Science Fiction and Fantasy in Israel

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  by Guy Hasson
• SF in Israel
  by Inbal Sagiv

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Science Fiction in Israel
Abstract of an MA Thesis Written at Tel-Aviv University
by Inbal Sagiv

This work concerns itself with a small (and in some ways - peripheral) sphere of Israeli popular culture, seen as a specific case of cultural importation, involving both texts and behavioral models. Its different chapters take a look at various sections of that culture through a specific prism - that of science fiction - within the paradigm of studying culture as a polysystem. They describe a phenomenon of culture planning by certain agents of that culture, while interacting with and importing from a foreign culture. The period this work concentrates on is the last forty years, with a special focus on the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, which were peak years in the popularity of science fiction in Israel (at least until the middle of the 1990s, about which there is still no historical perspective).
The work presents a map of science fiction (SF) activities in the different fields of culture in Israel, from translated and original literature, through magazines, cinema and television to fan activities such as clubs and conventions. It also takes a look at the Israeli general culture's attitude towards these activities, as seen in the printed press.
In order to draw a map of "science fiction in Israel", one must first define the object of study. To that end, the first chapter presents a working definition of science fiction. It is not, of course, an absolute, sharp-edged definition, since such a definition is impossible. Instead, the work presents a prototypical category, one that most members of the Israeli culture will accept that what it includes is science fiction and will agree that what it excludes is not science fiction.
After defining the borders of the area being dealt with, the second chapter presents a short history of the genre of science fiction, in literature, cinema, television and society. Modern science fiction, born in popular pulp magazines in 1920s America, was partly based on stories of lost worlds, fantastic voyages and technological and social extrapolations written in the 19th century by many, most famously Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. The 1930s and 1940s were the "Golden Age" of American SF magazines such as Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction, with writers whose names are to this day synonymous with the genre: Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, etc. It was at this time that a full-blown sub-culture of SF fandom began to develop around the written texts - fans wrote letters to the magazines and each other, met in conventions and later began giving out prizes to what they consider the best SF works.
After the end of the second world war the popularity of science fiction began to grow, thanks to the sudden validation it received with the use of Atom bombs (an act foreseen in many a science fiction tale), and to a larger change in the book market - the birth of pocket books. SF books, first as anthologies of previously published short stories and later as original anthologies and full-length novels, began to appear in regular SF series. In the 1960s the "New Wave" brought a change in subject matter from "Hard Science" and technology, the focal point of traditional science fiction stories, towards more attendance to characters and a level of writing more akin to the literary center.
In the 1970s and 1980s SF movies began to make their mark as the most financially successful films around the world, thanks in part to new technologies that made it possible to create spectacular special effects in films like "Star Wars", "Close encounters", "E.T." and "Blade Runner". Movies, TV series and their various merchandise still continue to infiltrate cultures around the world, accompanied by Role Playing Games taking place in fantastic universes, and since the 1980s computer games, many of which are science fictional.
A major part of this work is a database comprised of almost all the science fiction and fantasy books translated into Hebrew until the beginning of 1999. The database of about 850 books appears in full in the first appendix - for each book it lists the title and author name, both in Hebrew and the original language; the names of the publisher and the translator; the year the book was first published originally, and in Israel; the number of pages; reviews and prizes received, etc. (assuming this data was available, of course). The third chapter presents a general explanation about the way the database was built, and analyses it by various criteria.
A chronological view of the database presents obvious ups and downs in the position of science fiction in Israel. Up until the 1960s most of the books translated into Hebrew that fall under the working definition used here were "Proto-Science-Fiction", that is fantastic adventure tales by the likes of Jules Verne and Henry Rider Haggard, mainly translated for children and the juvenile audience. The only exception was between 1958 and 1962, when the beginning of the "space age" marked by the Russian Sputniks influenced a few marginal pocket-book publishers to translate several genre-SF works from English and Russian. These first attempts, though remembered fondly by SF-fans to this day, were not successful. Only in the 1970s did two major publishing houses, Masada and Am-Oved, establish regular science fiction lines which were to last and have a real effect on the Israeli culture.

The real boom in science fiction publishing in Israel began in 1976, reached its apex in 1979 and then dwindled during the 1980s. SF books made the top of best-seller lists, and many publishers joined the market, translating dozens of books a year. At the same time (as can be seen in detail in the next chapters), there were fandom activities and science fiction magazines, the most important of which, Fantasia 2000, is highly regarded to this day. The books published at this period were mostly classics of modern science fiction, building a repertoire of the genre in Hebrew and introducing many of the major authors, from the Golden Age to the New Wave.
But science fiction did not thrive for long. The beginning of the 1980s saw a decline in book sales and fan activities, influenced both by internal factors, such as boredom, and by external factors such as the war in Lebanon and the economic depression following it. A change for the better is apparent only in the last few years. The 1990s have brought a flood of Sword and Sorcery fantasy series popular among the younger audience. Since 1997 the number of translated books is high again, and fan activities are more frequent and better organized than ever.
A review of the database by author name reveals that the most prominent authors translated into Hebrew are well-known writers of "Hard-Science Fiction". At the head of the list we find Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, whose books were among the first SF texts published in Israel. Lately, however, their prominence is threatened by the writers of multi-volume fantasy series such as Margaret Wies and Tracy Hickman, since in the 1990s these books are more numerous than the traditional SF.
The source main language for SF books translated into Hebrew is English. This comes as no surprise, for two reasons: first, the lion's share of recreational literature translated into Hebrew in the period discussed was indeed translated from English; second, the great majority of SF texts around the world are written in English (mainly in the USA and Britain), and their translations make up the bulk of science fiction in many languages. As for pseudo-translations, that is SF books written in Hebrew, but presented as translations - these are very few, and do not have a central position in the make-up of this genre in Hebrew (unlike in other popular genres, for example spy novels or westerns).
The most prominent translators of SF into Hebrew are a relatively small group. Usually, they are also editors, and take an active role in fan activities. Is seems that people who have a lasting relationship with the world of SF do out of fondness for it, not just "to make a living".
Various other parts of this chapter deal with the major publishing houses translating SF; anthologies and short-story collections (relatively few in Hebrew, where SF is known mainly in full-length novel form); books based on motion pictures and TV series; the position of the books translated in the English SF-scene (the percentage of Hugo and Nebula award winners translated into Hebrew is very high); books translated more than once (very few), etc.
Despite a long tradition of fantastic literature in Hebrew, Israeli SF texts written in the genre this work deals with and regarded by the Israeli audience as science fiction are not many. Original SF, in the few cases published despite all the difficulties faced, was generally treated disparagingly, both by the literary establishment, scornful of all science fiction, and by Sf fans, who prefer foreign texts. Many of the Hebrew books containing elements of science fiction are written for children and the juvenile audience. Others present a future image, most often a threatening one, of the state of Israel, according to the author's fears or hopes.
Among the people who write science fiction in Israel, quite a few are SF fans, usually situated outside the literary establishment, with professional tendencies not directly related to writing, but rather more technologically inclined. These fans and others try to find explanations for the relatively low frequency of science fiction reading and writing in Israel. The hardships and inherent dangers of life in Israel are presented as reasons for the Israelis' inability or reluctance to be fond of SF, a genre that requires a vivid imagination and detachment from everyday life. However, lately, as the genre becomes more and more well known in Israel, we begin to see original texts written with a knowledge of genre science fiction, and with an acceptance of its rules and conventions.
The focus of this work lies in describing SF texts and activities in Israel, and in Hebrew. Large portions of the work deal with books translated into Hebrew or written in it, and with magazines, most of them in Hebrew. But in fact, present the subject in this manner is, in a way, false. Actually, much of what was done, seen, and mostly read, of science fiction in Israel was, to begin with, in English. These activities in foreign languages took place not only in a parallel course, but also in direct contact with the Hebrew activities. Many of the SF fans in Israel were born abroad, and brought their fondness for the genre with them to Israel. They, and quite a lot of Israelis, read SF mainly, if not only, in foreign languages, especially English, the variety of science fiction in which is vastly superior to that found in Hebrew.
Throughout the world, SF fandom is a sub-culture characterized by activities beyond mere book reading or watching films and TV shows. Science fiction fans tend to be an active audience, organizing fan clubs, conventions, etc. Up until the 1970s there were probably no organized fan activities in Israel. At the end of that decade, at the same time many science fiction books were translated into Hebrew and SF magazines were published, fans began to meet and act. The peak of the these activities was between 1980 and 1982 - there were a few regional clubs, a first convention was organized in Jerusalem and plans were made for an international SF convention called Jerucon '82. But most of these activities ended around 1982, and were renewed only since 1996, with the establishment of The Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy and later Starbase 972 - The Israeli Star Trek Fan Club. Active Sf fans make up quite a small group. We find the same names, in different areas of activity, for many years. The same people are involved in magazines, translate books, edit SF lines, organize fan meetings and write reviews of SF books in the general press.
While modern science fiction was born in magazines, which are to this day important venues for SF around the world, in Israel, most written SF exists in book form. The few attempts made at SF magazine publishing, in the late 1950s and late 1970s, failed, mostly due to poor quality.
The only magazine that lasted for a significant length of time was Fantasia 2000 (44 issues, from 1978 to 1984), a commercial magazine founded by fans that was the focal point for SF reading, writing and fandom activities in the most prolific period for science fiction in Israel to this day. Fantasia 2000 had an arrangement with the American well-known Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which was the source for most of the translated material (stories and also Isaac Asimov's popular science column), and encouraged local writers, whose stories made up about 20% of published fiction. Despite a substantial readership of several thousands, the magazine was never financially successful, and had to fold in the mid-eighties slump.
In the 1990s two fanzines (non-commercial amateur magazines) allow SF fans to communicate and express opinions. They are the Rehovot SF club's newsletter, CyberCozen (monthly since 1989), and the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy's magazine The Tenth Dimension (7 issues by mid-1999).
Science Fiction is not only a literary genre - since the birth of cinema its ability to show things that do not exist made it a natural vehicle for SF and fantasy works. SF films have been the greatest box-office hits of international cinema since the 1970s, and science fiction TV shows, most notably "Star Trek", have a very large following. Up until the early 1980s, science fiction movies were not very successful in Israel, and film distributors were loath to import them. However, since these films have become the biggest hits (starting with "Star Wars" and "E.T.", for example, the latest example being 1999's "Star Wars - The Phantom Menace"), they are favorites of the local audience as well. The various television channels available in Israel throughout the years did broadcast a few SF series, most of them in the time slots for children's programs, but they were not especially popular. "Star Trek" was shown here intermittently since the 1970's - in 1998 a fan club was established in Israel, and the series' presence in Israeli culture in the 1990s is apparent in quite a few newspaper stories where its characters and language terms are taken for granted. As for original works of SF, these have been very few. In addition to the reasons limiting the amount of written SF in Hebrew, in cinema and TV there also the economic factor - the high cost of special effects usually needed for SF in an industry having scant financial resources.
The last chapter of these work deals with the Israeli culture's explicit attitude towards science fiction, as it is expressed in the press - in reviews of SF books and in articles, both inside the fan community and outside it. Until the 1970s there was hardly any reference to SF books or the genre itself in general. This decade saw very few reviews of books, mainly books by Isaac Asimov, who was then the best known SF writer in Israel. Until the mid-1980s more than half of all book reviews were published in Fantasia 2000, a specialized SF magazine. The rest, to this day, were written for the literary supplements of daily newspapers by a small and rather constant group of critics, most of whom declare themselves to be SF fans.
While the appearance of reviews of SF books in literary magazines and supplements presents an acceptance of science fiction as a part of the literary system, in most cases the text of these reviews has some reservations as to SF's place within "real literature", and certainly "good literature". Also, even in reviews ostensibly dedicated to a single book, large portions of the review actually deal with science fiction literature in general, the specific book being just an excuse for this discussion. This demonstrates a dismissive attitude towards the SF books reviewed.
As for SF fans and their hobby, the attitude towards them in the Israeli general press throughout the years is mostly one of good-natured scorn. The articles dealing with the cultural phenomena surrounding the genre tend to describe them as strange acts of odd people. The fans themselves, especially in their own magazines, try to defend themselves against this attitude. They demonstrate why SF is not as bad as its reputation, try to refute the prejudice against it by describing its virtues, and tell Israelis how much it is appreciated abroad, where notable people are not afraid to be associated with it.
Throughout the years, the position held by SF in the Israeli culture has moved from the very periphery towards the center, at least of popular culture, from virtual obscurity to having Virtual Reality in every newspaper and TV news show. In that, it serves as a good example of the importation process of foreign elements into Hebrew culture.