What do you think of when you hear the words “science fiction”? You might think of colonization of other worlds, robots, or aliens. These are all parts of science fiction, but what many people, even science fiction lovers, may not realize is that lots of themes of science fiction are similar to themes of Judaism. Even the themes that I just mentioned have a Jewish parallel. This is what I am going to explain today in my speech.
For example, one theme of Judaism is “what makes a Jew.” Another is “assimilation.” In one story I read, called "On Venus, We’ve got a Rabbi", by William Penn, the Jews were kicked out of Israel. They were relocated to Venus, where they held a meeting. Somebody from each and every group of Jews in the galaxy came to the meeting. One of the groups of Jews was the Bulbas. They were brown pillow-like creatures that claimed to be Jews. The rest of the Jews didn’t believe them because they didn’t even look humanoid. People didn’t understand how someone — or something — could be a Jew without being a human. They later found out that the things were both humans and Jews. What happened was that the first human Jews to move to the Bulbas’ planet were discriminated against. They eventually blended into the Bulbas’ race. They were still Jews, but they were also Bulbas. You can see that the Jewish themes “what makes a Jew’ and “assimilation” are both tied in to this story.
In another book, Enders Game, by Orson Scott Card, there is an alien species called the Buggers. The Buggers have launched attacks on the humans in the past, so they seem evil. The reason they seem evil is only because of the humans' lack of knowledge about their species. People stop viewing the Buggers this way once they learn more about them. After they are destroyed, the humans think about the Buggers. They feel that they could have accepted the Buggers and not destroyed them. They start viewing the Buggers as people, not aliens. In a sense, the Buggers are assimilated into the human society. This is based on the Jewish theme of assimilation.
The story of the Golem is probably familiar to all of you. A rabbi in Prague creates a creature out of clay to protect the Jews. This creature, called the Golem, is very powerful. The rabbi is in command of the Golem, and is commanding him to do good things, but this stops soon. The Golem gets a mind of its own and stops listening to the rabbi. It becomes impossible to control. The rabbi kills it by taking a piece of paper with the word “life” inscribed on it out of the Golem’s head. This piece of paper, coincidentally, was the thing that gave the Golem life. This story is the foundation of lots of science fiction. Everything in science fiction that is about man making his own enemy is based on the story of the Golem. Also, everything that is about a robot or computer that gets a mind of its own uses this story as its building blocks.
In the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey", a computer named H-A-L 9000, on board a spaceship, learns to think for himself. He tries to kill the crew, thinking that they are endangering the success of the mission. One of the crew members shuts him down near the end of the movie by unplugging him. HAL 9000 is seemingly based on the legend of the Golem. He was created to help mankind, only to get a mind of his own and become a harm to the very people that he was made to protect. Also, just like the rabbi, the people who made him had to take away from him the thing that gave him life.
Another example of the Golem tale is a story I read by Isaac Asimov called "Robot Dreams". It takes place in the future when people have made robots. There are three laws that robots must follow, called “Robotic Laws”. The first one is, “A robot cannot injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” The second one is, “A robot must obey the orders given to it by human being except where such orders would conflict with the First Law”. The third law is, “A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law”. This is a system that is foolproof. It makes all robots into non-dangerous servants. In the story that Asimov wrote, a robot is made so it is almost a human, but it still has to follow the Three Laws. It gets a mind of its own and begins to dream. The people who made the robot had to kill it because it was dreaming that it was going to liberate all of the robots and change the Laws so that there is only one law, which would state, “A robot must protect its own existence”. The robot became a threat to the people who made him, so they had to short circuit him. This is just like the golem story.
Also, the story has something to do with the Ten Commandments because that is what the First and Second Laws are based on. For example, the First Law is almost exactly like the sixth commandment, “Thou shall not kill”. It says that a robot cannot injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. They are almost the same law. They both prevent the hurting of humans.
The second law, stating that a robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law, is just like the fifth commandment, “Thou shall not dishonor thy mother and father". Both say that you must listen to the people who made you unless their orders tell you to do something bad.
Another belief of Judaism is something called a messianic age. It is when violence, hatred, and evil will cease to exist. This age will begin when everything is at peace and there are no troubles in the world. The messianic age can be experienced strongest in Israel. In some science fiction stories, people colonize a new planet in hope to start a new life. They make the world into a Jewish colony. The people who are writing this are trying to create a new Israel and a messianic age.
An example of this is a story I mentioned earlier. In the story about the Bulbas, the Jews were kicked out of Israel. They formed a colony on Venus and made it a Jewish community. When they are having a meeting, they are having a gathering of Jews to share the messianic age with. The Jewish world is very peaceful and has almost no troubles. This is exactly like a description of the messianic age, except the world on Venus is a substitute for Israel.
Another science fiction book is Shadow of the Hegemon, by Orson Scott Card. At the end, there seemed to be almost a messianic age. All Muslims went to a new world and started a colony, which was like a messianic society. The same thing happened with the Chinese. They made peaceful societies, just like what would happen if there ever was a messianic age.
I picked Jewish science fiction as my topic because of two things: I like reading science fiction and I am Jewish. I read an article in the newspaper that states that lots of science fiction is based on Jewish themes, and I was instantly interested. I picked it as my topic when I found out that there was a book of Jewish science fiction stories called Wandering Stars. This book helped a lot in my research.
There are so many pieces of science fiction literature, and so much of it is based on Jewish themes. Jewish folklore, Torah stories, or things that your Jewish great-grandparents may have heard are all the basis of famous stories that people read every day. So, next time you read a science fiction book, think about what is happening. You will be surprised at how much Judaism is in it.
"On Venus, We’ve got a Rabbi", by William Penn:
Dann, Jack. Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction. Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998.
"Robot Dreams", by Isaac Asimov:
Card, Orson Scott. Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction of the 20th Century. Ace Trade, reprint edition 2004.
Kubrick, Stanley, director.
2001 - A Space Odyssey. DVD, 1968.