Sheldon Teitelbaum and Emanuel Lottem, eds. Zion's Fiction: A Treasury of Israeli Speculative Literature (Mandel Vilar Press, 2018, 320pp, £19.93) [import only]

Reviewed by Valerie Estelle Frankel


Zion's Fiction not only introduces readers to the fascinating genre of Israeli science fiction but also provides a history of the genre from its earliest days through the present. After a brief foreword by Robert Silverberg, the editors present an extensive essay on the obstacles in modern Israeli culture that divide it from American-style speculative fiction. Even in a country founded on the dream of a utopia, the early settlers were pragmatists. As violence followed, Israelis used fiction as a coping tool but one based in magical realism and near-future dystopia – in short, speculative fiction tied closely to the real world. Therefore, readers seeking something other than elves or space opera will do well with this one. There is escapism throughout, but staying close to home with the what-ifs of alternate worlds and surprising consequences, engraved with black and white illustrations.

The opening story, Lavie Tidhar’s ‘The Smell of Orange Groves’, takes place in Central Station, the former Tel Aviv, now a mash-up of cultures living in camaraderie. The protagonist’s family are tied together through inherited memories – an excellent allegory for Israel itself. Keren Landsman’s ‘Burn Alexandria’ shows Israeli soldiers carried to the Eighth Library of Alexandria in the year 3067. As they marvel over the books, an oasis in their war against invading aliens, the story simultaneously shares an adoration of books with their role as literal escapism. ‘The Slows’ by Gail Hareven begins in a concentration camp. The Slows are unmodified humans, now being outcompeted like Neanderthals thanks to a new development in  human evolution. Though the narrator is repelled by the Slows’ pink bodies, he sees a kind of beauty in their savage lives. He even adds how they would have wiped one another out if not for his people’s compassion. His hypocrisy, though, is clear and his characterisation of the Slows as a degenerate contagion explicitly alludes to Nazism. While the narrative frame is science fiction, the premise of the story is all too pointedly realistic.

‘The Perfect Girl’ by Guy Hasson has telepaths who can read minds, even seven days after a body’s death. The heroine is taken to a special training facility where she manages the morgue and is drawn into one’s subject’s past. This person, a young woman much like herself, compels her and finally takes over her waking mind. As the heroine seeks closure, she finds it in herself through finishing the other woman’s journey. The deep, lyrical characters are everything here, with stunningly complex personalities to grip the reader.

Some stories focus on the dangers of daily life. Mordechai Sasson’s ‘The Stern-Gerlack Mice’ emphasizes how a well-meaning experiment escapes control. Genetically modified mice invade people’s homes and grow to the size of donkeys. The competition over living space makes stark allusion to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nava Semel's ‘Hunter of Stars’ crafts a poignant dystopia of loss – there are no stars and the protagonist fears God cannot see his people through the polluted haze. In ‘The Believers’ by Nir Yaniv, a woman is grotesquely split in two. Sins are literally punished by death at the ‘Hand of God’. The narrator slowly befriends angels who have descended to Earth in a story entwined with the Tower of Babel. As he discovers his true purpose and finds his place among them, the story turns lyrical. It’s surreal, beautiful, grotesque, all at once as his apotheosis is followed by a literally crushing abandonment. Belief is central to the story – God does not require people’s belief, though they offer it, or their worship, though he demands it. The story explores human interconnectedness and its contrast with seeking the divine.

‘A Man’s Dream’ by Yael Furman establishes a universe where people can pull someone to them using the power of dreams. Other tales are equally imaginative as a puzzle competition is linked with the power to live forever. A saint with healing powers and then a UFO arrive in Tel Aviv. A woman marries Death and finds not only surprising new powers but the fulfillment of destiny for all the Jews of the world. ‘A Good Place for the Night’ by Savyon Liebrecht shows a tiny post-apocalyptic community gathering, as the Israeli heroine struggles to decide how far she will go to preserve the human race. These premises are all startling and unconventional – certainly a taste of something new even before the twist endings.

Other stories are more self-referential. Eyal Teler’s ‘Possibilities’ begins with the narrator, a fantasy author, having killed an old man for no reason. He lies in a hospital bed, trying to make sense of hallucinations and reality altered by a time machine. The narrator consults with a type of seer, one who can see the path alternate choices would have created. Thus, as the speculative fiction author consults with someone who speculates, this story too grows cleverly metafictional. Delving deeper, the story reveals that Simon’s friend Ray Bradbury wrote a character based on him, leaving the story a spiraling reference to author’s fictional realities influencing the real world. In Rotem Baruchin’s ‘In the Mirror’, Danielle cracks a mirror and sees an alternate self through it – one who majored in gender studies not literature and turned down a publishing job. As it happens, Danielle can steal things from the other versions of herself – her lost lover, her dead cat, now surviving. The story plays with the reader, leaving them uncertain which Danielle is ending the story as even in such a short piece, characters and realities are called into question.

In the final story, Shimon Adaf’s ‘They Had to Move’, artist Aunt Tehila takes in two frightened children and shares her magazine stash with them. Tehila jokes that when she tires of men, she kills them and captures their essence inside something that was important to them. Meanwhile, Aviva the young protagonist reads Northanger Abbey, which cleverly parallels her life as she fears their hostess is keeping dark secrets. Her little brother No’am loves the stories, and begins reading the characters to life, to help defend him against bullies. At last, he reads Alfred Bester’s ‘5,271,009’ about a witch doctor and summons more supernatural aid to help him, uncaring that the character will suck away children’s souls. From beginning to end, the collection delights, informs and educates – for readers seeking something different, this one’s a real gem.