Perhaps you know his novel, in which Hitler works as a private detective in London (“A Man Lies Dreaming”).
Or maybe the one where the Tel Aviv bus station is now the most important spaceport in the world (“Central Station”).
Or have you ever heard of how the Jewish state in East Africa (“Unholy Land”) was actually founded?
Or maybe not.
For an established novelist, respected anthologist and multiple award winner in speculative fiction, Lavie Tidhar is little known among Jewish readers. Although he writes in English with an astonishing range of works that regularly touch on relevant topics (“HebrewPunk” from 2010!) And although he won the prestigious John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best science fiction novel in 2017 Science- Fiction novel set in Israel, he remains decidedly marginal as a Jewish writer.
Shortly after reviewing his 600-page The Best of World SF: Volume 1, which came out this summer, I got a Zoom call with the Israel-born author to talk about Escapement, his new book speculative fiction. with tarot cards, clowns, an alternate universe and the heartbreaking death of a little boy. However, during our conversation, I discovered that Tidhar had not one but four upcoming releases to talk about, as well as two reissues of books and a couple of book-related video games that he was involved in.
Tidhar, who now lives in the UK, writes about alternate worlds, often in contexts where they intersect with one very similar to ours. One of the new editions is the 2011 novel “Osama” about a world in which Osama bin Laden is a little-known fictional character whose attack on the World Trade Center is just a spectacular fictional crime at the heart of a series of mass novels.
While we were talking, Tidhar realized that the children’s book he had written – “The Candy Mafia” – had just come out in paperback. He described it as “a little detective story of how ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ meets ‘The Big Sleep’.”
Little did I know that children’s literature was a string on a bow, and when I pointed this out, he hesitated and said that his days as a children’s author would now surely be over. Not voluntarily, he added, but because the one he wrote two years ago about a fantastic speculative world where everyone had to stay at home because of a widespread global disease was now unpublished.
Being unpublishable is an unusual situation for Tidhar. Even if his actions contain seemingly inedible content, his books find a way to print. His “A Man Lies Dreaming” includes genital mutilation and a variety of other graphical physical interactions inside and outside the Nazi death camps, but was published, reviewed by the New York Times and won the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize for Best British Fiction (im Value of 5000 €).
“The Escapement” differs from most of Tidhar’s works in that its alternative world cannot be compared to ours. Most of his novels are set in the future or in recognizable present or historical milieus that are slightly deformed by the change in a crucial historical detail. In contrast to previous protagonists, the “Stranger” from “The Escapement” wanders from a hospital to a wild west of the subconscious, inhabited by clowns and villagers whose world is in the midst of a massive supernatural battle between deities.
What is lost in an explanation of Tidhar’s plans and career achievements is his sense of fun. Both when writing and in conversation, he enjoys seeing how he can “deal with things”. He has traveled extensively and has the amused curiosity and disbelief of a traveler towards the familiar world.
In contrast to “A Man Lies Dreaming”, a secretly very funny book about Nazis, “The Escapement” is secretly a rather dark book about custard pies, circuses and carnivals. It feels like a surrealistic cartoon that Dr. Seuss and Ray Bradbury wrote together, using explicit “archetypes and serial killer clowns”. The stranger is a “lonely gunslinger” in search of a magical plant that temporarily makes common cause with its archetypes, the “kid” and the “conjurer”.
What Tidhar’s diverse oeuvre shows is his droll desperation for the world as it is and his determination to both optimize reality and tweak a few noses with it.
“I write about things I don’t like,” he told me, “like superhero novels”. So in “The Violent Century” he wrote a novel in which readers are encouraged not to like flashy, annoying American superheroes and, as Cory Doctorow puts it in the introduction, to side with the flawed English and European “Slightly Shit” Superheroes “who help win the world War II.
Tidhar’s upcoming releases include The Hood, the second novel by his Anti-Matter of Britain Quartet. The quartet began 2020 with “By Force Alone” – a fantastic retelling of the Arthurian legend as a shabby gangster follow-up story, complete with Sir Lancelot as a “Jewish Kung Fu artist”. Like the first to take place in an abandoned outpost (“a clogged sewer”) of the Roman Empire, Tidhar is reinventing one of Britain’s founding myths and undermining it with characteristic, insidious profanity.
Coming up next is England, where, as Tidhar says, “great books” want a “huge historical epic” of recent Israeli history called “Maror”. With Tidhar, it’s hard to tell how much of what he says is winking, but he claims that this is a long, historical novel about Israel that contains provocative and little-known events that his research began in the 1970s have revealed. He said this will be his offer for a Booker Award nomination because “they won’t give me because I write about elves and spaceships!”
However, since this science fiction writer, who once worked at an IT desk and had his work adapted into Android games, also claimed that he couldn’t get his zoom video to work for our conversation, the judges may have to go to that Readers wait for the manuscript until early next year before deciding which award “Maror” deserves.
“Neom”, next year’s short science fiction novel, is “all about the separation of the Red Sea and the robotic messiah”.
The story began, he says, as “a mood piece about a robot in a flower market” who buys a flower and takes it to the desert to bury it. But why? Tidhar had to write another story to find out, and soon a whole new fictional area of the Central Station universe was in the game. Partly inspired by his own time at the Red Sea, partly inspired by the visionary (or imaginary) project of the same name by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and partly inspired by a small, flower-buying robot, Tidhar introduces robots whose construction methods and behavior come from the entire science fiction – by Isaac Asimov, Clifford D. Simak, Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester, and others.
“Asimov’s robots are very Jewish,” he said. “They follow the three laws … they have their Torah and are trying to find a loophole idea. “My real job is killing people, but I’d really like to do ‘Do No Harm’ if I can.” I think this robot is a retired old war machine that kind of wants to be good but doesn’t know exactly how to do it. “
Although “The Escapement” may be less creative than his other books, Tidhar seems to have a knack for making his experiments fascinating. Collecting robot types to compare their philosophies for “Neom” is a natural continuation of the world of “The Escapement,” which is full of fictional and historical madness. Instead of creating a new world based on historical revision, how about creating a world to avoid the loss of a son? And what about basing physics and society on a life full of allusions and a memory of a family visit to the circus on the Midway instead of “normal” world rules, physics and society?
An “escapement”, according to Merriam Webster, is “a device in a watch … through which the energy from the power source is periodically released,” or “a ratchet device (like a typewriter’s standoff mechanism)” or “the” act of escape. “Though Tidhar Told me that he was “trying to write a really simple book, a western about a lonely gunslinger” or a bedtime story “like your grandfather tells a story,” the novelist plays with time, energy , Power, how they affect writing and also with the escapist dissociation that comes with grief.
Tidhar admits that he took the structure for this new book from the Epic of Gilgamesh and that the stranger’s search is organized for “The Golden Heart Flower,” a fairy tale everyone in Israel knows – and falsely believes it is Christian Andersen was written by Hans. The book is a desperate and desperately lonely battle against a plethora of symbols of children’s entertainment (Barnum and Bailey, Laurel and Hardy, circuses) that nonetheless evoke the mortality of a child dying in the “real” world.
Although time runs out quickly for the stranger in his search for the plant of the heartbeat, Tidhar does not, as he continues to create story after story, book after book, world after world. He is working on “The Best of World SF: Volume 2” and is annoyed that no one contacts him, but it is not clear that everyone can work at their own pace. Maybe he has found a world where time goes differently. Wherever he works, I want to work there.
This article originally appeared on forward.com. Reposted with permission.