Wandering Stars: Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction
As a Jew, I am always fascinated by how Jews often seem to make up a significant portion of any media form. There always seem to be more Jewish screenwriters, authors, artists, or whatever else than our numbers in the general population should indicate, and a lot of these Jewish creative talents have interesting ideas expressed in intriguing ways.
I was therefore very interested in this collection, which collects science fiction and fantasy short stories by a wide variety of Jewish writers, such as Harlan Ellison, Isaac Asimov, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Bernard Malamud. Although it is a bit old (I believe it originally came out in 1974), and so therefore there aren't any stories by more recent Jewish writers (such as Michael Chabon and Neil Gaiman), it is an interesting cross-section.
First of all, there is significantly more science fiction than fantasy. Isaac Asimov, in his introduction, speculates that the world of heroic fantasy would have been fairly inhospitable to a Jewish writer in the 1930s and 1940s (when most of these writers got their start), with its tropes of big blond Aryan types fighting horrible monsters. What fantasy there is is either tinged with science fiction (such as Avram Davidson's "The Golem," whose titular monster is essentially a robot), is a work of magical realism (like Bernard Malamud's "The Jewbird"), a fairy tale (Horace L. Gold's "Trouble With Water), or uses the old dodge of setting a fantasy story on another planet ( for instance Harlan Ellison's "I'm Looking for Kadak" and Robert Silverburg's "The Dybbuk of Mazel Tov IV").
"I'm Looking For Kadak" is probably the story that resembles a heroic quest narrative the most, and is also one of the most interesting twists on the subgenre it resembles, as it drops a complaining, Yiddish-spouting (although blue and possessing of multiple legs, arms, and eyes) Jew into a story where he needs to find the titular Kadak in order to form a minyan to sit shivah for their dying world. Both having an incredibly Jewish protagonist and a very Jewish objective make this story seem as far from Conan the Cimmerian or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser as it is from Chaim Potok.
A surprisingly large amount of stories dealt with the question of "what is a Jew?" The first story, and one of my favorites, "On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi," has an interstellar Jewish conference disrupted by an argument of whether or not you can count as a Jew if you look like a three foot long brown throw pillow, while "The Dybbuk of Mazel Tov IV" deals with an alien possessed by the soul of an apostate Jew. "The Jewbird," meanwhile, has a talking crow who insists he is Jewish and who is threatened by Anti-Semitic birds of prey (as well as an unsympathetic Jewish man who refuses to help him). These themes, so important to Judaism, gain an interesting level of significance when presented through the lens of speculative fiction. "Mazel Tov VI" in particular posits an interesting situation: the alien and the Jew unwillingly possessing him are trapped between secular Jews who refuse to believe in the mysticism of dybbuks and Hasidic Jews who do, but refuse to accept Jews with six legs and green fur.
There are a few stories which don't quite work. "Goslin Day" by Avram Davidson is interesting, but a bit too stream of consciousness for my taste, whileGeo. Alec Effinger's "Paradise Last" is an interesting story only brought down by a half-hearted political posturing that comes up only really in the last third or so of the story. It is worth noting that these stories, while not great, are at least interesting and still well worth reading.
All in all an interesting collection. If you're Jewish, you should check it out, and if you aren't, it'll still be very interesting.
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