Do Jews write science-fiction, while Christians write fantasy? Why are Jews so well-represented in science-fiction (Asimov, Ellison, Brin, Turtledove), but not in fantasy, where the luminaries include Christians such as Tolkien, Rowling and C.S. Lewis?
In a fascinating essay in the inaugural issue of The Jewish Review of Books, Jewish studies professor Michael Weingrad tackles this phenomenon, which I had never noticed but now seems so evident.
Weingrad concludes there are very good reasons why Jews tend toward SF and Christians toward fantasy. For one, high fantasy tends to be set in medieval times. Christians associate that era with dashing knights and fair maidens; Jews associate it with being burned at the stake. For another, the shadow of the Holocaust made it difficult for Jewish writers to believe in some magical force of goodness, because such a force would have quenched the ovens of Auschwitz.
To put it crudely, if Christianity is a fantasy religion, then Judaism is a science fiction religion. If the former is individualistic, magical, and salvationist, the latter is collective, technical, and this-worldly. Judaism’s divine drama is connected with a specific people in a specific place within a specific history.
Weingrad’s argument has its limits. If there any group in this world that is inclined to be atheist or at least non-practicing, it’s Jewish SF writers. But Jews are an ethnic as well as a religious group, and even non-observant Jews tend to be affected by Jewish culture and history. Weingrad is right to point out that while Christianity is prominent in fantasy such as Lewis’ Narnia, there are no major fantasy works with prominent Jewish themes (golems don’t count – they are more supernatural than fantasy).
My wife is Jewishly observant. I’m not. But when we read Weingrad’s essay, we both had the same thought. Christianity focuses on the hereafter, on salvation, on Armageddon and Apocalypse that will end in redemption. Thus Tolkien’s epic battle between Good and Evil; Good triumphs, and the elves sailing off to Elven Heaven. Judaism focuses on tikkun olam, the commandment to strive constantly to perfect the world. Thus Star Trek, a show quintessentially Jewish (certainly much of the original series cast, writers and producers were), where the theme is of making the universe – our universe, the one that we live in – a better place.
Addendum: Here is a list of SF authors by religion: http://www.adherents.com/lit/sf_other.html