Review: Wandering Stars

by Tom Ingram

The list of Jewish science fiction writers is extensive and includes several big names. Picking up Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction was a no-brainer: it included stories by Avram Davidson, Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, and Harlan Ellison. The editor is Jack Dann, whose name I erroneously thought I recognized (but it’s a fortuitous error, as it turns out). The idea of a collection of SF and fantasy stories on Jewish themes is interesting and (for WASPy goyim like me) refreshingly unusual.

After an introduction by Isaac Asimov, the first story is by William Tenn, an old-school science fiction writer who has not published much since the fifties and sixties, and is largely forgotten today. It’s a story about aliens who want to become Jews. Actually, it turns out that if you ask twelve authors to write SFF stories on Jewish themes, 25% of them will be about aliens who want to become Jews. Of the three (or possibly four, if you want to count Ellison’s contribution), Tenn’s is by far the best. It’s the funniest, and beneath the humour there is the angst and strained optimism we expect from Jewish fiction. By contrast, Robert Silverberg’s story seems disappointingly bland, and Carol Carr’s is just suicide-inducing.

Avram Davidson contributes two stories. The first, “The Golem”, is a brief humorous yarn in much the same vein as William Tenn’s story. “Goslin Day” is a paranoia thriller, engaging but equally short. These are excellent miniatures, but Davidson is one of the most compelling SF writers I’ve come across and it would be nice to see something a little more substantial from him.

Horace L. Gold’s “Trouble With Water” and Robert Sheckley’s “Street of Dreams, Feet of Clay” are both rather meandering and pointless. In fact, some of the best stories in the volume are by the non-SF writers. These are Bernard Malamud’s “The Jewbird” and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Jachid and Jechidah”. Malamud’s tale of a Jewbird that is at first hesitantly accepted and then driven out is funny and poignant, while Singer is compelling but a little heavy-handed in his reversal of life and death, heaven and earth.

Pamela Sargent contributes the only really Holocaust-related story. It’s a nice piece that keeps you confused until the end where it ties everything together for a horrible revelation. Interesting, but I think it is a little too facile. George Alec Effinger takes the Diaspora into space in “Paradise Last”, another one I have mixed feelings about. The anthology is closed off with Harlan Ellison’s “I’m Looking For Kadak”, a sort of summa of all the previous stories. Ellison creates a distinctive voice, a funny but shockingly dark series of mishaps, and an ending based on a quirk of rabbinical law.

There are quite a few good stories in this anthology, and no total failures. It was loaded with pleasant surprises—I was shocked to find out that Asimov’s story was not the main attraction, and all these writers I’ve never heard of were contributing stuff that was better than Robert Silverberg. I’m glad I picked it up. My copy is a 1975 Pocket Book (pictured in the hilarious cover image above), but as far as I can tell, the anthology is still in print, so there is a good chance of being able to find it, too.