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GUEST POST | Lavie Tidhar author of The Bookman

Recently I've been mulling over a few new features for Mad Hatter's Bookshelf and one thing kept coming to mind. Everyone always asks what is your favorite book? Or the book that made you love reading? But what about all those books that were just plain strange? Basically, what is weirdest thing you've ever read?

So with that in mind I sent this question on to a few authors and one of the first to respond was Lavie Tidhar author of the recently released Steampunk adventure The Bookman from Angry Robot. Most of the responses were a paragraph or two, but Lavie had so much to say I thought it best to give him his own spot. Look for further posts on this question in the near future. Some incredible responses are in store from a wide swath of authors.

What is the weirdest book you've ever read?

by Lavie Tidhar

Luna: Gan He’eden Ha’geneti (Luna: The Genetic Paradise) by Ram Moav (1985)

I first came across Luna in the school library, and to my horror that must have been almost twenty years ago. It stood out, being one of the only—if not the only—titles on the science fiction shelf not to be a translation from the English. It was—almost miraculously, it seemed—written by an Israeli writer.

And what a writer!

Luna is, to a large extent, the last will and testament of its author, the Israeli geneticist Ram Moav. Like the unnamed narrator of his novel, he was dying of a terminal illness—he passed away shortly after completing the novel. His illness, and the narrator’s, inform the novel on a deep level—

But what is it about?

Luna’s narrator is a disillusioned scientist who, while slowly dying, is granted visions of the future by means of “The Camera”, a device that allows him (and us) to explore a future colony on the moon, a utopian place founded on extreme ideas of eugenics. Luna’s story is split in two: one follows the life story of the narrator, while the other follows a group of new immigrants to the lunar colony. They stand in marked contrast to one another. The scientist’s life is that of a modern Candide. Having survived the Holocaust as a child, he arrives in Israel only to be shunned and tormented by the “Sabras”, the native-born children. Growing up, he continues to suffer. His wife leaves him (after telling him he had never sexually satisfied her), his boss steals credit in his life’s work—until he is forced to conclude that:
my entire sorry life-story in one chart of disappointments and hurts caused by the bad acts of people. All those coalesced to an understanding, that there is no hope for the current state of man. He is bad at the core and must be replaced. This is the sum of my personal experience, and it is but a small example of the general state.
In one of the most powerful moments in the book, the narrator describes arriving in Israel as a child, after the Holocaust:
My first trauma was the Nazi Holocaust. It filled my entire being as a small child. Bad people, very bad people. An entire nation of bad people united to kill my father, to chase my mother and me, with nothing, to a terrible country where all the children are bad, and all they do, all the days, was to pick on me and hurt me, the little Yekke. [...]

Understand, Barnie, to the Sabras, to the children of the Israel of then, the European Holocaust was something distant, not a great wound of the psyche. Their childhood memories are of nostalgia to the beautiful days of the small Eretz Israel, beautiful, good, pioneering, idealistic. My childhood, in that same Eretz Israel, was one of suffering. A second soul-destroying trauma. A second proof for the evil of man. Adult Nazis in Germany, Jewish children in Israel—they were the same.

Then comes the Camera. With the aid of this mysterious device the narrator is able to glimpse a better, future world. Luna. A multi-cultural, multi-ethnic moon colony founded on a quest to create a Homo Moralis, a moral human. Exploring that new world forms the core of the novel.

And what a strange world it is!

It would be pointless to going into too many details of the new society. In brief, what Moav proposes is the establishment of a society along the lines of selective breeding, a complex structure dictating how many children—and with whom—anyone can have, based on their “humanity index”, a combination of IQ, artistic talent, and social-moral behaviour, with the focus on moral quality. Inherent in this scheme is Moav’s conviction that moral behaviour has a genetic basis, and can be passed on from parent to child. Computers help the selection process. There is a deep conviction behind Moav’s “genetic utopia” that humanity as it stands is inherently bad, but Luna is nevertheless deeply ambiguous in its promotion of eugenics, not dissimilar in nature to the scientific theories of the Nazis. The group of new immigrants, led by Luna-born Vasil as their guide, is composed of an Indian Woman, an Afro-American [sic] Man, a Pygmy family, a Chinese Man, a Russian Woman, and Gil and Cynthia Goldman—an Israeli professor and his Hawaiian wife, the only two of the group to actually have names, and whose quest to find relatives on Luna leads to the discovery of a wide family also related to Moav’s first novel,Zirmat Chachamim (“Genes for Geniuses, Inc.”, 1982). Genes for Geniuses—another deeply troubling novel—concerns the plan of an Israeli geneticist and an African dictator to create a new breed of Jewish-African “supermen”—combining, if I recall correctly, the African “physical prowess” with Jewish “brains.” I wish I was making that up!

In fact, here is another one of the strange, uncomfortable moments of the novel:

“New Africa was founded eight years ago. The majority of founders are what is called “Afro-Americans.” Amongst them there are also Africans, racially-pure blacks, who came straight from Africa, but they are few. We still don’t have many Africans in Luna. You...” his smiling gaze centres on the Pygmies: “you’re an important addition... the purpose of the founders was to preserve in a living way the positive components of Africa’s original culture.”
When the [female] Pygmy raises the problem of talking about “an African culture in the singular, when hundreds of different cultures developed in Africa?” Vasil confidently explains that “you have to start somewhere. The city’s founders decided to concentrate on Africa of the equatorial jungle, and we all hope that in the future more cities will be built, specialising each one in a different African culture.” On this level, Luna functions as a kind of Noah’s Ark (it aims to preserve not only human types but wildlife) but Moav is aware of the difficulties (practical if not ethical) of such an approach, and in fact advocates the creation of a truly multicultural society, in which all peoples and types of people play an important part. When the [female] Pygmy points out to Vasil that her and her husband’s “humanity index” is lower than the minimum entry requirement, Vasil makes a case for the need of an intercultural society. When the [male] Pygmy points out that, without Apartheid, intermarriages would lead to the loss of a clearly-defined racial type, Vasil offers Luna’s solution: cloning. The [female] Pygmy then points out that this would be a form of evolutionary dead-end Vasil admits the problem: clearly, even Luna does not have answers for everything.

This is such a bizarre novel, that I find myself going back to it, again and again—I have even managed to acquire my own copy of what is by now an incredibly rare volume (it has never been reprinted). It is not a particularly good novel, but it is disturbing on so many levels... and thought-provoking. And it does that rare thing—it offers a searing critique of Israeli identity, of the mythos of Israel itself.

I could go on—and on... another fascinating aspect of the book is its use of what is probably the only uniquely Israeli sub-genre of science fiction: the dystopia in which Orthodox Judaism takes over Israel, establishing the Jewish equivalent of a Sharia state (we learn of this in the course of the novel). This is, to my mind, the only genuine form of Israeli science fiction to date. In The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, Sheldon Teitelbaum mentions a couple of the others:
[A] significant dystopia was written by the established novelist Binyamin Tammuz (d1990): Pundako shel Yermiyahu [“Jeremiah’s Inn”] (1984) is a broad comic satire about an Israel taken over by religious zealots. A grimmer version of the future is Yitzhak Ben-Ner’s Ha’malachim Ba’im [“Angels are Coming”](1987), in which [a] world atomic apocalypse has spared Israel, but by the 21st century life within the theocratic state is characterized by street violence, persecution of the secular minority and widespread alienation.
While the best known of all is probably Amos Keinan’s The Road to Ein Harod, which not only won a Palestinian Peace Prize but was also made—in one of those strange confluences of fate— into a (rather dreadful) English-language film starring none other than Alessandra Mussolini (granddaughter of Il Duce), in a full-frontal nudity scene.

Life really is stranger than fiction... though perhaps not as strange as Luna. Incidentally, in my own The Tel Aviv Dossier (with Nir Yaniv), we got to pay homage to this sub-genre (albeit tongue-in-cheek), while in my forthcoming novel Martian Sands (from Apex Books) a place called The Ram Moav Institute plays a significant role... two other very strange books, I think.

And so... Luna. It’s been with me for years—a deeply disturbing, odd, irritating, impossible book – that very few people have ever read. The last vision of a dying mind? a Fascist utopia? A study of the Israeli psyche? All of these, and more?

Those questions will keep me guessing for a long time to come.


Lavie Tidhar is the author of The Bookman and forthcoming sequel Camera Obscura. Other books include linked-story collection HebrewPunk, novel The Tel Aviv Dossier (with Nir Yaniv), novella An Occupation of Angels and a host of to-be-released novels and novellas including Cloud Permutations , Gorel & The Pot-Bellied God, and Martian Sands. He also edited The Apex Book of World SF and runs the World SF News Blog.

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Anonymous said...

Luna sounds like an absolutely insane novel.

The Mad Hatter said...

Just you wait until I post the rest of the responses.

Anonymous said...

How come Afro-American has [sic] after it?

The Mad Hatter said...

@Anon - I believe because Afro-American is used in the book which is why Lavie referred to it as such, but that is not how anyone would normally spell it. [sic] is used in writing to indicate an abnormal or old way of spelling something or sometimes when a journalist is quoting someone and that someone used the wrong word. The journalist may insert [sic] to show it was not the journalist or publications misusage or misspelling. Basically it covers their butts.

Simcha said...

In response to Lavie's post, I'd have to say that The Tel Aviv Dossier was definitely one of the strangest books I've ever read. Though I don't think he would mind my saying so.

The Mad Hatter said...

@Simcha - I don't think Lavie would have a probelm with you saying that. In fact I bet he would be quite pleased.