Commentary Magazine


Topic: science fiction

Ray Bradbury, 1920–2012

The science fiction writer Ray Bradbury died last night in Los Angeles at 91.

Although I have not read him since high school, Bradbury was a formative literary influence — and not upon me alone. Andrew Fox, himself an excellent SF writer, testifies to Bradbury’s lifelong influence upon him in this moving tribute.

As John Fund said over at National Review Online, Bradbury was a great conservative. Perhaps there is no better image of his conservatism than this. In Fahrenheit 451, his classic dystopian novel from 1953 about a world that burns books, there is a band of wandering scholars, headed by a mysterious man named Granger, who memorize books to preserve them from total destruction. Granger himself has memorized Plato’s Republic; or, as he puts it, “I am Plato’s Republic.”

The irony is delicious, because Plato too wanted to suppress books. “[W]e can admit no poetry into our city save only hymns to the gods and the praises of good men,” Socrates tells Glaucon in Paul Shorey’s translation [607a]. “For if you grant admission to the honeyed Muse in lyric or epic, pleasure and pain will be lords of your city instead of law. . . .” By poetry is meant everything that would now be called literature. In Bradbury’s city as opposed to Plato’s, cultural memory preserves even the calls for its own extermination.

It may be no exaggeration to suggest that Bradbury understood literature’s place in human life, to say nothing of the utopian seduction, better than Plato.

The science fiction writer Ray Bradbury died last night in Los Angeles at 91.

Although I have not read him since high school, Bradbury was a formative literary influence — and not upon me alone. Andrew Fox, himself an excellent SF writer, testifies to Bradbury’s lifelong influence upon him in this moving tribute.

As John Fund said over at National Review Online, Bradbury was a great conservative. Perhaps there is no better image of his conservatism than this. In Fahrenheit 451, his classic dystopian novel from 1953 about a world that burns books, there is a band of wandering scholars, headed by a mysterious man named Granger, who memorize books to preserve them from total destruction. Granger himself has memorized Plato’s Republic; or, as he puts it, “I am Plato’s Republic.”

The irony is delicious, because Plato too wanted to suppress books. “[W]e can admit no poetry into our city save only hymns to the gods and the praises of good men,” Socrates tells Glaucon in Paul Shorey’s translation [607a]. “For if you grant admission to the honeyed Muse in lyric or epic, pleasure and pain will be lords of your city instead of law. . . .” By poetry is meant everything that would now be called literature. In Bradbury’s city as opposed to Plato’s, cultural memory preserves even the calls for its own extermination.

It may be no exaggeration to suggest that Bradbury understood literature’s place in human life, to say nothing of the utopian seduction, better than Plato.

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Abandoning Realism to Preserve It

Science fiction has a surprisingly close relationship with realism, Kingsley Amis says in New Maps of Hell (1960). In distinguishing it from fantasy (with which it is often associated and confused), Amis points out that “while science fiction . . . maintains a respect for fact or presumptive fact, fantasy makes a point of flouting these. . . .”

Hence its unexpected didacticism: science fiction carries present trends to their logical (and lesson-serving) conclusion. Dystopias like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Linda Chavez’s recommendation for the holiday season, teach a lesson about current realities by the simple method of showing what might happen if they are not altered or corrected.

“[A] difference which makes the difference between abandoning verisimilitude and trying to preserve it seems to me to make all the difference,” Amis says. And something like this may go far to explain Michael Weingrad’s claim that “Judaism is a science fiction religion” (while, by contrast, “Christianity is a fantasy religion”). In other words, Judaism is a religion that preserves verisimilitude, while Christianity is a religion that abandons it.

Thus even Jewish fiction that seems upon first reflection to be fantasy turn out not to be. Take Steve Stern’s marvelous The Frozen Rabbi (2010), for example. Reissued in paperback by Algonquin earlier this year, the novel has a fantastical premise. A 19th-century Polish tzaddik, lost in a meditative trance while a storm rages around him (“his soul sat in bliss among the archons studying Torah”), does not notice that the pond on whose bank he lies has begun to rise, “inundating his legs to the waist, creeping over his chest and chin and ultimately submerging his hoary head.”

The rebbe remains underwater, “continu[ing] his submarine meditations,” while autumn turns to winter. The pond freezes over; the rebbe is discovered embedded in the ice, “apparently intact even if frozen stiff,” and carted back to the village. The frozen rabbi is stored in an ice house for a few years, and then is passed down like a holy relic from generation to generation. He is transported across Europe and eventually to America, where he ends up in an ice chest in a Memphis basement. One day in 1999 a thunderstorm causes an electrical outage and the rabbi thaws out to find himself at the turn of centuries.

Surely this is the Jewish fantasy (if not exactly the Jewish Narnia) that Weingrad had written in the Jewish Review of Books is nowhere to be found. But no. Stern’s novel respects fact and preserves verisimilitude. Indeed, the novel’s satirical purpose is to comment upon and poke fun at the “Gan Eydn” (Garden of Eden, paradise) that Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr believes himself to have awakened to in postmodern America. Stern must have his facts straight for his satire to work. His primary attention is on the social and linguistic detail of contemporary Memphis and its environs. The fantastical premise is simply a device for bringing them into clearer, even exaggerated focus.

Stern is much closer to Kafka than to Lewis, Tolkien, Rowling, and George R. R. Martin. Kafka invented a special genre of Jewish SF (perhaps more speculative fiction than science fiction). The first sentence of The Metamorphosis, when Gregor Samsa awakens from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a giant beetle, launched the new genre. Only in the first sentence — only in its initial premise — does Kafka’s story dispenses with realism. Otherwise it is faithful to the factual and the possible.

The Frozen Rabbi is just one example of Jewish fiction of fantastical premise, which momentarily abandons verisimilitude for the sake of ultimately preserving it. Joseph Skibell’s wonderful A Curable Romantic (released in paper last month) premises that one of the most famous Viennese psychoanalytic patients was not suffering from the sexual hysteria that Freud diagnosed, but from a talkative lovesick dybbuk. And John J. Clayton’s Mitzvah Man, the best Jewish novel of 2011 (to which my January fiction chronicle will largely be devoted), starts from the premise that a modern man who sets out to obey God’s commandments might just (who knows?) be capable of performing miracles. If they are miracles, though, they are miracles that occur in recognizable surroundings to recognizable human beings.

Even at its most fantastical, Jewish fiction is a fiction of realism.

Science fiction has a surprisingly close relationship with realism, Kingsley Amis says in New Maps of Hell (1960). In distinguishing it from fantasy (with which it is often associated and confused), Amis points out that “while science fiction . . . maintains a respect for fact or presumptive fact, fantasy makes a point of flouting these. . . .”

Hence its unexpected didacticism: science fiction carries present trends to their logical (and lesson-serving) conclusion. Dystopias like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Linda Chavez’s recommendation for the holiday season, teach a lesson about current realities by the simple method of showing what might happen if they are not altered or corrected.

“[A] difference which makes the difference between abandoning verisimilitude and trying to preserve it seems to me to make all the difference,” Amis says. And something like this may go far to explain Michael Weingrad’s claim that “Judaism is a science fiction religion” (while, by contrast, “Christianity is a fantasy religion”). In other words, Judaism is a religion that preserves verisimilitude, while Christianity is a religion that abandons it.

Thus even Jewish fiction that seems upon first reflection to be fantasy turn out not to be. Take Steve Stern’s marvelous The Frozen Rabbi (2010), for example. Reissued in paperback by Algonquin earlier this year, the novel has a fantastical premise. A 19th-century Polish tzaddik, lost in a meditative trance while a storm rages around him (“his soul sat in bliss among the archons studying Torah”), does not notice that the pond on whose bank he lies has begun to rise, “inundating his legs to the waist, creeping over his chest and chin and ultimately submerging his hoary head.”

The rebbe remains underwater, “continu[ing] his submarine meditations,” while autumn turns to winter. The pond freezes over; the rebbe is discovered embedded in the ice, “apparently intact even if frozen stiff,” and carted back to the village. The frozen rabbi is stored in an ice house for a few years, and then is passed down like a holy relic from generation to generation. He is transported across Europe and eventually to America, where he ends up in an ice chest in a Memphis basement. One day in 1999 a thunderstorm causes an electrical outage and the rabbi thaws out to find himself at the turn of centuries.

Surely this is the Jewish fantasy (if not exactly the Jewish Narnia) that Weingrad had written in the Jewish Review of Books is nowhere to be found. But no. Stern’s novel respects fact and preserves verisimilitude. Indeed, the novel’s satirical purpose is to comment upon and poke fun at the “Gan Eydn” (Garden of Eden, paradise) that Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr believes himself to have awakened to in postmodern America. Stern must have his facts straight for his satire to work. His primary attention is on the social and linguistic detail of contemporary Memphis and its environs. The fantastical premise is simply a device for bringing them into clearer, even exaggerated focus.

Stern is much closer to Kafka than to Lewis, Tolkien, Rowling, and George R. R. Martin. Kafka invented a special genre of Jewish SF (perhaps more speculative fiction than science fiction). The first sentence of The Metamorphosis, when Gregor Samsa awakens from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a giant beetle, launched the new genre. Only in the first sentence — only in its initial premise — does Kafka’s story dispenses with realism. Otherwise it is faithful to the factual and the possible.

The Frozen Rabbi is just one example of Jewish fiction of fantastical premise, which momentarily abandons verisimilitude for the sake of ultimately preserving it. Joseph Skibell’s wonderful A Curable Romantic (released in paper last month) premises that one of the most famous Viennese psychoanalytic patients was not suffering from the sexual hysteria that Freud diagnosed, but from a talkative lovesick dybbuk. And John J. Clayton’s Mitzvah Man, the best Jewish novel of 2011 (to which my January fiction chronicle will largely be devoted), starts from the premise that a modern man who sets out to obey God’s commandments might just (who knows?) be capable of performing miracles. If they are miracles, though, they are miracles that occur in recognizable surroundings to recognizable human beings.

Even at its most fantastical, Jewish fiction is a fiction of realism.

Read Less




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