Meet the great Israeli sci-fi compiler – J.
Sheldon Teitelbaum is one of the founders of Israel’s growing science fiction literary scene. As editor-in-chief of “Fantasia 2000” magazine, he disseminated news of the genre through Israel’s premier fan community. He has also written for broader science fiction journals like “Locus” and “Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction”, and contributes to the second and third editions (online) of “The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction” and “The Judaica Encyclopedia”.
Today he lives in Los Angeles and, together with Tel Aviv’s Emanuel Lottem, publishes the second Israeli sci-fi and fantasy compilation translated into English. Their first volume, “The Fiction of Zion: A Treasure of Israeli Speculative Literature” from 2018, was well received. The second volume, “More Zion’s Fiction: Wondrous Tales from the Israel ImagiNation”, is released this month.
J.: Why does this series have to exist?
Sheldon teitelbaum: Over the past two decades, a cohort of some 30 Israeli writers has emerged. Some, like Gail Hareven and the late Nava Semel, came from the front ranks of the Israeli mainstream. Others are from the fan community. “Zion’s Fiction” lifts the veil on a rarely seen source of imagination, offering a glimpse of the underside of the Israeli psyche. I also believe that books are the mother of all bar mitzvahs, and since about half of our writers are women, the bat mitzvah is a gift.
You were part of the editorial board of “Fantasia 2000” (1978-1984). What was it like launching an entire genre and recruiting audiences as readers and writers?
I can’t take credit for starting the genre. “Fantasia 2000” was created by Aharon and Tzipi Hauptman and Eli Tene, then students at Tel Aviv University. It was a loosely shaped glossy monthly after the American magazine “Omni.” The intention was to familiarize the Israeli reader with contemporary speculative literature. But the magazine, the second most expensive on shelves at the time, also took on the role of a greenhouse for Indigenous writers. The results in this regard have been mixed. “Fantasia” published useful stories, but most of all provided a place in which aspiring genre writers could learn their craft.
What makes Israeli science fiction unique? Has the genre changed a lot?
There seemed to be a dislike – there still is – for what we would call hard science fiction. With a few exceptions, like London writer Lavie Tidhar, Israeli writers are closer to the ground, thematically, than their North American counterparts. Israeli writers remain largely opposed to the swift and unfettered flights of the imagination. Their stories tend to be deeply personal. As a rule, they do not deal with the vagaries of Israel’s existential situation, which Israelis euphemistically call “the situation”. What we noticed is that the work is dark. Many writers, who perhaps fit the perspectives of many Israeli millennia, seem to be unusually obsessed with death. Israel ranks 14th in the world in terms of overall happiness, and its suicide rates are relatively low. But in Israeli sci-fi / fantasy, as, ironically, in the wider realm of Hebrew literature, desperation and disillusionment are rampant, and suicide as a narrative strategy is not prohibited.
Which American science fiction and fantasy do you think is most important in Israel?
It’s a pretty eclectic scene. I was surprised, for example, to learn that Anne Leckie’s “Imperial Radch” space opera series, translated by Emanuel, was extremely popular. His 2013 Hugo-winning novel “Ancillary Justice” portrays an almost genderless universe – you couldn’t, as a rule, determine if a character was male or female, or for that matter, AI-based. . The trick for Emanuel was that Hebrew is one of the most gendered languages on the planet. How do you maintain vanity when the characters speak in perfectly gendered voices? No easy task. But he succeeded.
Goodness, this adds complications. And what does fandom look like today?
The community supports an annual convention and various annual symposia. There are a surprising number of local academics doing important work in the field of SF studies. Anyone who attends the ICon festival will notice that the fan community tends to be extremely young. Cosplay is wild.
I can only imagine. Did publishing the first volume help you connect more with the sci-fi community?
When I attended the launch of the first book at the ICon SF / F festival during Sukkot 2018, one of the writers published in the first volume said, “I don’t think you understand that you did something heroic. . I was stunned. The point is, many of these writers have since found American publishers. They are the real heroes of this story.
I’ve noticed that some of these stories take place in Israel – I really love letters to cities and neighborhoods – while others take place in space or in fantasy lands. How do you choose definitely Israeli stories?
We tried to strike a balance between stories with recognizable Israeli themes and characters and others that didn’t. The main thing was whether we liked them and whether we thought them worthy of publication.
Who are your favorite authors? And who are you reading now?
The most recent novels I have read are “The Ministry of the Future” by Stan Robinson, “How to Mars” by David Ebenbach, “The World Gives Way” by Marissa Levien and “Constance” by Matthew Fitzsimmon. On file… oy.