Small S.F. publisher nurtures Jewish sci-fi tradition

Had Aldous Huxley needed a publisher as a protagonist in “Brave New World,” he might have invented Jacob Weisman — a playwright’s son and printer’s grandson seemingly bred and conditioned, as in Huxley’s 1931 dystopian novel, to devote his life to publishing science fiction and fantasy literature.

As a first-grader, Weisman produced a comic book fanzine on his San Francisco elementary school’s mimeograph machine. Beginning in high school, he published The Thirteenth Moon science fiction and fantasy magazine for about 15 years.

That led to his 1995 formation of Tachyon, the San Francisco-based publisher of science fiction and fantasy that last November celebrated its 20th anniversary of publishing critically acclaimed anthologies, short-story collections, novels and novellas.

Weisman and Tachyon are part of a Bay Area tradition that has produced or been home to Jewish science fiction and fantasy authors including Robert Silverberg, Avram Davidson, Peter S. Beagle and Michael Chabon.

“There’s nothing inherently Jewish about the California landscape. But Californians have always had an eye on the future. The Jews who came here were those who didn’t fit in anywhere else,” Weisman said. “We had new forms of politics that might save the world, free love and drugs. We were somewhat tolerant of unusual sexual orientations, at least sometimes. There was always a feeling here of utopian possibilities.”

Rina and Jacob Weisman in their home office photo/cathleen maclearie

Although Weisman says Jewish culture itself might not have directly influenced science fiction, “many Jews definitely have — beginning in the 1930s with the writer widely regarded as the first modern science fiction writer, Stanley G. Weinbaum.” (In 1995, Tachyon published the first complete edition of his book “The Black Flame.”)

Weisman doesn’t think his own Judaism has consciously influenced his love of science fiction — but “the large number of Jewish authors I’ve published over the years suggests otherwise,” he said. “Perhaps there’s a shared worldview that resonates with me and, hopefully, with non-Jewish readers as well. I think there’s a generally high percentage of Jewish authors in general.

“We are of a culture that values education, ideas and discussion — a culture that historically has mixed European values with the study of the Torah, the Talmud and Kabbalah. Even though many of us no longer practice our religion, we are nevertheless descended from people who followed intellectual pursuits with great rigor. And that is a great prescription for delving into a literature that challenges the nature of how things are or how they could be.”

Tachyon has published nearly 130 books and won top industry prizes, including a 2013 Hugo Award from the World Science Fiction Society for the novella “The Emperor’s Soul” by Brandon Sanderson and Nebula Awards from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 2014 for “Yesterday’s Kin,” in 2012 for Nancy Kress’ novella “After the Fall, Before the Fall, and During the Fall,” and in 2006 for James Patrick Kelly’s novella “Burn.”

Tachyon, which publishes eight to 10 volumes per year, also shared a 2012 World Fantasy Award with a co-publisher for the collection “The Bible Repairman and Other Stories” by Tim Powers. It has published works by some of science fiction and fantasy’s leading authors — including Beagle, Davidson, Cory Doctorow, Harlan Ellison, W. P. Kinsella, Patricia A. McKillip and Michael Moorcock.

Born in London, Weisman lived in several cities before moving to San Francisco at age 3 so his father, Jael Weisman, could work as an actor, playwright and director for the San Francisco Mime Troupe.

Weisman has early memories of shopping at local bookstores for works his father would read to him. “I picked out H. G. Wells’ ‘War of the Worlds’ and the first Tarzan book,” he said.

At age 6, “I had my grandmother reading me the original ‘Pinocchio,’ the English translation obviously, over and over again. Not the Disney version. She also read me science textbooks. She wanted me to be a scientist.”

Young Jacob had another literary love. “I pretty much learned to read with comic books,” he said. With fellow first-graders, he launched his comic book fanzine, which they called Comics Now and produced “on a Ditto master machine with a hand-crank and spilled alcohol.”

Comics Now had a run of a dozen issues, Weisman remembers. “It was written and illustrated by 6-year-olds. I think it was more of a cooperative. I might have been roughly in charge. I have not seen a copy since.”

In retrospect, he sees that the comic books also piqued his interest in science fiction. “A lot of the Superman comic books were written by stables of writers who were science fiction fans and writers,” he said.

The Jewish creators of Superman, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, “were in science fiction fandom at the time. Superman himself is kind of unique, with the subplot of him coming from planet Krypton, and his original power coming from the different gravitational forces of the planets. That was all out of science fiction.”

Tachyon’s most Jewish book, according to Weisman and his wife, Rina, is the 2010 mini-hardcover “The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals” by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. The book features Ann’s whimsical line drawings of fictional animals from many cultures with descriptions by Jeff. Then Ann takes part in a brief dialogue about each animal with Jeff in his guise as Evil Monkey.

“It’s still in print,” Weisman said. “We were hoping that Jewish bookstores would pick it up. Some did, but not as many as we had hoped.”

Weisman vividly recalls his introduction to science fiction, when in fourth grade he read “Princess of Mars,” the first book by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. “I remember picking it up and being totally fascinated by it,” he said.

A few years later, the release of the first “Star Wars” movie roughly coincided with the establishment of the Fantasy Etc. science fiction bookstore in San Francisco. As a student at the alternative Urban High School in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, Weisman said he was already writing “mostly stories — not very good stories.” He was a junior there when he founded The Thirteenth Moon literary magazine.

He continued publishing the magazine while studying journalism at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. His education included an internship at Sonics Fast Break magazine, produced by the Seattle SuperSonics, then an NBA team. “If things had gone a little differently for me as well as for journalism in general, I’d still be doing journalism,” he said. “I’m kind of glad I didn’t. The life of a beat writer for a sports team is really hard.”

Tachyon began as a one-man operation “doing two or three books per year,” Weisman said. “They were 1,000 copies each, no distribution. I did everything except for the artwork. I did the layout, I did the promotion, and it was very different. It was modeled on those publishing companies from the 1950s who had done stuff to keep work in print, more than creating new stuff.”

These days, Tachyon usually prints 5,000 copies of each book and tries “to sell most of them. A successful book is anything we get reprinted at that point.”

As Tachyon grew, Weisman met Rina, a fellow book collector and science fiction and fantasy fan. “You must be the only other person on JDate who’s read ‘Lila the Werewolf’ by Peter S. Beagle,” she emailed to him. His reply: “Not only do I know the story, but I published it.”

 Weisman, who is 51, is not ready to commit to another decade at Tachyon.

“At year 20, I’m not thinking of another 20, I’m not thinking of another 10. I’m just thinking what are we doing next year and what are we doing the year after that,’’ he said. “There’s so much upheaval in the business, and things have changed so much that I don’t know that 10-year plans are realistic at this point.”

Jeremy Adam Smith
contributed to this story.