A few months ago I was asked by the German SF magazine Nova to write an article describing the current state of Israeli science fiction. Trying to make up my mind where such an article should begin, I decided to start it with a story about the Yiddishpiel, the Yiddish-speaking Israeli theater.
Before Israel was established as a Jewish state in 1948, the Jews were exiled all over the world, and Hebrew, the language of the Bible, was a dormant language, forbidden from being spoken aloud for centuries. Jews in many parts of Europe spoke Yiddish, a dialect of German blended with some Hebrew. So when immigrants began coming to Israel, there were many who had come from Europe. Many spoke Yiddish, and some felt too old to learn a new language, while others simply liked to revel every once in a while in the language of their youth. For the pleasure of these people, the Yiddishpiel was created.
A couple of years ago I had a conversation with one of the theaterís great actors. The Yiddish-speaking audience, he said, was dying off. And it was not being replaced, because the new generation speaks only Hebrew. Nowadays, shows only run twenty times, he said, and that is all. How do you know if a show is a success? I asked him. Easy, he said. If a show runs twenty times, itís popular, and itís a good run. If a show runs eighteen times, he said, itís a failure, and the audience doesnít like it.
The audience is so small that enough people to fill two theaters make a big difference.
The state of Israeli science fiction is the same. For all the amazing talent, for all the dedication, for all the effort, there are only so many readers and no more. And sometimes the difference between a successful book and a failure, the difference between a magazineís success or failure, hangs on a thread of a couple of hundred people, maybe less.
Donít get me wrong. Israeli science fiction is flourishing in a way it never has before, and it is able to flourish because the world is changing.
Let me take you back to the time before the internet, before computers, before the age of the global village. Let me take you back to the seventies and eighties.
Back then, the Israeli readerssome of the most literate in the world at the timewere introduced to science fiction through translated books of the Golden Age authors such as Asimov, Clarke, Herbert, etc. The books were classic, and justly so, and though one or two newer or non-American authors were translatedlike Niven and Lemthe available books were mostly decades behind the times.
At the same time, Aharon Hauptman, an engineering graduate student, began a magazine called Fantasy 2000. The magazine culled the best short stories from the US and translated them into Hebrew. For a long time it was the main, and usually the only, source of short science fiction available to Israeli readers. But by the mid-eighties, the translated books trickled to almost nothing, and Fantasy 2000 also stopped publication. The reason: not enough readers.
The mid-nineties brought back the translated books. The children and teenagers who grew up on translated science fiction during the late seventies, and who further pursued their interest by reading non-translated books from abroad, now held jobs in places of influence. They began to publish new books of the highest quality science fiction, in good translations. The science fiction fans of old were getting a new fix and discovering everything that had been going on since the Golden Age, while a new generation of young science fiction fans was also being created.
In the mid-nineties, in an attempt to bring together fans from across the country, a high-school student, Avner Friedman, founded the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy (the ISSFF) along with Aharon Hauptman (now a Ph.D.), Dr. Emannuele Lotem (a prominent SF translator), Thomas Goodman, and Amos Geffen (a well-known SF editor and translator).
Geffen also began to publish a new SF magazine, The Tenth Dimension, but he died prematurely in 1998. The Geffen Awards (an award along the same lines as the Hugo and Nebula) were created in his honor.
Despite all the activity, the new Society and the new magazine would have amounted to no more than thisif not for the internet. Through web sites and internet forums, people who often felt they were the only SF fans in the country connected others who had similar interests. With the aid of the internet, the fan base began to show its size.
But that was just the beginning. Forums for SF writers began to crop up. Writers who wanted to write science fiction and fantasy were beginning to emerge. Though they had nowhere to publish, they organized to teach and critique each other.
Writing competitions began on the internet. Most notable was the emergence of Vered Tochterman, whose stories kept on winning and winning and winning. David ďDidiĒ Chanoch, one of the editors who grew up in the seventies and eighties and was now in a position of influence, persuaded Opus Press to produce a line of Israeli science fiction. He approached Vered, and soon thereafter, her book, an anthology of her stories, came out as one of Opusí new line of original SF books. The book, Sometimes Itís Different, went on to win the Israeli Geffen award for Best Book for the Years 19972003. One of her stories was translated into English and published by The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 2003. Without the internet, this would not have happened.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the "world-is-changing" scale was my story. (I am an integral part of Israeli science fiction, so you will have to forgive me if I talk about myself for a short while.) I was unaware of the ISSFF, of the forums, of the community being formed, and was certain that there werenít more than a handful of SF fans in Israel. I began writing in the mid-nineties, when publishing in Israel was not an option. Since I spent my teenage years in Arizona, the solution seemed easy: write in English. But no magazine would take my stories. It was then that I discovered the internet.
The process I experienced has happened many times over the last few years across the world: writers who have been unable to find success with print magazines have published in some of the top e-zines, which enabled them to break into the professional publishing world with their names already established.
My first stories were beginning to appear in electronic magazines, which led to an e-book being published. The appearance of my first e-book was followed by a second, which was also published in paperback. This led to my book, Hatchling, an anthology of some of my stories, being translated into Hebrew. Bitan Publishers gambled on the book, even though theyand Ibelieved that there were no SF fans out there. Near the end of 2002, we discovered how wrong we were. As in Veredís case, without the internet, my career would have taken years longer to develop.
I was not the only Israeli SF writer to write in English for readers abroad. Lavie Tidhar, who lives in the UK and writes and publishes in English, recently won the Clarke-Bradbury award. One of his stories will receive an honorable mention in next yearís Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, edited by Ellen Datlow. Eyal Teler, who lives in California, has just published a story in F&SF.
By the end of 2002, the fans were more organized, the conventions impressive, and the crowds were coming by the droves. The best crop of foreign short stories were being translated into Hebrew through the top-notch magazines The Tenth Dimension (the ISSFFís magazine, edited by Dotan Dimet), Donít Panic (an online magazine, edited by Rami Shalheveth), and the ISSFFís web site (turned into a de-facto magazine and edited by Nir Yaniv). These three helped keep the fingers of Israeli writers and readers on the pulse of the science fiction world outside Israel, in addition to publishing some original stories.
But an idea was being hatched in the forums: an experiment, a risk. An Israeli magazine devoted to original science fiction and fantasy. Ron Yaniv, an avid fan who in 2001 stumbled into one of the science fiction forums by accident, took a huge monetary gamble and became the publisher of one of the greatest and most important projects in the Israeli SF world.
Ron hired the author Vered Tochterman as the editor-in-chief of the magazine. Together, they put together a team to create Israelís first professional SF magazine (meaning that it pays its contributors). Most of the people who work for it have met each other only once or twice; members of the team live in different cities, in different parts of the country, and have completely unrelated jobs. Without the internet, they would never have known of each other. With it, Ron and Vered wered able to identify the talents they could count on, those who had the intelligence, abilities, and resources to sustain the magazine. The bimonthly magazine Dreams in Aspamia premiered in October 2002, and was the biggest revolution of all.
This is the biggest revolution of all. When writers have an ability to publish their stories, they improve. They flourish. They skyrocket. With every issue, one or two new writers appear. From the grassroots, new authors are being created. There is fire in the air now.
Most recently, a convention was held celebrating written speculative fiction, concentrating on Israeli writings. Among the events was a panel of Dreams in Aspamiaís most promising writers. The panel consisted of Nir Yaniv (who specializes in inventive and humorous pieces), Yael Sivan (who specializes in searing drama), Michael Brand (whose pieces explore the thin line between fantasy and reality), Vered Tochterman, and me. It is very likely that you will hear these names again.
But the picture is not yet complete.
As you might have gathered from reading the above, in a small country, where SF and fantasy fans are scarce, there are not ten people who can do the same job well. There are at most two, and usually there is only one. This means that one must use resources well, in editing and publishing magazines, in organizing the fan base, and in arranging events to keep the fan base alive.
The science fiction base here uses its assets to their utmost. I put before you the greatest example: there is no ageism here. If a person volunteers for a task, be it small or large, he or she will probably get to do the task, if he or she can be counted on, no matter how old the person is.
We are talking about science fiction fans, after all. The older ones know how intelligent they were when they were young. They remember how insanely knowledgeable they were. They remember how unstoppably driven they were. I know you know what Iím talking about.
Last Aprilís convention, Fantasy.Con 2004, which concentrated on urban fantasy, was put together by the Shmuel Shmuel (the man mysteriously named twice). Shmuel had been organizing bi-monthly literary events for about five years, even though he is only twenty-one. He got the job because he volunteered, and because people who knew him knew he could do it. He was surrounded by Hadas Ferber (historically, the manager of most of the conventions and the most experienced) and Raz Greenberg (Fantasy.Con 2003ís manager), but they served as advisers and did their best to let him work without interference. He volunteered, got the job, and did it fantastically. Such a thing would be unthinkable anywhere else.
The then-teenager Nomi Wiener, while still in her IDF uniform, started one SF club after another, all over the country. Those clubs exist to this day, and keep fans together, creating buying power for books and magazines. Now in her early 20s, Nomi has one of the more important managerial posts in all conventions. Seventeen-year-old Or Bialikís idea was the one that started the Dreams in Aspamia ball rolling, and now a year older, he serves as one of the eight lectors for that magazine and as one of the two organizers of the Rehovot Writing Workshop.
I have a feeling that if the processes I have described here are not happening all over the world, they could be.
Until now, small communities and small countries (compared to the US) could not publish SF and hope for an audience. This is no longer true.
Until now, fans, writers, and editors in relatively small countries could not band together, could not pool resources, because they had no way of knowing of each other. This is no longer true.
Small countries (again, ďsmallĒ compared to the US) can now create forums for fans and forums for writers, can sow the seeds for future writers online, can create conventions that will bring fans together, can create a fan base with enough buying power to support a magazine dedicated to original writers of that country. New books will be published here and there, by writers who already have fans.
Gems will begin to form. New and original writers will keep emerging, writers that write like nothing we have seen before. Writers who are not Ameri-centric. Writers who are unique to the place they grew in, writers who write for their home readers, who have a different outlook, who grew up with different literature, different tales, different politics, a different history. Writers who will, eventually, change the world.
That is the tale of Israeli science fiction.