Science Fiction and Fantasy might be the two most popular narrative forms of our time, surely among thoughtful young adult readers and viewers. While they might seem to be variations within the same genre, the underlying tendencies that make these stories necessary to write and compelling to read actually emerge from two different worldviews. Science Fiction on one hand and Fantasy on the other are perpetually in conflict, two dissenting ways to tell the story of humankind. In their synthesis, however, we may discover the secret to the powerful Jewish story, past, present, and future.
Transcendence or Utopia? Two Genres
The key to understanding Fantasy is that it does not need to take place in the past. In fact, one might argue that the genre is timeless; Fantasy strives to emulate myth, and myth by definition is a story that takes place elsewhere, but whose purpose is to illuminate the here-and-now. The aim of every myth, and every Fantasy story that aspires to more than cheap entertainment, is to grasp the universal human experience that transcends (and is thus part of) every individual human life. As Chesterton wrote, “The things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men.”[i]
The adventure fraught with danger, the victory over some great challenge, the resultant self-awareness, and the return home to share the experience are themes that in one way or another play out in the life of every human being.[ii] The purpose of the trappings, the dragons and swords, is only to allow the reader to gain perspective on their own journey, the way one only sees an entire picture from a few steps back. Allegory enables the reader to stomach that which, in its pure form, may remain out of the reach of self-reflection.[iii]
Even ostensibly non-allegorical Fantasy stories like George R. R. Martin’s have the same purpose as those that are metaphors: to show us the journey every man and woman must make through life. It is no accident that the majority of Fantasy novels is set in the past, often the distant past. Those wishing to mine gold from the vast acres of human endeavor must be students of history. A person looking for what is common to all mankind must be wary of falling into the prejudices and limited range of his or her own culture. The careful study of what has come before (and even the imagining of what never was) broadens the scope of our experience the way a third point transforms a line into a plane. These new perspectives are transmitted to the reader, at least subconsciously, and they enrich by providing common ground with heroes great and small who seem so different from us, but are not.
This explains the strange phenomenon of Fantasy set in the future. Indeed, what is arguably the most famous Fantasy of our times is about an orphan farm boy who takes up his father’s fiery sword and flies off on a spaceship to confront great evil.[iv] Instead of Gandalf there is Obi-Wan, and instead of a king in exile, there is a princess, but the story remarkably parallels the seminal Fantasy works of Tolkien. To the lover of Fantasy, it is precisely that such a story could be set in the future that uplifts us, guides us, and grants us hope. The human endeavor, our endeavor, is not small, meaningless, and quick to fade away; it is something larger that will exist undiminished even in outer space when the technology catches up.
Just as Fantasy seems to be swords and sorcery but is really about the power of myth and allegory to describe everyone’s journey toward enlightenment, so Science Fiction is not about robots or aliens. It is about the power and the responsibility to change the world for the better.
The soul of Science Fiction is the utopian vision, the firm belief that the world has been entrusted to us for its betterment. This optimism for the state of the world and humanity is relatively new[v] and can only be said to have caught the popular imagination in the 19th century, or at the very earliest, the 17th. This is in comparison to the mythical structure of the Fantasy story, which has enthralled humanity since history began. The late 19th century that produced H.G. Wells and Jules Verne was also the age of the industrial revolution, when a scientific renaissance was starting to divert the flow of history. Most Science fiction speaks of technology’s potential to bring the world to a state of perfection and the struggle to actualize it.
Though full of compelling characters, the best-selling Science Fiction novel of all time, Dune, is about the messianic implications of the Kwisatz Haderach[vi] on the galactic empire. It is a tale of social engineering, harsh landscapes, political intrigue, and jihad, all focused around the question of whether one can become a redeemer by technological means. Herbert once said that “The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better [to] rely on your own judgment, and your own mistakes.”[vii] In this, Herbert subverts Fantasy’s treatment of the mythical hero.
Other Science Fiction approaches the question of how to better the world through technology from the opposite direction. Dystopian novels such as Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and Brave New World all examine how utopian visions for society have gone awry, leaving the human population downtrodden. As opposed to the Fantasist, who is not concerned with the transformation and perfection of the outer world at all, but rather with the sublimation of the individual, the Science Fictionist tends to warn against pitfalls on the way to progress. The authors of these works are not concerned so much with a hostile world’s impact on man but rather man’s effect on the world; “we must not destroy the world in attempts to save it.” In this, the dystopian novel remains Science Fiction through and through.
While Fantasy is ever a move toward the inner self, SF dwells in the ever-changing present. To the SF mind, it is irrelevant whether one can connect to an ancient, pervasive reality. What matter are the pressing issues of the moment. How, indeed, is it possible to meditate on the meaning of life when there are some who are too ill to eat or cannot afford food? The SF lover demands that limited human resources go to a better world rather than the perpetuation of the same old story.
Jewish Visions in Conflict
The difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy fundamentally affects a Jew’s idea of the Jewish story and thus his or her practice of Judaism.
Here is where everyone agrees: The Jews are a chosen people, sanctified by G-d to carry out a mission in this world. The mission requires not just good intentions but practical actions. To fulfill G-d’s will, there must be a transformation, because the status quo is unacceptable. But – what must change? And how is the Jew to effect that change? There are two opposing views: Those who think Judaism is past-based or historical and those who believe Judaism is progressive and future-oriented. In other words, is the story of Judaism a real-Fantasy, or a Science non-Fiction?
Or is it both?
No one could argue the firm roots of Judaism in the past as the world’s oldest surviving religion. With its ancient wisdom and grand history, Judaism exists to some Jews as a refuge from temporal existence. These past-focused Jews seek out the infinite dimensionless place within each individual where all people are one, and their G-d is He who says, “I shall be that I shall be.” To them, the struggles and triumphs of life’s journey are transparent metaphors for transcendent realities. This transcendence of both self and world is what it means to be a Jew.
Equally dominant in Jewish thought, however, is the focus on what the future holds and how it needs to be shaped, culminating in the Jewish vision of the utopian Messianic Era. Jews of this bent see Judaism as a guide to self-actualization and the fulfillment of one’s potential. The G-d they worship is He who creates heaven and earth, and their mission as his chosen people is Tikkun Olam, the fixing-up of the world. These are what we might call the Science Fiction Jews.
If we were to observe a soul on fire with the ideas of Fantasy, that soul would be an introspective one. Given that the human endeavor extends beyond our petty struggles to the life we all share, the accidental facts of our own situation (cultural, historical, personal) don’t direct our purpose. Fantasy says it is the analogue, the inner life affected by our journey, that matters, and not the world around us.
True, there are dragons, there are evil empires, but the story is about the soul of the hero who must prevail against (and thereby rise above) them. Goliath must indeed fall, but King David’s story continues. The challenges of his kingship and family life produced a rich inner world whose poetic output, the Psalms, has affected the world and uplifted the disheartened for millennia. The giant has been dead for thousands of years but David’s prayers for success in battle lived on to become our prayers, and that is the important part of the story if it is a Fantasy.
To the SF Jew, however, to call the story of David and Goliath some mere iteration of a transcendent framework is to cheapen it. What comfort is it to the Israelites slain in battle that they have a place in some larger tale? And what victory in another challenge surmounted by the universal “hero”? Rather, we must go back to that time, understand the social and political issues surrounding the battle, and how David’s victory changed the course of history forever. This is to actually honor the biblical story if it is read as Science Fiction.
The importance of time and place and the actual specific events of life correspond with a theological commitment to G-d as the ruler of the world whose expectations devolve upon each individual according to their situation. More important than an abstract divine ideal is the G-d who demands and imposes justice, who is concerned with the state of the world and is dissatisfied every moment the Messiah has not yet come. Man’s responsibility is not to break out of the limits of his own existence but, to work with those limits and to transform them.
A Unified Story: Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Judaism
It is only logical that in the two-horned paradox of a transcendent G-d’s involvement in a limited world, the Fantasist appreciates the transcendent, removed aspect of the Creator. The G-d of the forefathers is my G-d, unchanged by changing times. His directives are equal upon all people, regardless of when or where they live. Just as what it meant to be human in the middle ages is essentially the same as what it means now, so, too, the Torah of Moses is my Torah. I must strive to break free of my limitations and connect to the imminent divine within my soul and the transcendent G-dliness above.
That is the ideal. Practically, the Transcendent approach presents challenges. I must extract universal truth from the parts of G-d’s directive that on the surface seem irrelevant to my modern life, such as animal sacrifice. Let us say, as King David does in the Psalms, that prayer is equivalent to the sacrifices. I am to spiritually offer myself up to my Creator, then, as part of my journey. But, of course, just as the consecrated animal of the past was a significant portion of the Jew’s wealth, I too need a considerable amount of time and effort to devote to prayer. And the refusal to manipulate these resources is the Fantasist’s greatest weakness.
The simple solution, one might think, is to rearrange one’s life to allow time to think and pray and attend to all the other machinations of transcendence. But this solution is no solution at all to the Fantasist. A Jew with this vision struggles to acknowledge the reality of his particular life while still connecting to the universal. A businessman (for example) who strives all day to manipulate his business so mornings he can pray and find the Truth is just a businessman. Or in other words, even as he asserts that only a higher Truth is true, his actions declare that his worldly limitations have their own reality. If a sin is a claim that some other reality supersedes G-d, then to the Fantasy Jew, worldliness is sinful.
So instead, the Jew must retreat into what Isaiah Berlin calls[viii] the “Inner Citadel,” a state in which one is entirely free because perfectly removed. Berlin compares it to amputation. One seeks inside for a place of perfect apathy, of equanimity, where one needs nothing from the world and is self-sustained by oneself and one’s truth. “Perhaps my job gets in the way of my prayer, but this doesn’t bother me; I can make do with my inner worth, with my essential connection to G-d. The world can do whatever it likes; I don’t need it.”
The problem with this ascetic approach is clear. Though it’s poetical and profound not to care about the world, it is also a retreat. The Fantasist is unable to change the world and so decides not to care and turns his face upward to heaven. One has lost the battle with worldly troubles, or, more accurately, has forfeited. The world remains unchanged, full of problems, and the Jew retreats to a state resembling the soul before it enters the body – removed from the troubles of creation and in communion with the Creator.
There is, however, another type of Jew who will reject this approach, the SF Jew.
The concern with the SF Jew’s approach is not that it might fail; failure is its usual motivation. After all, what is an imperfect world if not a failure on some level? This only goads the Jew further. No, the danger is that the SF Jew might succeed. Visions of the future out of touch with the broader human story inevitably aim at the wrong type of perfection. The Jew technically knows all the rules (“Love your fellow as yourself;” “Thou shalt not covet;”), the means with which to change the world. But his or her own vision of the end is narrow; they have only their own experience to draw on. It is clear how the world must not be; it must not be like it is now. But what it should be like is a mystery they cannot know. They have only their own view to impose, and an imposition it shall be, a tyranny, ignorant of human commonality or any sublime truth. Indeed, this was the fate of every attempted utopia in the history of mankind, fodder for dystopian novels. Just as the Fantasy Jew is stuck within, cut off from the world, the SF Jew is mired without, never able to escape his own surroundings and influences to reach a point of perfect selflessness within.
But there is perhaps a way to unite the two opinions. It was described by the Maggid of Mezritch, over two centuries ago.
A wealthy Jew once became a follower of the Maggid. He began to notice that the more passionate he grew in his pursuit of his Rebbe’s spiritual ideals, the less money he seemed to have. At the point where he began to worry about his family living in poverty, he cried out to the Maggid, asking, “How can it be? How can it be that doing the right thing and living a G-dly life is making me poor? It should be making me more wealthy!”
Replied the Maggid, “It all depends on the direction you pray. In the times of Temple of old, one would pray facing north if they desired riches, and facing south if they wanted wisdom. This corresponded with the vessel for all physical sustenance, the Show, Bread on the north side of the temple sanctuary, and the enlightening Menorah on the south side. You, too, must choose in which direction you wish to pray.”
Protested the Jew, “But you have many followers who are both wealthy and holy.”
Said the Maggid, “Ah. That is what you want? Then you must be like the Ark in the Holy of Holies, which took up no space and united all the directions. Once you, too, take up no space – then you can have both the things you desire.”
There is a point at which our two conceptions of the Jewish story are one. When the story is still G-d’s story, it exists in unity, all opposites brought together in a single G-dly reality, the pursuit of this world and the quest for transcendence two expressions of the same thing. If both types of Jew realize that the story is not about them but about G-d, they can reach a synthesis with the opposite view.
This is clear in the sources. After all, the Midrash says that the standard Hero of every Jewish tale, Moshe, was the first redeemer and will be the last Redeemer. On the other hand, the Zohar talks of the wellsprings above and below of the 19th century being the key to the future redemption — the holy wellsprings of G-dly knowledge and the wellsprings of worldly knowledge that made the Science Fiction worldview possible. According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, it is modern scientific advances and the revelation of the inner aspect of Torah that will together prepare the world for perfection. The Fantasy Jew is justified according to Torah in seeing the Redeemer as someone who has always existed; the SF Jew is justified in seeing him as an outcome of the modern improvement of the world. And both are correct.
The Fantasy Jew must realize in moments of transcendence that the entire story of humanity is directed at a better world, for that is even the transcendent G-d’s desire. The SF Jew must realize that world-altering actions are only the practical manifestations of a deeper G-dly truth, the emancipation of a transcendent reality into the lower planes. All the Jew’s toil has been for the end of the general human story.
May it happen soon.—
[i] “Orthodoxy,” Chapter 4.
[ii] See Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With a Thousand Faces” for an academic distillation of many cultural myths into what Campbell calls the “monomyth,” the structure that many myths have in common. Campbell studied real myths of ancient cultures, and then his work was in turn read by several fantasy authors seeking to more authentically convey their stories.
[iii] See the discourse V’yadaata 5657
[iv] In fact, the author of said story intentionally based it off of Campbell’s monomyth. See note 2.
[v] See the detailed history of proto-SF in the Wikipedia article “History of Science Fiction.”
[vi] A term Frank Herbert took from the Kabbalistic term for “teleportation” or super-speed (lit. “leaping of the road”)
[vii] Wikipedia, “Dune”
[viii] “Two Concepts of Liberty”
Originally posted on Hevria.