Book Review: "Wandering Stars"

Avid science fiction readers are familiar with several common themes: good-humored adaptation to inhospitable conditions by people who didn't ask to be there; unfamiliar languages, customs, and alien or inscrutable jargon; the guiding, intervention, or oversight by unseen-but-powerful forces and/or beings; and the triumph against insurmountable odds by those armed with little more than intelligence and wit. Given those themes, the only question one might have about an anthology of Jewish fantasy and science fiction is, "and for what meshugge reason is it that we should have shpilkess waiting for such a thing?"

Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction is a collection of thirteen short stories originally published in 1974. Via the preceding link you can order the 1998 paperback edition, but I had the pleasure of reading the original hardback version*. This anthology, edited by Jack Dann and with an introduction by Isaac Asimov, contains four stories written expressly for the collection, but the others span a considerable stretch of history, dating back to Horace L. Gold's Trouble With Water which was originally published in 1939.

If you're a sci-fi aficionado, you'll probably recognize all the authors: William Tenn, Avram Davidson, Robert Sheckley, Pamela Sargent, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Isaac Asimov, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and more. The stories are uneven in quality, and too many of them feature caricatured aliens who would have been right at home in the Star Wars Cantina scene, but there's enough meat overall to make a satisfying ñ if quick ñ literary meal.

Several of the authors focused on such fundamental questions as what does it mean to be Jewish? and who can rightfully claim to be a Jew? As you might guess, those questions generally involved non-human lifeforms, and the answers generally eventually fell on the side of inclusiveness.

I mentioned the jargon that's an essential part of science fiction. Readers of Wandering Stars would be well served by the ability to read Yiddish and Hebrew, although the context of the scattering of foreign (to me) words generally permits accurate comprehension. Interestingly, while Harlan Ellison provides his "Grammatical Guide and Glossary for Goyim" at the end of I'm Looking for Kadak, that's the final story in the collection. I'd have been better served if it had come first so I could have referred to it while working out the nuances of schlemiel, schlemazel, and schmuck (if you'll pardon my, um, French).

It also helps to have some passing familiarity with the great names of Jewish scholarly and rabbinical history (which, again, I don't) like Hillel and Shammai, and of the great villains like Haman and, of course, he who shall not be named.

I found Wandering Stars to be satisfying on several levels, both as someone who likes a good sci-fi yarn every now and then, and also as one who takes seriously any race designated as God's chosen people (even if some of the authors themselves would scoff at that designation). The pleasure of re-reading this book was enhanced by the fact that I thought I'd lost it years ago.

*Holding a long lost book in your hands is an experience that the Kindle will never replace. Also, finding forgotten handwritten notes inside a book jacket that stimulate memories - or raise questions - is a wonderful thing. Inside this book is this cryptic phrase: "For Siggy Poo, Mitzi, 8/77." My recollection is that I found this book at the old Half Price Bookstore on McKinney Avenue (?) in Dallas, but that note contains enough vaguely familiar meaning to make me second-guess myself.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Eric published on December 16, 2008 6:20 PM.

Farewell to Abbye was the previous entry in this blog.

Book Review: "The Metamorphosis" is the next entry in this blog.

Archives Index