The Big Idea: Michael A. Burstein
For writer and editor Michael A. Burstein, an encounter with an anthology in his youth changed with way he looked at science fiction and its possibilities. Now, with his own anthology Jewish Futures, Burstein looks to that personal past to inform this collection of stories about what comes next.
MICHAEL A. BURSTEIN:
For me, it all started with a book called Wandering Stars, edited by Jack Dann.
When Jack published that book in 1974 it was, as far as I know, the first collection ever of Jewish science fiction and fantasy stories. I was a kid, but I was already a big reader of science fiction and fantasy. I was also (and still am) Jewish, but at the time the book came out, I still wasn’t aware that my religion and cultural background made me a minority in the world.
There had been Jewish-themed science fiction stories before, of course, but until Wandering Stars came out, it wasn’t necessarily seen as a “thing.” Today, it’s acknowledged as more of a thing, as evidenced by Valerie Estelle Frankel’s webpage and series on Jewish science fiction and Steven H Silver’s list of Jewish science fiction and fantasy. But back in 1974, it was still seen as a new idea and not yet something that had tradition behind it.
Wandering Stars and its 1981 follow-up, More Wandering Stars, were collections of both original and reprint stories, but to me, all the stories were pretty much original, as I had not come across any of them before. I was enthralled by the books, but particularly taken by the stories from WIlliam Tenn, Isaac Asimov, George Alec Effinger, and Harlan Ellison. Two of those were humorous and two were serious, and all four showed me a different way to look at Judaism.
They also showed me that it was possible to write a story that could be considered both Jewish fiction and science fiction.
Over the many years I’ve been writing and publishing stories, I’ve written the occasional Jewish science fiction story. Probably my most well-known one is “Kaddish for the Last Survivor” (Analog, November 2000), a story about the last Holocaust survivor passing away, and what happens to his family. I’ve also written stories such as “The Great Miracle” (Analog, December 2001), a retelling of the Hanukkah story with spaceships, and “Reality Check” (Analog, November 1999), a story with a deliberately Modern Orthodox Jewish protagonist.
But I wanted to see more than scattered Jewish stories in the world of science fiction. I decided that the time had come for a new anthology of Jewish science fiction stories. And yes, there have been other Jewish science fiction anthologies over the years, including titles such as People of the Book, Jews vs. Aliens, Jews vs. Zombies, Zion’s Fiction, and More Zion’s Fiction. As recently as last year, Andrea D. Lobel and Mark Shainblum published Other Covenants, a collection of Jewish alternate history. But it seemed to me that I could craft something different.
I wanted to edit a book that was more open-ended, a collection of original Jewish science fiction stories that would allow the writers to speculate from today’s world on what the future of the Jewish people might be like.
I managed to convince a few authors I knew to contribute stories to help us promote the book as we funded it over Kickstarter. We then opened up the book to submissions, and I found two very different stories on a similar theme to add to the book: the last Jewish person on Earth. The book opens with “Shema” by Samantha Katz and closes with “The Last Chosen” by Jordan King-Lacroix, and I was gobsmacked to discover that Katz is a high school student and that this story is her first professional sale.
Jewish science fiction tends to range from serious looks at what might happen to the Jewish people to humorous stories that are often “inside baseball” in their telling. But two themes that seem prevalent in much of Jewish science fiction, and much of what is in the book Jewish Futures, are defiance and hope. Defiance against those who would try to create a future without Jews, and the hope that we will always be around.
I am delighted that Jewish Futures is coming out today, and I am even more delighted that Jack Dann, the writer and editor who gave me the idea 49 years ago, has written an introduction. Jewish Futures is very much the spiritual descendent of Wandering Stars and More Wandering Stars, the books Jack edited when I was still an aspiring writer and editor. I hope the readers who remember those books as fondly as I do, and those who are new to the idea of Jewish science fiction, will enjoy Jewish Futures.