You can almost see the future from Jacob and Rina Weisman’s doorstep near the top of Potrero Hill.
The couple, who met on the Jewish dating site J Date, run a range of science-fiction institutions in the Bay Area—most notably Tachyon Publications, which publishes between eight to ten books per year and gets shelf space for them nationally in major chains such as Barnes & Noble. Rina runs the “SF in SF” event series (“Science fiction, San Francisco—a perfect fit”) and stages monthly film screenings and author events around the city in venues such as the Balboa Theater in the Richmond and the American Bookbinding Museum in the Financial District. Jacob focuses on Tachyon, which publishes work by Peter S. Beagle, Bruce Sterling, Cory Doctorow, Jeff VanderMeer, Nalo Hopkinson, Nancy Kress, Lavie Tidhar, Michael Moorcock, Carol Emshwiller, and James Tiptree Jr., among others.
And they do it all out of their hillside Victorian, with a view of a Bay Area promised land that encompasses a surprising amount of the science-fiction and fantasy genres’ terrain—from locations for the Star Wars and Star Trek movie franchises to the former homes of such visionary writers as Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin.
What’s not easy to spot at first glance is how surprisingly Jewish the Bay Area’s science-fictional landscape is. In fact, when you shine science fiction through the prism of the San Francisco Bay Area, it splits into many colors, and Judaism is one of the brightest.
“There’s definitely such a thing as Bay Area sf, and a lot of the writers do happen to be Jewish,” says Charlie Jane Anders, the former i09 editor and author of All the Birds in the Sky.
The nine-county Bay Area has produced or been home to generations of Jewish science-fiction and fantasy authors who have changed the way we think about the world. These include such legends of the genre as Robert Silverberg, Avram Davidson, and Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn); literary icon Michael Chabon; and a younger cohort of award-winning, envelope-pushing fantasists, including Lisa Goldstein, Rachel Swirsky, Annalee Newitz, and Charlie Jane Anders.
“The Jews who came here were those who didn’t fit in anywhere else,” says Jacob. “We had new forms of politics that might save the world, free love, and drugs. We were somewhat tolerant of unusual sexual orientations, at least sometimes. There was always a feeling here of Utopian possibilities.”
“With the Petaluma socialist crowd, freethinkers were already in the Bay Area,” Rina adds, “and it became a nice place to migrate to from conservative SoCal. The war also had a lot to do with bringing them here; once it was over, they stayed. After that, the ’60s freethinking era sort of made it a paradise.”
So what could science fiction written by Jews reveal about Judaism itself? There’s little consensus among local writers—but that might be precisely the point. The science fiction written by Bay Area Jews reveals tremendous diversity.
“I don’t really believe that all Jews share a worldview—there are so many different ways to be Jewish and so many Jewish experiences because of the diaspora,” says Annalee Newitz, whose novel, Autonomous, is forthcoming from Tor Books in 2017.
“Many of us share the experience of being immigrants or descended from immigrants. So perhaps, like all immigrants, we can appreciate what it’s like to be an alien in strange lands, surrounded by inexplicable customs and occasionally hostile life forms.”
What’s Jewish about Jewish Science Fiction?
As Oakland resident Robert Silverberg told me, “I’ve written some stories about Jews”—most notably the award-winning 1972 novel Dying Inside—“but I’ve written a lot about other people, too, and I don’t think of myself as writing science fiction with a Jewish orientation.” Silverberg is also dismissive of the idea that Judaism might have “any influence on science fiction as a field.”
But according to Jacob, although Judaism itself as a culture might not have directly influenced science fiction, “many Jews definitely have—beginning in the 1930s with the writer widely regarded as the first modern science-fiction writer, Stanley G. Weinbaum.”
Comic-book superheroes, starting with Superman in 1939, were also a largely Jewish creation, as Berkeley writer Michael Chabon famously described in his Pulitzer Prize–winning 2000 novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Virtually all of the most important square-jawed supergoyim racing through Depression-era comics were created by Jews who were one generation or less away from the shtetl or the ghetto.
Indeed, several writers said that Judaism has influenced fantasy much more than science fiction. “Some of what I’ve written is underpinned by Jewish myths and fantasy, including two novels, The Red Magician and The Alchemist’s Door,” says Bay Area novelist, Lisa Goldstein. “I grew up in a fairly religious home, and I was influenced a lot by my mother’s stories about growing up in a small village in Hungary. I’ve never written Jewish science fiction, though.”
Although Jacob doesn’t think his Judaism has consciously influenced his own love of science fiction, “the large number of Jewish authors I’ve published over the years suggests otherwise ... perhaps there’s a shared worldview that resonates with me and, hopefully, with non-Jewish readers as well.” He adds:
We are of a culture that values education, ideas, and discussion—a culture that historically has mixed European values with the study of the Torah, the Talmud, and Kabbalah. Even though many of us no longer practice our religion, we are nevertheless descended from people who followed intellectual pursuits with great rigor. And that is a great prescription for delving into a literature that challenges the nature of how things are or how they could be.
Rachel Swirsky, a short-story writer and coeditor of the anthology, People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy, says that worldview is also shaped by a history of religious persecution. “I think the shadow of being in a population that has been historically relegated, massacred, and killed has an effect on how I think about the future.”
Swirsky, who was born in San Jose, went to school at UC Santa Cruz, and currently lives in Bakersfield, also says this adds a certain moral depth to work by Jewish authors. “I think it encourages (in me, at least) a preoccupation with power and exclusion and whether violence is inherent to humanity,” she wrote in an email. “I have an affinity for Octavia Butler (not Jewish) in this way, and her writing about the limitations and potential hope of human biology and how that interacts with oppression.”
In her case, this leads to a more dystopian vision of the future. “I don’t think we’re heading in a constant uphill move toward peace, enlightenment, and rights for all.... If you think about the history of anti-Semitism, there have been a number of periods where Jews have basically assimilated somewhere—and then been driven out again. I’m assimilated into the U.S. Will I end up in the same situation as the Jewish atheists in World War II Italy? Probably not. Will the next generation? Still probably not, but I can’t say for sure.”
Village of Fools, World of Wanderers
The influence of Jewish culture on Charlie Jane Anders—who describes herself as “questionably Jewish”—is more lighthearted. While raised in a secular household by Jewish father and gentile mother, Anders says that she was strongly influenced by a sense of humor that she defines as Jewish—a “wry, off-centered-ish sensibility” that came through reading writers like Daniel Pinkwater or being exposed to Jewish folklore like the Chelm stories. Chelm is, of course, a made-up village populated by fools, and in her novel All the Birds in the Sky, Anders turns San Francisco into a kind of pre-apocalyptic hipster Chelm.
Birds came out in January to great acclaim. It’s the story of a scientist named Laurence and a witch named Patricia, who doesn’t appear to be Jewish but whose upbringing will sound awfully Semitic to many people (e.g., “Patricia’s parents were the sort of people who could be in a good mood and angry at almost the same time.”). It contains elements of both fantasy and science fiction, and is ultimately about the merger of both branches of imagination into a path to save a dying planet. Along the way, we travel through a San Francisco whose residents are often fools convinced of their own wisdom, not unlike those of Chelm:
After the wormhole generator went up in smoke, Laurence went back to his life. He had the house atop Noe Valley to himself, since Isobel was off doing mysterious errands for Milton. Most of Laurence’s friends had gone to live at Seadonia, an oil rig and cruise ship that Rod Birch had lashed together and turned into an independent nation in the North Pacific.
All the Birds in the Sky contains a recognizably Jewish voice that Michael Blumlein, most recently author of the short story collection What the Doctor Ordered, describes as “romantic, sarcastic, self-effacing, witty, and smart.” In Bay Area science fiction, that voice goes hand in hand with a cultural and political sensibility that Anders calls “feminist and alternative.”
These are the qualities that distinguish Bay Area science fiction from work produced in other places. A great deal of Los Angeles science fiction could be described as dystopian and surreal; the stuff coming from New York tends to be more literary and cynical. Space opera comes from everywhere but the Bay Area, whose writers have tended to specialize in alternate histories, complicated utopias, crazed flights of fancy, and cross-genre experimentation.
According to both Anders and her partner, Annalee Newitz, twenty-first century existence is defined by cultural splitting and hybridization, migration and rootlessness. In this sense Jews might have something to teach people for whom this condition is new. “We’re increasingly deracinated,” Anders says, using a word that notorious anti-Semite T.S. Eliot deployed in his letters to describe Jews. The Jew, wrote Eliot in 1940, “is much more deracinated” than the Christian, which he argued makes Jews “dangerous and tending to irresponsibility.”
Anders says, “I think about that word, “deracinated,” a lot. In the postmodern, Internet-dominated world, we’re all increasingly cut off from our roots.”
The Bay Area’s Failed Utopias
That sense of deracination is the theme of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon’s award-winning 2007 novel. Instead of the Promised Land, he imagines, after World War II the Jews got ... Sitka, Alaska, where the official language is Yiddish, not Hebrew.
The language choice isn’t incidental to the story, which won the Hugo Award that year for best novel. “Yiddish was originally called Jewish Esperanto [because it was a pan-European language],” said Chabon in a 2008 interview. “It was a failed utopia. It didn’t work out, but it’s still there. [That’s] true of this place in my novel.”
It’s an inspired flight of intellectual chutzpah that allows Chabon to pose fundamental questions about what it means to be Jewish. It might, in fact, be the most explicitly Jewish science fiction novel to ever emerge from the Bay Area literary scene. Rachel Swirsky argues it’s significant for using alternate history to explicitly explore Jewish identity, which earlier generations of Jewish sf writers like Robert Silverberg didn’t seem willing to do. Goldstein agrees: “I really enjoyed The Yiddish Policeman’s Union—I hadn’t seen a mix of Judaism and science fiction like it before.
For Jacob Weisman, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is “a parody or satire of the Jewish Identity, that Chabon is saying that the Jewish people and our traditions will adapt and thrive in any environment whether it’s in Israel, Brooklyn, the shtetls of Europe, or Alaska, no matter how silly our customs appear.” Or perhaps the customs survive precisely because they are slightly silly. The novel ends with an image of anomic longing, as the hardboiled protagonist Landsman decides, at long last, to build a home in the land of his exile:
There is no Messiah of Sitka. Landsman has no home, no future, no fate but Bina. The land that he and she were promised was bounded only by the fringes of their wedding canopy, by the dog-eared corners of their cards of membership in an international fraternity whose members carry their patrimony in a tote bag, their world on the tip of their tongue.
If Sitka is, as Chabon says, a “failed utopia”—not unlike the San Francisco in Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky—it’s one that might still teach us something about how to survive a future that seems more dangerous and irresponsible with every passing day.
Jeremy Adam Smith lives in Berkeley. His essays and articles about sf have appeared in many Bay Area newspapers as well as Strange Horizons, Wired, and Utne Reader, among others.