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Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction
edited by Jack Dann
Jewish Lights Publishing, 239 pages

Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction
Jack Dann
Jack Dann was born in Johnson City, New York, in 1945. He received his BA from Binghamton University in 1967. He has taught at Cornell University and Broome Community College, and has run an advertising agency. He still retains big business links as a director of a New York insurance company. Perhaps best known for his short fiction, which has appeared in Omni, Playboy, Asimov's SF and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and for his anthologies, including the multi-volume Magic Tales fantasy series with Gardner Dozois from Ace. Jack Dann is also a consulting editor for Tor Books. His work has resulted in him being a finalist for the Nebula Award eleven times and a World Fantasy Award finalist three times.

Jack Dann Website
ISFDB Bibliography
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Chris Donner

"Jews in Space" jokes aside, you couldn't think of a better title for a collection of Jewish science fiction than Wandering Stars. The title neatly links a speculative glance at the heavens with the strongly Jewish image of wandering, as well as bringing to mind the six-pointed star so frequently associated with Judaism. It is apt beyond this, however, suggesting the Jewish people wandering not only over the face of the Earth but also across the cosmos, searching for truth, life, and a place to call home. In the process, they must reconcile age-old tradition with life in the present moment.

This is especially appropriate in this day and age. The world is supposedly shrinking and politicians pay lip service to the idea that we are all learning to live together, yet there is still "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia, Rwanda is plagued by genocidal wars, racism is still alive and well, and fundamentalists of all types increasingly turn to violence to prevent "contamination" from the outside.

As a whole, Wandering Stars explores Jewishness and what it means to be a Jew, and by association, a living being. This theme has driven a good deal of Jewish writing since Moses first wrote the Pentateuch. The Jews in Wandering Stars won't be winning big points with God for blind obedience, but then who among the patriarchs really would? Sure, Abraham offered his son as a sacrifice, but he also panicked and offered his wife as a concubine to save his own butt. Moses himself looked God in the eye and said something like: "Me? You must be goofy. I stutter, if you haven't noticed."

The Jews who make up Wandering Stars have the same concerns and doubts, be they regular human beings or other creatures, such as the husband from Carol Carr's story, who is described as having a "head... shaped like an acorn on top of a stalk of broccoli. Enormous blue eyes, green skin, and no hair at all except for a small blue round area on top of his head." Despite being scattered around the galaxy, these individuals are faced with the essential question: What is the purpose of life, and does it involve boiled chicken?

Behind the humorous familiarity of much Jewish writing -- be it that of Woody Allen, Isaac Asimov, or Albert Einstein -- there is a deep search for meaning and joy. Similar concepts frequently drive science fiction, which is often referred to as "speculative fiction." What better to speculate about than the meaning of life and the pursuit of happiness? The term "speculation" could also describe a good deal of Jewish writing, including even the Torah, which speculates on the nature of God and, again, the meaning of life.

It is in this light that Wandering Stars should be read. It is at heart a form of introspection. There are no shoot-em-up space fights and no battles with dragons. The characters are human beings, regardless of their external appearance, and the stories focus on people, and on the things people do and the way they live their lives.

"On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi," by William Tenn, begins the collection strongly and provides a good idea of what is to come. Narrated by Milchik, the TV repairman, the story recounts how the First Interstellar Neozionist Conference takes place on Venus, despite hindrances from all sides, including the arrival of the Bulbas from the fourth planet of the star Rigel. They are described by Milchik as "brown pillows, all wrinkled and twisted, with some big gray spots on this side and on that side, and out of each gray spot there is growing a short gray tentacle."

The Bulbas claim that they are in fact Jews, and this sidetracks the conference. Soon there is a chaotic argument over who and what exactly constitutes a Jew. Finally one Bulba climbs up to the platform and shouts "Modeh ani l'fonecha" or "Here I am standing before you" -- what a Jew says in prayer before God.

The story continues, but the idea is clear. The Jews have wandered the world and been persecuted and hated, yet people see their zest for life and their resilience, and soon there are those who want to convert. The question Tenn asks, and Wandering Stars asks, is: Who are we to deny our kinship just because we have no common ancestors? We are all alive, aren't we? We all breathe the same air, or even different air. So, who can say to anyone -- or anything -- "You cannot be a Jew"?

The stories continue. Asimov contributes an etymological nightmare, as a man becomes obsessed with finding the original spelling of a Jewish name he sees on the side of a truck. Harlan Ellison introduces Evsise, a Jew who by his own admission defies the law of bilateral symmetry by having 11 arms. Evsise is sent out looking for the necessary 10th Jew to make up a minyan, so that they all can sit shivah (in mourning) for the planet they have lived on, which is being relocated.

The stories are as varied as the characters. In addition to the various creatures who claim to be Jewish, there is a golem, a dybbuk, a Jewbird, and a talking rock that eats bugs. While all of these creatures, and many readers of Wandering Stars, may not be Jewish, they are still involved in these stories. To paraphrase Asimov's introduction to this collection, perhaps all that matters is that they are "Jewish enough" (his italics). In the end, how different can we really be?

Copyright © 1998 by Chris Donner

Chris Donner is a freelance writer and magazine editor living in Manhattan and working in Connecticut. He will read almost anything once, as it makes the train ride go faster. He is currently writing a screenplay, a novel, several short stories, a collection of poems, and a letter to his mother. The letter will probably be done first.

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