Montreal native Sheldon Teitelbaum first became interested in Israeli science fiction in the late 1970s, when he served in the Israel Defence Forces. Four decades later, he put together Zion’s Fiction, the world’s first English-language compendium of Israeli science fiction and fantasy stories.
Teitelbaum isn’t sure exactly when he got the idea for the anthology, which is the first of three volumes. He remembers being impressed with the marked improvements of contemporary authors over those he had read when he first got into the genre.
“I was very surprised at the leaps and bounds that had been made in the field since 1980,” said Teitelbaum. “These folks at the beginning were learning the craft and most of their stories were hackneyed and not quite accomplished. In about the year 2000, 2002, 2003, I noticed a huge uptick in the number of stories that were being published and their quality.”
After 40 years of reading Israeli science fiction, Teitelbaum realized the increase in quality was something that should be shared.
“It occurred to me we were missing a volume like this and that we should be bringing these stories to the light of the rest of the English-speaking world,” he said.
One of the first things Teitelbaum did to help achieve his goal of publishing an English-language anthology of Israeli science fiction was call up Emanuel Lottem, whom Teitelbaum called “the greatest translator of science fiction in Hebrew in Israel.”
Teitelbaum shared his concept for Zion’s Fiction and Lottem immediately recognized what a great idea it was.
The two initially launched a Kickstarter campaign for the book, but that didn’t work out. So, with the help of a literary agent, they shopped it around for a few years, until they struck a deal with Mandel Vilar Press. It took less than a year after that to get the book published, said Teitelbaum, because they’d been working on it the whole time they were shopping it around.
“We were just absolutely positive that this thing would sell by hook or by crook, or we’d expire trying. And thankfully, we didn’t have to expire,” said Teitelbaum.
The end result is a 16-story anthology of some of the finest science fiction and fantasy that Israel has to offer.
The stories range in length from a few pages to a few dozen, and vary in scope from intergalactic time travelling to a telepath who can read the minds of dead people. Some have religious references, including one in which God decides to punish people for breaking every rule. There are many references to societies in which one class of people rules another, and to Israeli locales.
That’s representative of one of the biggest changes Teitelbaum noticed in Israeli science fiction, as the genre matured. Back in the ’80s, there were no defining Israeli traits to Israeli sci-fi. The stories of that time seemed to be inspired by American authors, with nondescript settings, Anglo names and recycled plots and themes.
But as the Israeli authors began to come into their own, they became more confident in the kinds of stories they wanted to tell. Many of them introduced Israeli settings and Israeli characters, but even the ones who didn’t ended up introducing what Teitelbaum calls “an Israeli outlook and esprit.”
“As for most Israeli literature, someone once said it’s concerned with Israeli man, with Israeli stakes, with Israeli concerns and Israeli anxiety. So it’s big on alternate history and alternate worlds, and I think that’s a function of the unsettled grounds that Israelis walk upon,” said Teitelbaum.