Science Fiction and Jewish Roots

Baltimore-based science fiction author, Sarah Pinsker, guesses she started writing science fiction stories at around 8-years-old. (Karen Osborne)

For Baltimore-based science fiction author Sarah Pinsker, director-at-large of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, love for the genre is a result of lifelong nurture.

“To my parents, for feeding me stories,” reads the inscription of “Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea,” a collection of short stories by Pinsker, which she wrote and published in various magazines and anthologies between 2012 and 2017. The collection was published by Small Beer Press on March 19.

Could a deep-seated appreciation for a mode of storytelling that is forward-thinking, filled with questions and wrought with notions about the potential of humans and the universe be part of the nature of Jewish writers?

No one should expect to find a gene confirming such a theory, but neither should any person deny the rich history of Jews writing science fiction. In fact, it could be argued that the genre was created by Jews. In addition, science fiction and its fandom had an influence in establishing a local Reconstructionist synagogue.

This is going to be a big year for Pinsker. In addition to “Sooner or Later,” in September, Penguin Random House will publish “A Song For A New Day,” her novel related to one of the stories from the former book.

“Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea,” published by Small Beer Press, was released on March 19.

Pinsker began writing science fiction, “more or less from the start. I started writing when I was pretty small,” she said. “I was probably seven or eight. Whether the stories were good or not is a whole other question.”

Pinsker might not have written classics from the start, but she did consume them. She described a childhood that was never lacking in the story department.

“We had a fantastic library. [My parents] had great books on the shelves – science fiction and other fiction. I didn’t really distinguish between those,” she said. “I read what was on the shelves.”

The stories from Pinsker’s parents were not limited to their book collection. Both parents, accomplished storytellers in their own rights, were masters at telling bedtime stories night after night, with enough variation to keep her and her siblings engaged.

Though the stories from “Sooner or Later” weren’t written together, there are thematic elements such as relationships between family members, artificial limbs and intelligence, and acceptance that connect them. Though Pinsker has written realist fiction, she prefers science fiction for having “more colors in the palette. That’s what drew me as a kid subconsciously. You could tell the same kind of stories; they’re still human stories, but there are just more tools to tell them. That’s what drew me as a story teller.”

Pinsker’s father, Rabbi Larry Pinsker, shares with his daughter an appreciation for and knowledge of science fiction that is vast. He even asserts that a Jewish man, Hugo Gernsback, founded the genre.

“The Jewish population of science fiction fandom goes back to the founding. Hugo Gernsback was a Jewish immigrant to the United States,” said Larry. “No one ever points out that the founder of modern science fiction is a Jew. No one ever points to that. But he came from a Jewish family from Germany.”

Hugo Gernsback, born Hugo Gernsbacher (August 16, 1884 – August 19, 1967) was a Luxembourgish-American inventor, writer, editor, and magazine publisher, best known for publications including the first science fiction magazine. His contributions to the genre as publisher–although not as a writer–were so significant that, along with the novelists H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, he is sometimes called “The Father of Science Fiction”. In his honour, annual awards presented at the World Science Fiction Convention are named the “Hugos”.

Since Gernsback, many famous science fiction authors such as Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester and Harlan Ellison have all come from Jewish backgrounds.

“If there is one thing that I associate with science fiction and Judaism, it’s the belief that human beings have their capacity to survive their mistakes and flourish in a way that would honor our creation,” said Larry.

As if it were a plot-point taken straight from an old pulp magazine, science fiction fandom had a crucial role in the founding of Congregation Beit Tikvah, the very shul that Pinsker’s father, Larry Pinsker, led between 2013 and 2017.

Steve and Elaine Stiles met in 1978 through the host of the Washington Science Fiction Association, a Greater Washington Area-based science fiction group that still meets in member’s homes in Virginia and Maryland. Steve, an accomplished science fiction illustrator, relocated to Baltimore from New York City in 1975 after rent prices in Manhattan grew too expensive. He was freelancing with Marvel Comics, and said he made monthly trips to New York by train with a stack of art work.

Elaine came to Baltimore in the late 1970s, and earned a master’s degree in journalism, writing her thesis on the differences between science fiction authors and NASA on the future of space travel. She later landed a job as a tech writer for the Baltimore Sun.

Steve and Elaine were one of four interfaith couples involved with the Baltimore Science Fiction Society. In each case the husband was not Jewish, and the wife was.

“It seemed to be during a time when all of us were getting together and marrying. And it happened that four of us were intermarried,” said Elaine. “But we all wanted to raise our kids as Jews. And that was the nexus for us starting our own congregation. It started off as a discussion group and grew from there.”

Once the congregation was established, Steve decided to convert to Judaism.

“It got to a point when I thought ‘I, a gentile, helped found a Jewish congregation,’” said Steve, “and I converted.”

Though the initial group discussions were informal, once Beit Tikvah was founded it became the mission of the members, with the help of Rabbi Don Berlin, to educate themselves and their children. Beit Tikvah was not, nor has it ever been, a science fiction meet-up group that happened to have Jewish conversations. They even started a school where members taught the children. Although he wasn’t spiritual leader with the congregation at the time of its founding, Larry noted that Beit Tikvah was a leader in social justice and inclusivity, welcoming LGBTQ members and interfaith couples publically.

“[It was] a place to which couples who were in dual faith households, could be welcome and respected and a place for their partners to learn in a positive way about Judaism,” he said. “They had a very strong history of doing early social justice activities.”

When asked about the Jewish connection to science fiction, Sarah Pinsker answered—mostly—by posing additional questions.

“People keep saying there are a lot of memory questions in my stories,” she said. “I think it’s a byproduct of the question, ‘What do we take with us from our pasts? How do we live with who we are and what we are and why we are?’ I think those are fundamentally Jewish questions.”

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  1. Nice article. I am also a huge science fiction fan. I have covered sci-fi conventions for many many years, and still write articles for a few online venues after a sci-fi show. Many local. I have rare stage talk panels and footage of Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury and ray Harryhausen from a convention I coved back in 1998 and 1998 called Dragon Con in Atlanta. Keep doping a great job Sarah.


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