading the Israeli story differs from viewing the American film.

In a larger sense, in order fully to understand Israeli science fiction – in order to avoid misreading – it is necessary to be fluent in Israeli cultural conventions. This necessity is crucial to the extent that even though I am a Jewish science fiction scholar, because I lack Israeli cultural fluency, I am oblivious to some of the play of meanings which comprise Israeli science fiction texts. I am unable to crack all of the textual codes.”

Of course, inanimate objects coming alive when no humans are around is nothing new – we saw that in Toy Story, in Gnomeo and Juliet, and many other tales.
An excellent story.

Askuni-Askuni By Dafna Feldman

(Translation – Emmanuel Lottem)

(e-Book: p298-307)

The 16th entry is a short 9-page story about a Bedouin boy that wants to take revenge on another tribe’s family. Its only connection to Israel, regards the insensitive/cold manner in which the medical examiner treats the boy and his family, regarding the autopsy of his dear little sister’s demise. The doctor could at least have acted more humanely, and possibly recruited an Arabic translator to explain what was discovered about the girl’s tragic death. This is not, however, the main part of the story. It deals mostly with Islam and family honour.

An excellent story. In and of itself, the story is well written and interesting – presenting a different perspective on life in the region of Israel that has nothing to do with Zion but is nevertheless part of the region’s mosaic makeup.

That having been said, other than some references to tribal legends, I didn’t see any “sci-fi” connection, nor any “fantasy” – apart from the boy’s dreams in the story.

Latte to Go By Rotem Baruchin

(Translation – Rehavia Berman)

(e-Book: p308-377)

This is the longest of the short stories and in my opinion the best. It is also the last story in this collection. The story premise – a fantasy, as opposed to Sci-Fi (though, in a way it parallels my story, if you’ve been reading it) – is that each habitation in Israel (from large city to small settlement) has a human-like spirit that dwells there – a ‘Place Spirit’. The larger cities have more powerful ones, and the older ones have been around since ancient times. Each has its verisimilitudes, related to the type of city content. For example, the Jerusalem one is a female, dressed as follows:  “…layers of clothes, her ancient crumbling skirts piled one on top of the other, a scarf that looks like cobwebs draped over her shoulders, a touristy T-shirt with “Welcome to Israel” emblazoned on it peeking from underneath. Hamsa pendants and leather necklaces from the Old City market hang around her neck, and her sneakers are fit for climbing.”

The narrator of the story, a “City Guardian” is chasing down a spirit that has absconded from its habitat, hiding out somewhere else. A spirit may leave its home ground for a short period but must then return. This one has disappeared for too long, unbalancing things. After solving this issue, he gets called in to solve a real serious emergency, where the Tel Aviv city spirit has gone bonkers, causing all sorts of crazy things to take place in its municipality, but also affecting the surrounding towns and cities.

What is particularly interesting in the entire story, is how Baruchin so picturesquely – and in many ways, accurately – portrays the various Israeli habitats: their ‘spirit’, anomalies, idiosyncrasies, and character. It is an interesting analysis and ‘roadmap’ of both the Israeli geographic and demographic landscapes. It’s really worth the reader’s time to read this – like a guide for tourists or those considering immigrating.

MORE ZION’s FICTION – Wrap-up Review

The book ends with a 3-page essay by Ehud Maimon “My Life as an Israeli Science Fiction Fan” (not just as a reader, but also as reviewer and editor), a 9-page “Afterword” by Marleen S. Barr, with its sub-heading “The Language of Israeli Science Fiction: Or, The Cities Are Alive with the Sound of Hebrew”, and a 3-page biography of the editors.

SEE ALSO ABOUT THE BOOK

All-in-all, the book contains a nice and varied set of short stories. My main concern was that several of the stories – when reading them as stand-alone texts – did not seem to reflect any ‘Israeli’ or ‘Jewish’ content. Marleen Barr – in her essay – would seem to disagree. Maybe her ‘Afterward’ would have best been best deployed as a ‘Foreword’.

הפוסט הקודםיהודה בורלא ושפת התקופה הקסומה מאת הרצל חקק
הפוסט הבאפרויקט אוטופיה: “עדן” של שחף ויאר
לייבל באטוויניק
לייבל באָטוויניק נולד וגדל במונטריאול שבקנדה. בבית הספר למד יידיש, עברית, אנגלית, וצרפתית. מגיל צעיר התחיל לכתוב סיפורים וקומיקס ביידיש, ואף קיבל עבורם פרסים, למשל, סיפור המדע הבדיוני שלו מ-1974 "טביהס אַ בריוו פון נײַ פראַנקרײַך". ב-1980, בחופשת הקיץ מלימודיו בפקולטה להנדסה ומחשבים באוניברסיטה "Concordia", הוציא לאור את ספר המדע הבדיוני ביידיש "די געהיימע שליחות". לייבל עלה לישראל ב-1989 ומאז פעיל בשמירת והפצת תרבות היידיש, גם כמורה למתחילים (ילדים, בני נוער, ומבוגרים), וגם כמרצה בכיר באירועים, חוגים, ומתנ"סים ברחבי הארץ. ב-2020 קיבל תואר שני (בהצטיינות יתרה) מאוניברסיטת בר-אילן עבור התיזה שכתב ביידיש: "סרטי אנימציה ביידיש (1979-2018)", וגם זכה בתחרות סיפורים קצרים ביידיש מהרשות הלאומית לתרבות היידיש, עם סיפור מדע בדיוני לילדים "פלי, פלאַטערל, פלי". הוא גם עורך ומפיץ "CYBERCOZEN", כתב-עט חודשי באנגלית על מדע בדיוני. במקצועו הוא איש היי-טק.

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