“One cannot and must not try to erase the past merely because it does not fit the present,” Golda Meir once said.
Clearly the fourth prime minister of Israel did not support time travel as part of Israel’s nonconventional arsenal – at least not publicly.
But would she really have disapproved of the opening scene of “Martian Sands,” the new novel by Israeli-born science fiction writer Lavie Tidhar, in which an Israeli agent from the future offers President Franklin Delano Roosevelt advanced weaponry from the State of Israel to fight Hitler and liberate the Jews of Europe back in 1941?
That is one of many vivid scenes in “Martian Sands.” Later on we are treated to a scene reminiscent of the 2003 Israeli air force flyover of Auschwitz, only this time the barracks are occupied and planes are dropping bombs.
This plot thread – one of several – can be read as a challenge by the 37-year-old Tidhar to one of the reigning masters of science fiction writers, Harry Turtledove, who also is Jewish. Turtledove has written stories and novels in which Hitler won the Second World War; in which the war starts in 1938 in Czechoslovakia rather than a year later in Poland; and in which an alien invasion unites Jews and Nazis against their common reptilian enemy.
Turtledove, in one of his first such novels, had time-traveling Afrikaaners ship advanced weapons to the Confederate army.
Why, Tidhar implicitly rebukes Turtledove, have you never saved the Jews?
The central conversation in “Martian Sands,” however, is directed at Philip K. Dick, who churned out pulp novels for miniscule advances in the 1960s, only to be canonized after his death as the first science-fiction writer to be published in the Library of America alongside the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Philip Roth. It could be argued that PKD (as he is known to cognoscenti) was the most Jewish of his generation of science-fiction writers. True, unlike Isaac Asimov, Avram Davidson, and Harlan Ellison, he spoke no Yiddish had no Jewish parents, and went to Episcopalian church. But his everyman protagonists were schlemiels out of Sholem Aleichem; their salvation, if it came, emerged from small acts of righteous kindness, and their humanity always had to be proved. Even the fundamental nature of reality was put to continuous question, like a Biblical verse subject to midrash upon midrash. I imagine he would have enjoyed studying Talmud, or Zohar. His final novel includes a bibliography in which the Hertz Pentateuch appears.
“Martian Sands” is in large measure a love letter to PKD. Tidhar grew up on a kibbutz, reading science fiction. In PKD’s “Martian Time Slip,” for the first time Tidhar saw himself reflected in science fiction, because much of the action in the 1964 novel takes place among the kibbutzim of the New Israel colony on Mars. “Martian Sands” spins out from that mid-20th Martian geography: There is New Israel and kibbutzim and even the (fictional) FDR mountain range. As in “Martian Time Slip” (and several other PKD works), simulacra – robots in the shape of historical characters – play a major role. Here, though, it not Abraham Lincoln but Golda Meir who emerges from a workshop, designed to lead the people of New Israel.
Many more PKD tributes fill “Martian Sands”: the shifting third-person perspectives, the character redeemed from his demoralizing job by his obsession with a beautiful celebrity, even character names and snatches of dialogue play off PKD titles and themes. For those of us who enjoy rereading even PKD’s quickest, thinnest book, Martian Sands is an enjoyable simulacrum of a new PKD novel.
In PKD’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” and “Blade Runner,” the movie it spawned, the Voight-Kampff empathy test weeds out humans from robots, based on their physiological responses to emotion-laden scenes. “Martian Sands” is filled with many such scenes – but, perhaps deliberately, the plot doesn’t smoothly cohere and the characters never fully flesh out. This is most notable with the robotic Golda. The real-life Golda went from being a celebrity – the first Israeli prime minister to meet with the president in the White House – to a short-sighted villain blamed for the disastrous Yom Kippur War. But the real Golda – played by no less an actress than Ingrid Bergman – doesn’t appear in the book. The human-looking robot never wrestles with her conscience or her prejudice or the lessons of a long life lived at the center of Zionist history. Instead, we get a chain-smoking cipher. She might as well have been Levi Eshkol.
Yet Tidhar’s novel lies in the shadow of Golda’s quote, because the central question of “Martian Sands” is an exploration of how the past and the present create each other. The story takes place in a Mars that has been colonized and domesticated a long time ago; the Mars where PKD has characters suffer from having to buy halva on the black market and receive their Sunday New York Times a week late via rocket has been transcended. The era of austerity is over. But a deeper past has entered the consciousness of the descendants of the immigrants from earth; a world of a lush warrior civilization of the now-extinct indigenous four-armed Martians (borrowed by Tidhar from the John Carter novels Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote starting in 1912). The ancient empire is taken up as a cause by the shopkeepers and workingmen of Mars, who join a movement, discover their “true” Martian identity, learn the ancient Martian language, and save up their money for the surgery that will give them four arms.
So are Tidhar’s Martians real?
PKD famously defined “reality” as “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” This can be seen as the converse of the well-known saying of the Viennese journalist whose 1887 collection essays was called “News from Venus” : “If you will it, it is no dream.”
By those standards, are the Palestinians – who today have a de facto state (or two) – real, despite Golda’s famous denial?
Is Israel, whose present-day leaders are haunted by an existential insecurity at odds with technological innovation surpassing the imagining of 20 the century science fiction?
So, to return to Golda: Is the past really less real because it was shaped to meet the needs of the present? What pasts are being erased when we choose mold our identity to fit a deliberately selected past not necessarily belonging to our immediate ancestors? That an Israeli-born writer living in London, who at first wrote in Hebrew and now writes in English, asks these questions is not an accident.
And if “Martian Sands” ultimately succeeds by asking questions that are better than the final resolution of its plot – well, how Jewish is that?