The Latest Work of Israel’s Leading Science-Fiction Writer Doesn’t Live Up to Its Promise

November 23, 2022 | Michael Weingrad
About the author: Michael Weingrad is professor of Jewish studies at Portland State University and a frequent contributor to Mosaic and the Jewish Review of Books. 

Published last year, ha-Lashon Noshlah (“Tongue Untangled”), is the latest work of Shimon Adaf, probably the Jewish state’s best-known author of science fiction and fantasy. While written for adults, its elaborate plot has at its center one of Adaf’s previous works of children’s fantasy, which in turn plays with the biblical story of Abraham and the realities of modern Israel. Michael Weingrad revisits the earlier book and reviews the new one, while taking stock of Adaf’s career:

For two decades, Adaf has seemed on the verge of producing a great work of Hebrew fantastica. He is a particularly fine poet, with tremendous lyrical gifts. Yet his fantasy and science fiction novels (I have not read his detective trilogy, now translated into English) all tend to recede into self-referentiality and cryptic language games, gesturing towards accomplishment unfulfilled; . . . while occasionally studded with passages of beautiful and atmospheric lyricism, and kernels of clever references and self-referentiality, [these works] are ultimately literature-department conceits, clothed in genre tropes and not particularly well worked out in either philosophical or novelistic terms.

The narrative flaws seen in [the earlier book] are also here: belated expositions and backstory infodumps in place of narrative suspense and resolution, sudden and arbitrary realizations on the part of the characters, narrative logic filled in with talkiness rather than action. Adaf’s career-long obsession with the nature of language ironically fails to appreciate the literary effectiveness of silence.

And then there is Adaf’s problematic theology:

This typology of normative religious tradition as oppressive and narrow-minded, while outsiders are benevolent and independent-minded runs through the book. Rabbis and Orthodox Jews in Adaf’s fiction often tend to be racists and bigots. The main agent of the sadistic angels in the book is an underground organization of fanatical monotheists—Jewish, Christian, and Muslim—who want to uproot all idolatry from the world. The organization is run by a far-right Israeli Jew. It takes a certain ideological perspective to make an Israeli organization that unites Muslims, Christians, and Jews the bad guys. Yet, as Lucinda tells one rabbi, idolatry is not bad. It is a form of magic that can be used for good purposes.

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