Jewish Speculative Fiction

Staff Picks

Jewish Speculative Fiction

There have been some high profile hot takes and rebuttals about whether Jewish themes in speculative fiction lend themselves to the Fantasy or Sci-fi genre. Regardless of where you fall in the debate, Jewish authors have continued to turn to the speculative to write stories and characters that incorporate the speculative and fantastic to illuminate and entertain. The following books are examples of such Jewish speculative fiction. 

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker 
The Golem and the Jinni tells of the experiences of two unique immigrants to New York at the end of the 19th century: Chava, an escaped golem created by a nefarious rabbi to marry a widower, and Ahmed, a jinni freed from captivity by a tinsmith reworking the flask that encased him. Chava works to understand her potential and freedom unconstrained from the intention of her original creation, while Ahmed wrestles with the time he has lost and the legacy of what he once was compared to the limits of his new life. The two eventually become friends, kindred as alike but not the same as the humans they live among (Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants and Syrian Christian immigrants respectively), and discover a connection that links Chava’s creation and Ahmed’s imprisonment. Their struggle to figure out who they are in their new contexts among new people mirrors that of the immigrant communities in which they are embedded.

Gentlemen of the Road  by Michael Chabon 
Originally published as a serial novel in the New York Times MagazineGentlemen of the Road is a Jewish take on the sword of sorcery genre set in heavily Judaized version of the early medieval Khazar Khaganate. It follows an adventure of traveling Jewish bandits Amram (an Abyssinian warrior and strategy game expert) and Zelikman (a traumatized Frankish physician). While swindling their way through gullible tavern patrons, they stumble upon refugee prince Filaq who’s family was usurped. Believing they can ransom Filaq back to his wealthy family for an easy payday, their journey transforms into a counter-coup to put Filaq into power of the Khaganate with lots of secrets revealed along the way.  The novel makes for fun, if not a little pulpy, adventure, sticking closely in content with its original working title, “Jews with Swords.” 

Central Station by Lavie Tidhar 
Central Station is a slice of life novel exploring the interconnected lives of neighbors who live in the vicinity of Tel Aviv’s spaceport in the distant, but not too distant future. Centering on recently-returned-to-Earth Boris Chung and his family and friends, Central Station uses speculative fiction proxies like data vampires and curses, robotnik soldiers who were once flesh and are now all machine, an Internet-like technology that links the subconscious of everyone with the implant to perceive it (nearly everyone) called the Conversation, and children who are befriending newly emergent digital intelligences to explore perennial Jewish literature themes like intergenerational trauma and its escape, forgotten veterans, collective longings, and the tension between the world of yesterday and the world of tomorrow. Both gritty and sublime, Central Station evokes a fascinating future grounded in the lives of characters that easily draw you in.  

The Art of Starving by Sam Miller 
Matt is a Jewish teenage boy who may or may not be developing super powers from abstaining from food. He is willing to risk the health of his body if it means he can better get answers about why his sister Maya ran away from the boy that may have hurt her. Are his new abilities made up to justify his worsening mental illness, or worth the price to his body, loved ones, and future to get the answers he needs? His ability to subdue is hunger for food is tempered to the burgeoning secret relationship he develops the boy he believes may know the most about his sister’s abandonment. This book is a wrenching portrayal of a boy whose life is out of control around him and the steps he has to take to feel more aligned with himself, his family, and the world around him, both self-destructive and healing.  

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik 
Spinning Silver is a loose retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin fairytale in a fantastical early modern Eastern Europe. Miryem is a money lender’s daughter in a provincial town who’s family has become impoverished from making loans and not collecting interest on them. When illness threatens her father’s life, she begins collecting on overdue debts to help get him the help he needs but in doing so, unveils the precarity of her family’s existence in a hostile community. Furthermore, the King of fey creatures known as Staryk who can sometimes be seen in the woods on cold nights hears of her metaphoric skills of turning silver to gold and goads her into an impossible wager. In attempts to meet her impossible demand to literally spin silver into gold and uncover why the King of the Staryk needs her help, Miryem and allies must fight both ancient evil and almost as ancient intolerance to keep more than one world from spinning out of control and preventing mass violence.  

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon 
In an alternate history where the state of Israel collapsed almost as soon as it began, the old Russian colony of Sitka, Alaska is offered by the US, temporarily, as a refuge for Jewish refugees following World War II. Sixty years have passed and Sitka’s residents are anxiously preparing for the city’s planned reversion back to Alaska and their own next steps. Jewish police detective Meyer Landsman is no exception, but his plans get even more complicated when he finds himself sobering up in a hotel room next to a murdered body. This takes him and his Jewish-Tlingit partner, Berko Shemets, on a series of investigations that uncover gruesome dealings at the highest level of Sitka society. Similar in feel to many detective mysteries, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union adds a layer of rumination on a past that could have been and textured with melancholy as Landsman works on one last case for the Sitka police department while the Jews of Sitka’s lives and his own are uprooted again.