From the cover of “Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy Through 1945: Immigrants in the Golden Age” by Valerie Estelle Frankel
From the cover of “Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy Through 1945: Immigrants in the Golden Age” by Valerie Estelle Frankel

Q&A: New book explains how Jews invented science fiction

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It’s no secret that many Jews love science fiction and fantasy, and that many Jews have been prominent authors in those genres. But in her new scholarly book, “Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy Through 1945: Immigrants in the Golden Age,” Valerie Estelle Frankel makes the connection ever more explicit and compelling.

Frankel (not to be confused with Berkeley author and spiritual teacher Estelle Frankel) teaches at Mission College in Santa Clara and at San Jose City College. To date she has written some 80 books, most of which analyze major pop culture franchises. Her titles include “Star Wars and the Hero’s Journey,” “Scots, Sassenachs, and Spankings: Feminism and Gender Roles in Outlander” and “Women in Game of Thrones.” The Sunnyvale resident also has written “Chelm for the Holidays” and other children’s books.

Her latest is an exhaustive accounting of the involvement of Jews in the fantastical genres. She will be selling and signing copies of her books at “SiliCon with Adam Savage,” a pop culture and tech convention in San Jose on Aug. 28 and 29.

J.: What draws you to this kind of material? And how do you manage to produce so much of it?

Frankel: Somebody once called my stuff “what happens when an English major watches TV.” It started as: I can see all this cool stuff, all this allegory and references, that maybe others don’t see.

As for how I produce so many books, it’s Diet Coke and not having a life.

So why this book? Why does it need to exist?

There’s an enormous amount of Jewish science fiction and no one has written a definitive book on it. This is volume 1 of a book that’s currently the length of five books. It’s an enormous topic, more than I expected.

Beyond Jewish science fiction, Jews really invented science fiction as we know it in the ’20s and ’30s in New York. Before that, we had Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, but that wasn’t really about plausible science. Stuff based on the technology that seemed right on the horizon, the novels that invented satellites and lasers before they were real technology, those were created by Jews.

The editor Hugo Gernsback, who [in 1926] created Amazing Stories, the first science fiction short story magazine, and the author Isaac Asimov are among the biggest names in science fiction from that time. At the same time, Jews were creating the first comic books. And they also created fandom as we know it, with fanzines and conventions.

It’s a huge swath of material to cover. How did you come to the theme of “Immigrants in the Golden Age”?

It really presented itself as part of the material. The Jews of the ’20s and ’30s who were writing this science fiction were really writing about the immigrant metaphor, about blending in in a new culture — you really see this in the story of Superman. He looks like an ordinary nerd and you can discount him, but if you look closer, there’s so much more to him.

But the book actually starts with the first time travel and alt-history, which is from the Biblical era. “Frankenstein” is arguably the first science fiction novel, and if it was inspired by the golem, then Jewish folklore and fantasy is essential. We also see the role of robots, which are a kind of golem, being big in Jewish work like Asimov’s.

Is volume 2 on the way?

Yes. And I’m also editing the Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy series for Rowman & Littlefield. Book 2 in the series, which is not written by me, will be “Goliath as Gentle Giant: Sympathetic Portrayals in Popular Culture” by Jonathan Friedmann. And book 3 is an anthology, “Jews in Popular Science Fiction,” edited by me, which will include essays about how Jews are depicted in the big franchises, such as Star Trek, Star Wars, Marvel, DC.

What will surprise people in this book? What surprised you as you researched it?

Here’s one example: Lots of people know that Israel was founded based on Theodor Herzl’s dream of a utopia, and the utopian book he wrote about it [“Altneuland”]. And lots of people know that he was busy seeking out alternate locations, anywhere that he could create a Jewish state. But people don’t know that others at the time were writing alternate histories and speculative works of “What if we had a colony here? Or made our promised land there?” And some of those were utopian, some were dystopian. I was surprised by this entire genre of other places that could have been Israel.

What are you reading right now?

During the pandemic, I’ve been reading two or three novels a day. I really enjoyed Israeli author Rena Rossner’s gorgeous epic fantasy, “The Light of the Midnight Stars.” “The Hidden Palace: A Novel of the Golem and the Jinni” by Helene Wecker is perfectly nice; it takes a look at the immigrant experience with a golem and a genie. And I was really impressed by “Burning Girls and Other Stories” by Veronica Schanoes, which is Jewish immigrants meets fairy tales.

David A.M. Wilensky
(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
J. The Jewish News of Northern California Staff Headshots.
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is director of news product at J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @davidamwilensky