Bloggish Tales of Zion’s Fiction #2
My own childhood is difficult to explain, not just to non-Israelis but to many Israelis themselves. I grew up on a kibbutz in the north of the country, a sort of utopian communal Zionist community that, years later, I would find echoes of in the longhouses of Borneo and the lonely islands of Melanesia. A sort of remote and isolated world, a pocket-universe, where ideology was as thick as the honey in the air. Near the kibbutz was an abandoned Arab village, razed to the ground following the 1948 War. Also nearby had been a stone-age settlement where flint tools were produced some 80,000-100,000 years before. The nearest town – and where the closest second hand bookshops were, though my understanding of money was limited in a community that didn’t use it – was Haifa, perhaps an hour away by bus.
We had a library, though. In the children’s library (two dusty rooms into which the light was never allowed to fully penetrate) I found the secret history of Israeli science fiction. Menachem Talmi’s Journey in the Flying Saucer, first published in 1955, Eli Sagi’s The Adventures of Captain Yuno, three volumes of a boy and girl cosmonauts fighting mysterious aliens across the solar system, from the mid-60s, Danidin the Invisible Boy, whose exploits (by the prolific Shraga Gafni) covered many volumes. Many of these, and others like them, are obscure to the point of invisibility now and, I suspect, were not exactly highly regarded even then. But they represented fantastical takes that took place in my reality, not in the strange otherworld that was Europe, the impossible land that was America.
What science fiction – what fantastika, to use Clute’s term – was being produced in Israel, it was written in the margins of the country’s “real” literature, its highbrow narratives of a “normalised” Israel. Such an impossible construct, a normalised Israel! In fantasy, in the impossible, I found a truth I couldn’t find in a literature that strove so hard to write one story in order to erase another.
Later, I sought these same blips of the impossible in the adult library. Hilel Damron’s The War of the Sexes, set memorably, impossibly, on a kibbutz like the one I grew up on, or Ram Moav’s extraordinarily bitter Luna: The Genetic Paradise, telling the parallel stories of a dying scientist (much like the author himself) in a vicious, merciless Israel and his vision of a utopian colony on the moon. Then, too, I discovered (too late!) the magazine Fantasia 2000, created by four enthusiastic fans in the 1980s, collected as dusty, somewhat worn issues in the library, where the first glimpses of an original Israeli science fiction scene could be found. Were any of these books and stories any good? I honestly can’t say if they were, but they are woven into the fabric of me-the-writer, as they are into the literary DNA of my contemporaries. Whether we wanted them to or not, they shaped us, they gave us voice.
How do you write Israeli science fiction? In 2010 I returned to Israel for a time, settling for a while in Jaffa, the Arab city that had become a poor extension of the Jewish city of Tel Aviv. I lived in a grouping of flats squatting uncomfortably in what had once been an Arab cinema, decades before, on old streets with new names, just beyond the invisible border that was Salame Road, which separates Jaffa from Tel Aviv. Follow the road as it twists and turns and you reach south Tel Aviv, and the grand edifice of the Central Bus Station, an architectural monstrosity with (so it is said) its own nuclear fallout shelter. It sits in an area now home to a quarter of a million refugees and foreign workers, from Africa and Asia, and where many Israelis now say they fear to tread.
I became obsessed with Central Station. I loved its vitality, its squalor, its joys and injustices, its curious little shops, its junkies and hustlers, domestic workers and refugees, the stench of buses and the stalls of flowers, and the shawarma stand twice blown up by suicide bombers. It is a paradox within a greater paradox: what better place for a writer?
In the event, I didn’t last. I’d spent five years in summer – in Melanesia, Asia, now back home – and it was time to return to the winter of Europe for a time, to a career, to books. Someone tried to blow up the building next to us twice, nearly obliterating us in the process. Arabs were blamed – they usually are – though in the event it turned out to have been a nice Jewish lawyer from north Tel Aviv, trying to save money on building permits. But by then, anyway, we were gone.
I began writing the stories of Central Station – my Central Station – in 2010, in Jaffa. I finished them last year, in London, after four years, and could not write another word of science fiction since.
How does one write Israeli science fiction? By living it, for every day is a mix of the ancient past and the cold bright future, just as my childhood was a mix of impossible utopia and ruined Arab village, of ancient tool-makers and science fiction pulps.
The stories of Central Station correspond, explicitly, with the history of American SF, yes: with Cordwainer Smith and C.L. Moore, Asimov and Tiptree and Simak. But they also, as all my work does, carry on a conversation I can only ever have in my head: with the invisible boys and flying saucers and robotic beggars of those stories I read in Hebrew long ago.
The story, “Robotnik”, represented in the Taste of Zi-Fi section on this site, itself owes something to one of my earliest stories, “Crucifixation”, published some time in the pre-dawn light of what, for lack of a better word, I may call my career. Both – and many of my other SF stories in between – have paid homage to the two stories by Mordechai Sasson, published in Fantasia 2000, of which one, “The Stern-Gerlach Mice”, is being published, in its first English translation, in this anthology.
You can’t choose your DNA, literary or otherwise. Here, for better or worse, is mine.