They loved it, they hated it: Feedback on my story from Binah’s Sukkos Supplement, “From the Furthest Reaches of the Heavens”

I have emerged from the semi-hibernation of Sukkos (if you can call a holiday that involved cooking 10 fancy meals – many with with guests – hibernation) and am looking forward to a week chock full of work. I’ve got a personal essay to write for one of the sites I frequent, another to revise for a literary journal, and spent most of today editing. That’s on top of some work I want to do on one of my ongoing projects. And did I mention I still have to market the two books I recently self-published?

Earth on 1967-11-09, as seen from Apollo 4.

But I’d like to take a moment to look back on the story I published in Binah Magazine’s Vistas story supplement, “From the Furthest Reaches of the Heavens.”


In case you haven’t read the story (and I’m assuming many of my blog readers haven’t), I’ll summarize it: Continue reading

Why I think speculative fiction is just SO Jewish (& you should, too)

One of the things I most like to write (and find it hard to sell) is Jewish speculative fiction. Speculative fiction is a wide-ranging label that includes genres like fantasy, science-fiction, and horror. Basically, in speculative fiction, the author suggests a scenario that proposes the question: “What if_______?”

What if…

…you found out that you weren’t a friendless orphan but a powerful wizard with many supporters? (Harry Potter)

…you discovered the back of the wardrobe led into a magical realm where you became royalty? (Narnia)

…you discovered there was a way to communicate with aliens through your dental work? (Fat Men From Space)

…you accidentally returned to the time of the Holocaust during your Pesach Seder? (The Devil’s Arithmetic)

While Isaac Asimov, Jane Yolen, Harlan Ellison, Daniel Manus Pinkwater, and many other secular Jewish Americans (as well as the Orthodox writer, Michael Burstein and the Israeli writers Lavie Tidhar and Nir Yaniv) have written speculative fiction to great acclaim–even Jewish speculative fiction–specifically Orthodox Jewish speculative fiction is much harder to find. As I have mentioned previously on my blog (and again, and again), there has been movement into this direction. But still, I get a lot of funny looks when I tell people what I most like to write.

But I don’t get it. I think speculative fiction is just SO Jewish, and so should you. Here’s why: Continue reading

Flashes and foraging: where story ideas come from

I was reading this interesting little article a while back about the flashes of inspiration that triggered 10 authors to pen their most classic works. The article really focuses on novels that arose out of a spontaneous image or idea that popped into the author’s head. Perhaps the most dramatic was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s inspiration for 100 Years of Solitude. His sudden insight prompted him to turn his car around and drive his family home to work on his new book instead of continuing towards the beach vacation they’d been headed for.

Now, I recognize that many stories are born that way–bolts of lighting unexpectedly sent from Above, and so on–and it has certainly happened to me before. An editor will select a topic for me to write on (1200-1400 words by next Thursday on this theme, please!) and I’ll sit stumped about how to approach it in some way that isn’t stale and predictable. Hours (or days) later, I’ll try to get back to sleep after someone’s car alarm has gone off and–zing!–HaShem will pop an idea into my brain. (Insert here a sound effect to emphasize the moment.) Sometimes, a detail of a conversation or picture in a book will provoke an entire story to arise almost fully formed from my imagination, with little effort on my part. Yes, this does happen.

Most of the time, however, I forage for ideas. I’ll flip through science news for a new discovery or technology that sounds too impossible to be true. I’ll read three novels all of the same genre or subject, and then compare them. I’ll snip articles out of my HaModia or Mishpacha or Ami. I’ll browse the pages of my journal for wacky things my kids do or things kids fight about, or scribble clusters of words that a topic evokes from my mind.

Once I collect these ideas, they require careful combination. At times the way to do this comes through hard work, strategically arranging plot elements based on the needs of the assignment. Other times, I sit and contemplate them and then let the ideas sorta drift together until something sounds right. I’ll meld a new technology with a situation my children recently dealt with. I’ll transport the subplot from a novel I liked into a fantastic setting, then give it a different ending. Sometimes, after sampling the rough draft, I’ll recognize there’s a missing ingredient and have to hunt around for something that adds just the right flavor. It’s not like there’s no Heavenly assistance involved…it’s just a lot more dramatic, with more input on my part.

In the HaModia Sukkos 5773 story supplement (out today!), you’ll find a piece by yours truly that was generated in just such a way. Discovering that earthbound scientists will likely be exploring new planets via remote-controlled robots, I filed it away for future contemplation. (This isn’t the original article, but it was about the same subject.) After a lot of publicity last winter and spring about how the internet and smart technologies affect human relationships, I revisited the initial idea and found a way to blend the two concepts into an entertaining (I hope!) sci-fi story. I’m hoping the readers enjoy it. It will be my first piece for adults in a magazine with an international circulation!

Three books, three lessons

I haven’t been posting to this blog very much recently because I’ve been very, very busy. Among other things, I’ve been writing (I’ll post about that IY”H soon) and reading–reading to my kids, parallel to my kids, and on my own. Notably, I’ve recently read several books that are “message books”–books with a sincere moral message that the author wants readers to absorb. While many such books come across as heavy-handed, these do not. I’m highlighting these books because they definitely represent one of the directions I want to go with my writing–using speculative fiction to explore subjects that might not appeal to children or teens if approached more directly.

HIGH SCHOOL AND ABOVE Orson Scott Card (as a practicing Mormon, he often introduces ethical dilemmas and messages into his books) is most famous for his first novel, Ender’s Game. I recently read the first sequel Speaker for the Dead, and was sucked in right away by the introduction by the author. (In it, Card says that one of his motivations for writing the book was because he wanted to show a central character who is NOT an adolescent, or a drifter, or any other aloof, single man on the fringe of society who usually stars in sci-fi novels. Rather, he portrays a man ready to create a family, who really wants to build bridges between the members of communities.)

Speaker for the Dead follows the hero of Ender’s Game to the age of 35–although 3000 years have passed, he hasn’t aged because he has spent so much time travelling at nearly light speed, teaching people insights into the behavior of the dead, allowing people to walk in the shoes of people before judging them (as it says in Pirkei Avot/The Ethics of the Fathers). This is his personal tikkun (rectification of error) following his (SPOILER ALERT) near-destruction of the species of Buggers at the climax of the last novel. Now, Ender’s sister and travel companion, Valentine, is expecting her first child. Her travels are over, and he realizes he wants his to end, too. But he has one last mission–to find out why members of another alien race have started killing the scientists (actually xenologists–like anthropologists, but studying aliens instead of humans) who have befriended them and studied them.

This novel provides a nuanced discussion about a new kind moral relativism–not that right and wrong are relative, but that our ability to judge them is. The story is a little focused on one side of the argument, and I was able to guess the mysterious cause of the aliens’ behavior right off–but that might be because I 1) am a writer myself and 2) hold a master’s degree in anthropology. However, I really enjoyed the book and it would be an excellent stepping off point for discussion in a classroom, book club, or around the dinner table.

MIDDLE GRADE Vivian Vande Velde’s middle-grade novel, Three Good Deeds, tells the story of Howard, a rowdy boy who spends several months as a goose. Howard’s transformation is at the hands of the local witch, who feels he is a selfish child more interested in his own entertainment than the needs or wants of others. The only way out of the curse is for Howard to complete three genuinely good deeds.

Three Good Deeds uses fantasy, a charming although obnoxious anti-hero, and plenty of droll humor to draw the audience (ages 8 and up) into the story. Despite the light treatment, the message–that a person should be a giver and not a taker–is beautifully interwoven into the text. Warning: the end is a bit of a tear-jerker for softies (it mentions chessed shel emes).

PICTURE BOOK Paul Budnitz’s The Hole in the Middle takes a fantastic approach, as well, to teach its lesson. Morgan quite literally has a hole in his middle. He tries to fill it up with superficial and self-centered pursuits. However, it only shrinks when he does chessed (kindness) for his friend Yumi.

The fanciful, metaphorical style of this book ALMOST overpowers the moral. My 3-year-old and not-quite-5-year-old children laughed at the story outright–it’s just so outlandish. But when I asked the older of the two about the message, she had indeed absorbed it!

I’m wondering if the wackiness of the set-up might make the book so memorable that even if a younger child doesn’t quite understand the message at the time she reads it, she’ll draw on its memory to guide her after she reaches a stage where it’s no longer over her head.

The Hole in the Middle

A trip into the Uncanny Valley

My kids love Tintin comics by Herge, so I was unable to suppress my desire to watch the trailer of the new Tintin film (despite the fact I haven’t gone to the movies in nearly eight years). If you’re interested it’s here:

What surprised me is that the animation in Tintin seemed to me to fall into what is called the Uncanny Valley.
The Uncanny Valley refers to the widespread belief that when computer graphics, robots, or other representations of people look and act almost, but not quite, like the real thing, people are creeped out. Apparently some genuine research has been done in this area, and many experts in CGI and robotics try hard to avoid stumbling into the Uncanny Valley in order to avoid turning off potential viewers. 
As technology advances, this becomes more and more difficult. Just when does the image flip from being disgusting and become convincing? And how are we supposed to respond to such simulacra? 

[Indeed, this is a favorite theme in science fiction. For example, both the classic book I, Robot by Asimov and the Ridley Scott movie Blade Runner (based on Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) directly address this conundrum. In one fictional world, androids are prohibited from having a convincing human appearance altogether; in the other, such robots exist, but are forbidden from living on Earth.]

Now let’s get back to the new Tintin adaptation. I watched the trailer (and I should repeat that I actually don’t watch movies in theaters and rarely at home unless Jewish), and I immediately responded—Ugh! 

I’m not sure why the producers opted for an image capture CGI as opposed to live action (there actually are already animated adaptations of the Tintin comics, so I’m not so shocked that they opted out of another animated version), but I had a visceral reaction against what I saw. I’m wondering if other viewers will have similar reactions. With more and more exposure to video game graphics and the like, maybe the Uncanny Valley will lose it’s effect on people who see a lot of CGI.

Jewish Sci-Fi Update

Yaakov the Pirate Hunter
Yaakov the Pirate Hunter is the new-ish novel for tweens by L.A. local Nathaniel Wyckoff. Yaakov Peretz has just started summer vacation, and an accident with one of his family’s robots results in his discovery of a treasure map. Wacky adventures result from the Peretz’s choice to seek out the treasure so it can be returned. It’s all reminiscent of a Geronimo Stilton book, but with no mice and only black and white print.
I remember reading a while ago that the way George Lucas and Steven Spielberg invented Indiana Jones was by fantasizing about all the coolest scenes they wished had been in matinee serials and adventure novels pre-1960, and then binding these scenes together with a plot. You know: Trapped in a pit with snakes–check! Fight with strongman who gets too close to a propeller–check! Pretty but tough girl gets trapped in a basket, but which one?–check!
That’s what Yaakov the Pirate Hunter is like. What would tween boys most like to read about? Robots–check! Pirates–check! Bumbling cops–check! Kids save the day–check! It makes perfect sense for this to be the novel’s general impression, too. Wyckoff originally invented the story to entertain the kids in carpool (How’s that for a successful carpool strategy?). With all those elements, how could it go wrong?
The recipe works like magic. Yaakov the Pirate Hunter is pure fun. My 9 year old son LOVED it. Like begged to find out if there’s a sequel in the works kind of loved it. (Answer: not in the immediate future. Alas.) He also loved that the book is set in Los Angeles, not the NY metro area or Israel, like most Jewish books.
I’d recommend this book for 7-11 year old kids, especially boys. It could work as independent reading or a bedtime read-aloud. Here’s a link to Amazon if you want to purchase it:

There was also an outstanding sci-fi story FOR ADULTS (shocker!) in Binah Magazine’s Aug. 8th issue (thanks to Miriam Hendeles for the heads-up). It was authored by the wonderful Yael Mermelstein, and it’s so good, it should be anthologized or something. It would be a pity if its only appearance was in a single magazine issue.