Anyone who was at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque during the Sukkot holiday of 2006 will remember the sight of the city’s quiet, highbrow arthouse cinema jam-packed with people, many of them teenagers in costumes (the term “cosplay” hadn’t made it to the local fan community yet) trying to catch a glimpse of the festival’s guest of honor, some (especially the teenage girls) screaming in excitement whenever he passed by.
I remember being asked by someone—a security guard, I think—just what this guy did to get this kind of attention, and if he’s some kind of a rock star.
“No, he’s a writer,” I said.
“Ah, a writer,” said that person who asked me the question in a rather skeptical voice.
The festival was the ICon, Israel’s annual science fiction and fantasy convention. The guest of honor was novelist and comics writer extraordinaire Neil Gaiman. One of the special events held as part of the 2006 festival was a celebration of the 10th anniversary of The Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy, one of ICon’s co-organizers. It was a modest event, consisting of several speeches, some amusing stage-sketches, video greetings from foreign authors and an appearance by Gaiman. But it was enough for the society members present in the auditorium to feel some sort of a collective pat on the back. They made it. For 10 years the society has been a home to genre fans, and keeping any kind of cultural activity going on in Israel for so long is an achievement in its own right, let alone an activity that promotes thinking beyond the limits of the here and now—limits that sometimes appear to be almost sacred to Israeli society at large.
A decade later, the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy is still here—and what seemed amazing in 2006 seems almost mundane today. Jam-packed lobbies are a regular sight at the annual ICon festival and the Olamot convention held during Passover. Nobody raises an eyebrow when costumed visitors of either ICon or Olamot sit down for a drink or lunch at one of the many coffee shops and restaurants along the HaArba’a street (where both events are held).
Fans owe a debt to the British Council’s branch in Israel, which in the 1990s hosted several events featuring prominent U.K. science-fiction writers, and approached local citizens known for their association with the genre about finding an audience for these events. The list of such people was short; Israeli genre fandom has been pretty much dead since the country’s longest-running genre magazine, Fantasia 2000, ceased publication in 1984. But the people approached by the British Council, among them Israel’s most respected translator of genre literature, Dr. Emanuel Lottem, and the founder of Fantasia 2000, Dr. Aharon Hauptman, obviously felt the time was right for sci-fi fandom to rise from the ashes.
The annual Geffen Awards for excellence in translation of genre fiction (named after one of the society founders and pioneer of science fiction publishing in Israel, Amos Geffen) were born, as well as The Tenth Dimension—the society’s magazine that kept trying to find its voice all throughout its years of existence, mostly remembered today for its incredible covers by artist Avi Katz — and a series of weekly lectures. All this was always accompanied by heated arguments (this being Israel, after all) about what the society does and what it should be doing. Should it just be a home for science-fiction and fantasy fans who want to have fun, or should it actively promote the genre among literary and academic circles?
The answer, as evident from developments over the past 10 years, is that it can do both. Once Upon a Future, an annual anthology of local genre stories, has replaced The Tenth Dimension as the society’s publication. The Geffen Awards are now given to local novels and short stories alongside translated works, and in voting for local works at the Geffen Awards, society members have equally embraced writers who grew within the fan community and members of the Israeli literary community at large who turned to genre writing.
A quick glance at the list of Geffen-winning novels from the past five years reveals how diverse genre writing in Israel has become.
Mesopotamia—Silence of the Stars by Yehuda Israely and Dor Raveh is a complex story about religious war divided between two plotlines, one taking place in the 23rd century, the other in ancient Sumer; co-author Israely’s expertise in psychoanalysis and the studies of Jacques Lacan provide the story with deep layers of meaning.
Herzl Said by Yoav Avni presents readers with an alternate reality in which Theodor Herzl’s “Uganda Plan” became a reality and a Jewish state was founded in Africa; the plot follows two young citizens of this African Jewish state who travel to the remote country of Palestine following the conclusion of their army service, not unlike the very real trips taken by young Israelis to remote countries after their the conclusion of their IDF service.
Demons in Agripas Street by Hagay Dagan, a scholar of Jewish thought, is a supernatural thriller taking place in modern-day Jerusalem; in the course of the plot, the author exposes the rich mythological world of Judaism and other ancient religions of region, proving to Israeli readers that their country and culture can inspire fantasy every bit as medieval Europe inspired Western genre writers.
Gabriela Avigur-Rotem’s Every Story Is a Sudden Cat explores the boundaries that separate life and death; part fantasy, part family-drama, her novel is deeply rooted in contemporary Israeli reality. Keren Landsman’s Broken Skies is an anthology of imaginative science-fiction and fantasy stories, and is undoubtedly the most eclectic of the five books mentioned here. Some the stories take place in Israel, and others in deep space, and they all feature unforgettable characters and clever plots that made the author a favorite at the Geffen Awards.
Outside literary prose, The ICon and Olamot programs have also changed focus from screenings of foreign films and television episodes; they’re now dominated by local lecturers as well as fan stage plays and screenings of local fan films. Productions like the interactive play Voyage to the Dark Mountain of Doom, in which the audience votes on how the insane plot develops, and the crowd-funded fantasy-film The Last Shepherd, were sold-out events.
The past two decades also saw the emergence of other fan organizations, notably the (now defunct) Starbase972 club, founded as a home for Israeli fans of the Star Trek universe. Other organizations, such as the Israeli Roleplaying Association, the AMAI club of Israeli anime and manga devotees, and the Israeli Tolkien Community promote their own fandoms and often collaborate with the society on different projects. Events as ICon and Olamot face competition from events such as the Utopia festival of genre films and the Geek picnic happening of science and technology. No fewer than three attempts at publishing commercial genre magazines have been made in Israel over the past 15 year; sadly, none survived (although one—Halomot Be’Aspamia—was recently relaunched). But the very existence of the society has made it all possible, by creating the genre-friendly atmosphere that was practically nonexistent in Israel of 1996, when the society was founded.
The society plans to celebrate its 20th anniversary this month. This event will, in many ways, reflect the long way that genre events in Israel have come since the society’s inception—the main attraction will not be a foreign writer, but a stage play based on story by Rotem Baruchin, another Geffen Awards favorite for her short stories and a prominent figure behind the aforementioned fan productions. It is, perhaps by choice, a far more intimate event when compared with this year’s ICon festival, which is scheduled for October. After 20 years, society members love the annual big events in which they celebrate their fandom, but they don’t really need them as justification for their existence. Not anymore.
Raz Greenberg, an animation researcher, is the author of Hayao Miyazaki: Exploring the Early Work of Japan’s Greatest Animator.