Dr. Seuss + Ray Bradbury + Jewish kung-fu + Nazi satire = the mixed-up files of Israeli sci-fi writer Lavie Tidhar


Dan Friedman, Forward

Perhaps you know his novel where Hitler works as a private detective in London (“A Man Lies Dreaming”).

Or maybe the one in which the Tel Aviv bus station is now the world’s premier spaceport (“Central Station”).

Or you might have heard the one about how the Jewish state was actually established in East Africa (“Unholy Land”)?

Or maybe not.

For an established novelist, respected anthologist and multiple award-winner in speculative fiction, Lavie Tidhar is little-known to Jewish readers. Even though he writes in English with a prodigious volume of work that regularly touches on relevant topics (“HebrewPunk” from 2010!) and despite the fact that he won the prestigious John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in 2017 for a science fiction novel set in Israel, he remains resolutely marginal as a Jewish writer.

Shortly after I reviewed his 600-page “The Best of World SF: Volume 1” that came out this summer, I got on a Zoom call with the Israeli-born author to talk about “Escapement,” his new book of speculative fiction, which features Tarot cards, clowns, an alternative universe and the heartbreaking death of a young boy. During our conversation, though, I discovered that Tidhar had not one, but four upcoming releases that we needed to talk about, as well as two book re-issues and a couple of book-related video games he’d helped make.

Tidhar, who is now based in Britain, writes about alternative worlds, often in contexts where they intersect with one that closely resembles our own. One of the reissues is the 2011 novel “Osama,” about a world where Osama bin Laden is a little-known fictional character whose attack on the World Trade Center is merely a spectacular fictional crime at the heart of one of a series of pulp novels.

As we were chatting, Tidhar realized that the children’s book he wrote — “The Candy Mafia” — had just come out in paperback. He described it as “a little detective story, like ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ meets ‘The Big Sleep.’”

I had no idea that children’s literature was a string on his bow and, when I suggested it was, he demurred, saying that his days as a children’s author were now surely done anyway. Not, he added, by choice, but because the one that he wrote two years ago about a fantastic speculative world where everyone had to stay home because of a sweeping global illness, was now unpublishable.

Being unpublishable is an unusual situation for Tidhar. Even when his plots involve apparently unpalatable content, his books find a way into print. His “A Man Lies Dreaming” involves genital mutilation and a myriad of other graphic physical interactions both within and beyond Nazi death camps but nevertheless was indeed published, reviewed by The New York Times and won the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize, for Best British Fiction (worth £5000).

“The Escapement” differs from most of Tidhar’s work in that its alternative world is nothing like ours. Mostly his novels are set in the future or in recognizable present or historical milieus that are slightly deformed by the alteration of a crucial historical detail. Unlike previous protagonists, the “Stranger” from “The Escapement” walks out of a hospital into a wild west of the subconscious inhabited by clowns and villagers whose world is in the midst of a massive supernatural battle between deities.

What gets lost in an explanation of Tidhar’s plots and career achievements is his sense of fun. Both in his writing and in conversation he enjoys seeing how he can “mess with things.” He has travelled extensively and has a traveler’s amused curiosity and disbelief at the familiar world.

Unlike “A Man Lies Dreaming,” a book about Nazis that is secretly very funny, “The Escapement” is a book about custard pies, circuses and carnivals that is secretly quite bleak. It feels like a surrealist cartoon co-written by Dr. Seuss and Ray Bradbury featuring explicit “archetypes and serial killing clowns.” The Stranger is a “lone gunslinger” in search of a magical plant who makes temporary common cause with his fellow archetypes, the “Kid” and the “Conjurer.”

What Tidhar’s varied oeuvre demonstrates is his droll exasperation with the world as it is and his determination to both tweak reality and, with it, tweak some noses.

“I write about things I don’t like,” he told me, “like Superhero novels.” So, in “The Violent Century” he wrote a novel where readers are encouraged to dislike flashy, annoying American superheroes and side with, as Cory Doctorow puts it in the introduction, the flawed English and European “slightly shit superheroes” who help win World War II.

Among Tidhar’s forthcoming releases is “The Hood,” the second novel in his Anti-Matter of Britain Quartet. The Quartet began in 2020 with “By Force Alone” — a fantastic retelling of the Arthurian legend as a shabby gangster succession story, complete with Sir Lancelot as “a Jewish Kung Fu artist.” Like that first one, set in an abandoned outpost (“a clogged sewer”) of the Roman Empire, Tidhar re-envisions and undercuts one of Britain’s founding myths with trademark sly profanity.

Next up for publication in England where, Tidhar says, they want “big books” is a “huge historical epic” of recent Israeli history named “Maror.” It’s difficult to tell with Tidhar how much of what he says is tongue-in-cheek, but he claims that this is a long, historical novel about Israel including provocative and little-known events that his research has turned up from the 1970s. He said it will constitute his bid for a Booker Prize nomination because “they won’t give it to me for writing about elves and spaceships!”

However, since this sci-fi writer who once worked on an IT desk and has had his work adapted into android games, simultaneously claimed he couldn’t get his Zoom video to work for our conversation, the judges may have to wait for the readers’ manuscript until early next year before deciding which prize “Maror” deserves.

“Neom,” next year’s short science fiction novel, is “all about the parting of the Red Sea and the robot messiah.”

The story began, he says, as “a mood piece about robot in a flower market” who buys a flower and takes it to the desert to bury it. But why? Tidhar had to write another story to find out, and soon there was a whole new fictional area of the “Central Station” universe in play. Partly inspired by his own times at the Red Sea, partly inspired by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visionary (or imaginary) project of the same name and partly inspired by a small, flower-buying robot, Tidhar is introducing robots whose modes of construction and behavior come from all over science fiction — ones from Isaac Asimov, Clifford D. Simak, Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester and others.

“Asimov’s robots are very Jewish,” he said. “They follow the three laws… they’ve got their Torah and they’re trying to find a loophole.… I really liked the idea of a robot believes in the three laws of robotics as a philosophical concept who thinks that it’s a really good idea. ‘My actual job is to kill people, but I would really like to do the “Do No Harm” thing, if possible.’ I think this robot is an old retired war machine who kind of wants to be good, but doesn’t quite know how to do it.”

Though perhaps “The Escapement” is less creatively successful than his other books, Tidhar seems to have the knack of making his experiments fascinating. Gathering types of robots to compare their philosophies for “Neom” is a natural follow-up to “The Escapement” world that’s filled with fictional and historical zanies. Instead of shaping a new world based on a historical revision, how about creating a world to escape the loss of a son? And, instead of “normal”-world rules, how about basing physics and society on a lifetime of allusions and a memory of a family visit to the circus on the Midway?

An “escapement” is, according to Merriam Webster “a device in a timepiece… through which the energy of the power source is delivered at regular intervals” or “a ratchet device (such as the spacing mechanism of a typewriter)” or “the act of escaping.” So, although Tidhar told me that he was “trying to write a really simple book, a Western about a lone gunfighter” or the kind of bedtime tale “like your grandfather telling a story,” the novelist is playing with time, with time, energy, power as they affect writing and also with the escapist dissociation that comes with grief.

Tidhar does admit that he took the structure for this new book from the Epic of Gilgamesh and that the quest of the Stranger is organized using “The Golden Heart Flower,” a fairy tale that everyone in Israel knows — and wrongly thinks was written by Hans Christian Andersen. The book is a desperate and desperately lonely fight against a plethora of symbols of childhood entertainment (Barnum and Bailey, Laurel and Hardy, circuses) that are nevertheless reminders of the mortality of a child, dying in the “real” world.

Though time may be running out fast for the Stranger in his quest for the Plant of Heartbeat, that’s not the case for Tidhar as he continues to create story after story, book after book, world after world. He’s working on “The Best of World SF: Volume 2” and is annoyed that no one is getting back to him, but it’s not clear that anyone can work at his rate. Perhaps he’s found a world where time runs at a different rate. Wherever he’s working from, I want to work there.

This article originally appeared at forward.com. Reposted with permission.