The Once and Future Jews of Dan Simmons

Science fiction writer Dan Simmons is the author of more than two dozen novels.  Not all of them are science fiction—he works in other popular genres too—but most are bestsellers, and many have won awards.  His six major sci-fi novels, beginning with the 1989 Hyperion (which won the Hugo Award), treat the classic sci-fi theme of the relationship between technology and humanity, and they also feature a more distinctive concern with the nature of literary genius.  For instance, Hyperion and its three sequels (The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, and The Rise of Endymion) weave Keats and his poetry into their imagined future, while Ilium (2003) and its sequel Olympos (2005) play out Homer’s Iliad on Mars with the aid of nanotechnology, and depict cybernetic organisms that debate the merits of Proust as they explore the icy seas of alien planets.  Olympos is even dedicated to Harold Bloom—presumably inspired by the Yale scholar’s literary criticism and not his bad fantasy novel, The Flight to Lucifer.

Simmons is also the major science fiction writer whose work most frequently focuses on Jews.  Although neither Jewish nor even, as far as I can tell, a conventionally believing Christian, many of his novels feature Jewish characters, and the fate of Israel and the persistence of anti-Semitism have been repeated themes in his writing.

One of the main characters in Hyperion, for instance, is Sol Weintraub, a Jewish university professor from a planet described rather like the Peoria of Simmons’ youth or the Indiana where he attended Wabash College.  Weintraub’s daughter, a brilliant archaeologist, is afflicted with a “temporal condition” which causes her to start aging backwards.  When we first meet Weintraub, he is holding his now infant daughter, and is in a literal race against time to find a cure for his daughter’s condition before she reverse-ages out of existence.  Simmons chronicles the anguish of a father watching his vivacious and accomplished daughter lose a day of her life each day, waking a day younger and, as if she had Alzheimer’s, with no memory of anything past her new biological age.

And so Weintraub argues with God.  He questions the ramifications of God’s call for Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, which Weintraub sees as parallel to time’s slow consumption of his daughter.

Sol wanted to know how any ethical system—much less a religion so indomitable that it had survived every evil mankind could throw at it—could flow from a command from God for a man to slaughter his son.  It did not matter to Sol that the command had been rescinded at the last moment.  It did not matter that the command was a test of obedience.  In fact, the idea that it was the obedience of Abraham which allowed him to become the father of all the tribes of Israel was precisely what drove Sol into fits of fury.

Weintraub wanders the cosmos searching for an answer—whether medical cure for his daughter or theological solace for his agony.  Weintraub’s foray into Jewish theology is not especially profound—the near-sacrifice of Isaac is more a Christian obsession than a Jewish one.   Yet this is also true to the character, who is explicitly presented as a religiously indifferent, mostly assimilated Jew.

In Ilium and Olympos, Simmons again foregrounds a Jewish character, who turns out to be the key to humanity’s literate past.  In what must be taken as a warning to our hi-tech, swipe-and-click way of life, the pampered humans of Simmons’ far future long ago gave up the ability to read in exchange for the automated ease provided for them by their computers.  The Jewish character, Savi, defends the worth of literature and human culture-making to both the pre-literate Homeric warriors running through Simmons’ story and the post-literate humans who can only guess at the cultural treasures they have lost.  At one point Savi praises the Talmud for its supposed assertion—where Simmons got this I have no idea—that books must be not merely read but passionately “eaten.”

However, in the course of Ilium we also learn that Savi and her fellow Jews are being hunted to extinction.  In his collection Worlds Enough and Time, Simmons explains that the basis for this portion of the tale came to him in the spring of 2000 when he was asked to contribute to an anthology of science fiction stories set in the year 3001.  Simmons asked  himself what possible constants from our own time there might be a thousand years in the future.  His sobering conclusion:

[W]hat common element will bind 2001 and 3001?  What eternal human verity—other than sex and intrigue—will survive the erosive winds of a full millennium?

The answer, when it arrived, hit me with the full nausea of certainty.

The one constant thread between today and a thousand years from now will be that someone, somewhere, will be planning to kill the Jews.  (his emphasis)

And in a scene set in Jerusalem at the dawn of the fourth millennium, Simmons features an army of Jew-killing robots triggered by muezzins that cry out “Itbah al-Yahud” (Arabic for “kill the Jew”).

Simmons returned to the theme of the extermination of the Jews in his controversial 2011 thriller, Flashback, a darkly satirical, dystopian novel, which lacks the imaginative sweep of his far future space operas.  Set just a couple of decades from now, Flashback features a resurgent Global Islamic Caliphate that has annihilated Israel with nuclear weapons.  The surviving Jews live in a refugee camp in a former Six Flags amusement park in Denver.  The United States has defaulted on its debts and exists at the beck and call of other global powers, with much of the American population addicted to a drug called flashback which allows them to revisit past moments of pleasure as their society decays around them.

Flashback’s Tea Party politics—President Obama and contemporary American leftism are blamed explicitly for the civilizational collapse the novel portrays—shocked much of Simmons’ readership, and Simmons has emphatically denied that the novel is a mouthpiece for his own politics.  (Elsewhere, Simmons has described himself in conventional liberal terms, having been a lifelong Democrat who protested the war in Vietnam.)  Yet Simmons has not disavowed his recent warnings about the dangers of militant Islam.  While in the earlier Hyperion series one of the heroes is a Palestinian, and Muslims more generally are among the innocent targets of the novels’ villain (a monstrously mutated Catholic Church, as it happens), those novels were written before 9/11.  In Flashback, by contrast, the Islamic Caliphate is the great danger.  Encouraged at every turn by American appeasement, it has made territorial inroads in North America as well as the Middle East.  The novel reads as a kind of penance Simmons has laid upon himself for what he may regard as his earlier naive multiculturalism.

What has not changed throughout his career, however, is Simmons’ conviction of the dire significance of antisemitism, and his admiration for present-day, secular Israel.  Simmons’ second novel, for instance, the 1989 horror-thriller Carrion Comfort, doesn’t deal with Muslims, yet its protagonist is a Holocaust survivor, the villain is a Nazi, and the novel presents antisemitism and racism as the essence of evil.  Moreover, it is the main character’s connection with the Jewish state that allows him to contend with the villain.  In Hyperion, by contrast, the earth has been destroyed and the Jews have joined all humanity in a permanent Diaspora.  The loss of Israel has all but gutted Jewish vitality.  When his daughter asks, in response to Sol Weintraub’s indifference to his own Jewishness, “why do Jews feel that things are . . . less important now,” he responds: “Probably because so much of the dream is dead.  Israel is gone.”


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