There is something surreal yet strangely endearing about a place where armed security guards ensure the safety of barbarians wielding padded swords and where uniformed soldiers mingle freely with Klingons. It could only be an Israeli SF convention.
Actually, it was a festival. The man from the Tel Aviv municipality was quite adamant about that. It was, he also said, a true gathering of the freaks of Israel, and the crowd cheered.
This was in the opening ceremony. The theme of the festival was Life and Death, symbolized by two men dressed like an Angel and the Grim Reaper (or in a bathrobe and a bed sheet, as guest of honour Guy Gavriel Kay later observed), who hosted the evening while seeming to enact a long sketch. The Life and Death theme repeated itself a few days later when my partner, who drove with a friend from the airport to the Sinai desert in Egypt to spend her holiday more productively than with me, found herself in the middle of an apparent Al-Qaeda attack. She was a short distance away from Ras-al-Satan when two bombs exploded, following the cloud of smoke coming from the earlier explosion of the Taba Hilton hotel further down the coast.
“This seems to me to be the sanest place in the country,” said Raz Greenberg, an MA student and lecturer on all things manga who was drafted in to give me lifts to and from the convention. “Three days of no politics, no worrying about terrorist attacks, no worrying about the socio-economic situation.”
To be honest, the socio-economic situation didn’t look too bad from where I was later sitting, which was in the Odeon burger bar and restaurant, near the convention site in the Tel Aviv Cinemateque. I had lunch with Ron Yaniv, publisher of the magazine Chalomot Be’aspamia, a handsome, bi-monthly publication dedicated to original Israeli science fiction and fantasy stories. To his right sat Nir Yaniv, author (he was nominated this year for the Gefen Award for best Israeli SF&F story) and editor of the newsletter of the Israeli Society for SF&F, an influential publication of articles, news, and stories. Beside me sat Rani Graff, owner and manager of Graff Publishing, a new company whose first three books had just come out before the convention. We had to wait for a table: the restaurant was packed on a Monday afternoon. Bankers, I was told about one table. Advertising people, most likely, about another. Maybe some journalists.
Ron explained how he came to publish a magazine two years ago. He was on an internet forum discussing food when he noticed one of the frequent posters was called Amber, which he recognized as a reference to Roger Zelazny’s books. He saw Amber also posted in a forum on science fiction, and that way he discovered the Ort Forum, the virtual hub of the SF/F community in Israel. At the time, the idea for a small, cheaply produced collection of original short stories was suggested by a young fan, Or Bialik, and was in the process of being assembled. Ron stepped in and suggested doing it as a more professional publication, which he would fund.
“We didn’t know it was going to be a magazine,” he said. “That’s why there are no dates on it, only a number one.”
Chalomot Be’aspamia One, therefore, came out at Icon 2002, and Ron was celebrating the success of the magazine. Edited by Vered Tochterman, herself a prolific author and former winner of the Gefen Award, the magazine grew with each issue into a fully professional venture with a policy previously unheard of: paying its contributors.
Nir Yaniv, a frequent contributor to the magazine, also writes idiosyncratic introductions to all the stories. He, too, was involved with the magazine from the beginning, and during our conversation it turned out he had written for Ron (no family relation) in another capacity too: as a programmer he had written a program Ron uses in his other job, the one that pays the bills and keeps the magazine running.
The only previous science fiction magazine in Israel, Fantasia 2000, ran for six years in the 1980s, allegedly as a tax loss for the publisher. I met its editor later in the evening, the very pleasant Aharon Hauptman, who weathered well my sudden transformation into a rabid fan. “From time to time,” he said, “people tell me that they grew up reading the magazine, and how much it meant to them. It’s always good to hear.”
Hauptman is still involved in the world of Israeli SF, but this new world of fandom, it became evident very early on in the convention, was a younger one. At 27, I was old; the majority of attendees seemed to be teenagers and people in their early 20s. My generation, few batting much over 30, were now the professionals in the field: publishers, editors, writers, and translators. There were even reviewers: I was interviewed for national newspaper Ha’aretz by a young reviewer (he wrote bookshop reviews) who explained he had convinced his editor to run a story on the convention. “It doesn’t interest me in the slightest,” the editor said, “but I realize it does other people. If you write it, we’ll run with it.”
Similarly, I briefly met Noa Menheim, a journalist and book reviewer for national newspaper Yediot Achronot, who is equally passionate about science fiction and had managed to publish a respectable number of reviews and articles on the genre. Indeed the convention this year, I was told, received a much larger exposure in the media than in previous years. And while the majority of it consisted of look-at-the-Klingons amused reportage, the coverage was an impressive achievement in a country where genre fiction had always been seen as outside the norm. Science fiction and fantasy were becoming, to my untrained eye, almost acceptable, and this was driven home when I spoke to my cousin, a successful marketing executive in Tel Aviv, a few days later. She loved fantasy, as it turned out, and shopped at the Kidmat Eden specialist bookshop in Tel Aviv that is the virtual Mecca of Israeli fans. We had a long discussion about the merits and otherwise of the shop and its owner, SF aficionado and one-time publisher (he cofounded, but did not remain with, the specialist Odisea (Odyssey) Press, Kobi Kamin).
I hadn’t seen Kamin at the convention, but I have seen plenty of Klingons, something which delighted me but annoyed many of the fans attending for literary, rather than media, reasons. Indeed, the Israeli Society for SF&F had suffered from the affliction most common in the world of fandom, splitting into subgroups dedicated to different areas of interest. Among them were the Israeli Star Trek Fan Club, Starbase972, and the Israeli Role Playing Games Society, while stands dotted around the convention hosted such arcane communities as the Israeli Space Society, comics collectors collective (they’re not really called that, but I couldn’t resist) and others. In the interest of journalistic integrity Nir Yaniv and I went over to the school that played host to con-goers who needed a place to crash—the building was transformed into a communal sleeping arena for teenagers in sleeping bags—and also served as the scene for many role-playing games. We wandered into the middle of a Matrix re-enaction scene, but were strangely undisturbed. A corpse was lying on the floor, and two sharp-suited Agents stood above it. We walked down the corridor, found one classroom transformed into an interrogation room, the other deserted but for a gun on the table that turned out to be plastic. As we approached the third room, however, our cover was blown. An Agent approached us and—when we seemingly failed to respond to something he had done—demanded to know what we were doing there.
“Actually, we were just leaving,” we said, and left before we found ourselves transported to the Real World, cocooned no doubt in gooey stuff.
The weather was sunny and hot: guest of honour Guy Gavriel Kay arrived on the first day in a jacket which was swiftly discarded. Sitting at the small coffee shop that served as unofficial hub for the convention, we noted how different this was than other conventions. Where the average American or British gathering seems to revolve around the bar and the consumption of many alcoholic drinks, here the drink of choice was coffee. Cigarettes and coffee, someone said to me later, are the Israeli ways of passing the time. Kay’s role included, it was noted, sitting at the coffee shop surrounded by what appeared to be admiring female fans, but he also participated in the opening ceremony, in Q&A sessions, panels and readings, and even presented the Gefen Award for best Israeli short story on the third night. He had been busy, ably assisted by an entourage that included Deborah Meghnagi, who runs Kay’s official web site from Jerusalem; Asaf Asheri, the editor of Opus Press, Israel’s premier specialist genre publishers; and Didi Chanoch, the previous editor of Opus and now editor of the SF list at Modan Publishers. Chanoch (whose English-language blog, is a good portal for SF news from Israel) is also a well-known translator, while Asheri was this year nominated twice for the Gefen short story award.
In any event, I ended up spending most of my time at the coffee shop as people came and went. Among them was Erez Abramovich, the stoic chairman of the Israeli Society for SF&F, who was deservedly content with the success of the festival. I spent a considerable amount of time talking to author Guy Hasson, whose writing workshop on the second day lasted four hours and was universally recommended and who is now a full-time scriptwriter and is busy directing a play. I also talked with Asaf Asheri about his own scriptwriting and film work, and with Rani Graff (who also headed—and presented—the Gefen Awards) and Didi Chanoch about publishing, the approaching Worldcon in Glasgow in 2005 (which may well see a significant Israeli presence), and with many other writers, con staff, and fans.
I had my own small role to play in the convention besides being an observer and drinking copious amounts of coffee. On the first day I gave a lecture on writing Israeli fantasy, which seemed to go quite well. The atmosphere was informal, with mobile phones going off like distant explosions and many questions and arguments from the mostly young crowd. To my surprise one member of the audience was an Orthodox Jew, clad in black and with clip-on-sunglasses raised up over his glasses. He came over later to tell me he was writing a science fiction novel that would include time travel and—if I am not mistaken—human sacrifice to the priests of Moloch. I had not expected to meet many overtly religious people, but as it turned out there were several yarmulke-wearing members of the convention walking around, and I was further surprised when I was later approached by a Michael Marshall Smith fan I had corresponded with several times, who also turned out to be not only Orthodox but a settler in the contested Palestinian territories as well. She comes to Icon once a year for a day, she said, and buys one copy of Chalomot Be’aspamia. It was difficult to reconcile the young, pretty girl with my preconceived notion of a Right-wing settler, just as it was to encounter the SF-writing chasid.
Following the wave of mass immigration from Russia after the collapse of the USSR, a lively group of Russian writers made its home in Israel, including many SF ones, and I was curious to meet them. I had hoped, in my second official duty as attendee of an Israeli writers panel, to meet two of the Russian Jewish authors who were listed as attending, but neither Pesach Emmanuel nor Daniel Kluger—both of whom write in Russian and both well-known as SF authors in Russia—did not make it, and I remained unenlightened.
I didn’t meet any Arabs, either. Although the review column in Chalomot Be’aspamia listed a recent book by an Arab-Israeli author, I remained in the dark as to whether there is any Arab fandom. A recent article in the Israeli Society for SF&F’s quarterly magazine, Ha’meimad Ha’asiri (The Tenth Dimension), very usefully surveyed some of the genre writing in the neighboring countries, but much information is still hard to come by. It is impossible to write SF set in Israel in the near future, someone commented during my lecture. We simply don’t know what’s going to happen. Writing such a story would have to make some basic assumptions: Is there a Palestinian state? Is there region-wide peace? Is there still an Israel? The few writers to engage with the topic in the past have usually assumed the destruction of the Jewish state—though more often by Jewish orthodoxy than by the Arabs.
Was the convention escapist, or was it there to confront the future head-on? Was it a collection of freaks and weirdos, as the municipality’s representative said, or was it the last sane place to be in an insane country? I didn’t have the answers, and I still don’t. Science fiction is not, overall, a political movement, though some of its more political authors have ranged from right-wing libertarians to hardcore Marxists. Icon 2004 wasn’t there to offer long-lasting solutions to political questions, but to give fans of that strange, compulsive world of science fiction a place to meet, a place to talk, a place to even—sometimes—listen.
The convention was full of activities: there were films, including Alien vs. Predator, Trekkies 2 and Earthlings: Ugly Bags of Mostly Water (about the Klingon Language Institute); there were episodes of Buffy, Angel and more Buffy, and Star Trek and Stargate; there were lectures on anything from crime in SF, to one titled “Biblical Prophecy as an Alternative System of Magic,” with all points in between; there were role-playing games, a make-up stand churning out vampire victims, Klingons and other aliens, workshops on drawing comics, translating books or writing them, and there were always gladiators in the coloseum outside.
Finally, there were the Gefen Awards. Established in 1999, the award is named after Amos Gefen, who died in 1998. He was an editor and translator as well as a long-standing fan who was instrumental in establishing the Israeli Society for SF&F in 1996. The award began with two categories: best translated book in SF and one in fantasy. In 2002 a best Israeli short story category was added, and 2003 saw the addition of a special award for best Israeli book, given once every two years. Rani Graff presented the award ceremony with Úlan, publicly handing over reins of the award committee to Yael Abadi, who presented the Best Fantasy Book award. First up was Erez Abramovich, however, who presented the Best SF book to Opus Press for Karin Lowachee’s debut novel Warchild. Next Yael Abady presented the award for Best Fantasy Book: without much surprise it went to Israel’s perennial favourite, Neil Gaiman, for his collection Smoke and Mirrors. Gaiman is slated to attend the 2006 Icon and his name is expected to draw a very large crowd. Editor Asaf Asheri came up on stage a second time to collect the award on Gaiman's behalf.
Finally, Guy Gavriel Kay presented the Best Israeli Short Story Award to Rami Shalheveth, the editor of the excellent Israeli webzine Bli Panika and sundry other publications (he works on both Chalomot Be’aspamia and The Tenth Dimension, as well as other projects). Shalheveth’s story, "Dragon Checkpoint," was a one-page humorous piece with a decidedly Israeli flavor, and was its author’s first and only fiction publication. In a short speech the surprised Shalheveth said that he had hoped to win the award for editing (at a time when there will be such an award) rather than for writing and thanked the voters, to the sound of much applause.
Icon 2004 was a unique experience. The mostly young crowd seemed a promise that the field still has a long and prosperous future ahead of it, and the enthusiasm everywhere was infectious. These are times of change: new publishers and new magazines are opening up, and local writers are responding by writing more, and better, stories. Israel is a country where most people are seriously uncertain about the future, and the cautious optimism of the days before the Rabin assassination has been replaced by much more doubt and concern, and a greater polarization. If science fiction can serve to bring diverse people together, if only for a few days—and if only to entertain—then it had succeeded. I look forward to coming back next year.