Anti-Semitic Genre Fiction

Maddd Science

Well, right up until yesterday I was still planning to run the Haunting of Hill House themed issue that I promised last time. Instead, I'm moving up a future issue I was planning, in light of yesterday's mass murder in a Pittsburgh synagogue -- the deadliest anti-semitic attack in recent United States history.

Not only is pop culture reallllly anti-semitic, but genre fiction is one of the worst offenders, for a pretty simple reason: It's the genre that really leans on people's ability to invent entire races or species, and that demand tends to dredge up stereotypes from the past and turn them into the future. Pop culture has a big impact on how societies think of identities and its racist stereotypes have an active harmful impact on individuals alive today -- but anti-semitism tends to rapidly disappear from public view (read this for more on that).

I was recently rewatching Deep Space Nine (the best Star Trek, don't @ me) (also it was actually over the shoulder of my wife, who was really rewatching it) and was a little embarrassed to realize how anti-semitic I hadn't realized the Ferengi were the first time I watched the series. And they're not even that bad, comparatively. Genre fiction literary agent Conor Goldsmith recently ranked anti-Semitic pop culture icons on Twitter. In order from the worst: Harry Potter's banker goblins, Star Wars' Watto, Star Trek's Ferengi, and The Smurfs' Gargamel.

Science fiction’s anti-Semitism problem
Paul B. Sturtevant, The Washington Post

This is a profound problem for an otherwise stunning game — and for all authors of speculative fiction. It should stand as a warning to other creators of fantastical worlds. Because even though they may not intend to create worlds populated with stereotypes, they grew up in a world filled with them. It is easy to see how this could happen: When content creators need a species of greedy traders, maybe they are more inclined to make them short. And bespectacled. And maybe give them shrill voices and big noses.

From the Ferengi Wikipedia article:

In the book Religions of Star Trek, Ross S. Kraemer wrote that "Ferengi religion seems almost a parody of Judaism. Critics have pointed out a disturbing correlation between Ferengi attributes (love of profit that overrides communal decency; the large, sexualized head feature, in this case ears) and negative Jewish stereotypes." Commentator Jonah Goldberg wrote that Ferengi were portrayed in The Next Generation as "runaway capitalists with bullwhips who looked like a mix between Nazi caricatures of Jews and the original Nosferatu."

The TV Tropes article points out a few potential rebuttals:

The lumpen-nosed, big-eared, insatiably greedy Ferengi are seen by some as antisemitic characters, and their earliest appearances were also criticized as being Japanese stereotypes. According to Word of God, the Ferengi were meant to be strawmen for American capitalists in general, and were compared to "Yankee Traders" in their first appearance. The name 'Ferengi' is derived from a Farsi, Arabic and Hindi term meaning Westerners. The comparisons to Jewish stereotypes became more common after they were ditched as villains and became comic relief. For what it's worth, the staff writer who most enjoyed writing Ferengi episodes was Ira Steven Behr, a Jew, and all four major Ferengi characters are played by Jews.

The claim that the Ferengi were meant to be stereotypes of white Americans comes up a lot, but I don't think it's anywhere near the silver bullet that some people seem to think it is, due to the fact that multiple allusions can be true of the same pop cultural figure. J Jonah Jameson can be originally a (hilarious) reference to Fredric Wertham and also serve as a reference to Stan Lee a few decades later.

Sidebar: JRR Tolkien occupies an interesting role in the anti-semitic genre fiction discussion: He explicitly based his dwarves off of the Jewish people, saying "The dwarves of course are quite obviously - wouldn't you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic." When Tolkien alluded to reality rather than stereotypes, it worked: The dwarves are "dispossessed of their lands, forced to wander the world, and adopt the languages of other lands," according to a summary of one of his letters. They're also greedy for gold, which is back in harmful stereotype territory.

I don't have a great transition into the rest of the newsletter, other than to say that someone should write a book exploring anti-semitism in pop culture, or point me to one.

Okay, on to the rest of the newsletter's unrelated articles.
I'd love to see a successor to Goosebumps' grade school ghouls. Here's an old Atlantic article about them.

Horror for Kids: How Goosebumps outlasted Harry Potter by terrifying fourth-graders and mocking their parents James Parker, The Atlantic

Goosebumps celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. The scale of Stine’s production—the Day-Glo sprawl of it, the trashy superfluity—is hard to get one’s head around. Between 1992, when he inaugurated the franchise with Welcome to Dead House, and 1997, no fewer than 93 brightly colored Goosebumps books and spin-offs were published. Ninety-three books in five years! The titles were glorious, a B-movie bonanza: Vampire Breath, Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes, Egg Monsters From Mars.

Each about 120 pages long, and constructed (for the most part) according to the same horror-cheese specifications: Two kids, the narrator and his or her bratty younger sibling, are sent to a new school, or move to a new neighborhood, or visit their grandparents in a swamp. (Sometimes a beloved dog—Petey or Barky—accompanies them.) Thus displaced, they come under attack from some hallowed strain of low-budget weirdness—a witchy old woman, say, or a shuffling monster—of whose reality they have difficulty convincing their parents. Their parents literally cannot see what is going on. In Chicken Chicken, Crystal and her brother, Cole, offend a local sorceress, who puts them under a chicken curse. Crystal’s lips distend and harden into the beginnings of a beak. “Yuck!” comments her mother. “Those are really chapped!”

And now, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar takes a few pot-shots at the BBC Sherlock:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar And The Evolving Sherlock Canon
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Lyndsay Faye, Crime Reads

We tried to take into consideration every story of Sherlock, rather than one or two. As anyone who has ever read ACD knows, Sherlock is not a robot or a “high functioning sociopath” or an addict. He is multifaceted, with very real emotions. He shows both humor and brittleness. He can show addictive behaviors as well as extreme discipline. That’s what we tried to show.

Why has Dune endured, while Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke have faded?
Andrew Liptak, on his blog

Back in 2015, I took a deep dive into the history of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, and came away with an interesting revelation: the books were a key reason for why George Lucas rebooted Star Wars with the prequels: the continual release of new content from the series kept fans engaged. Otherwise, the Star Wars trilogy would likely have remained back in the 1970s and 1980s: favored classics that wouldn’t have as rich a world as it now has. It’s also why the franchise caught Disney’s attention, and why it’s arguably one of the biggest entertainment franchises in the world: it’s something fans can continually engage with, and it’s something that’s continually updated not only with new content, but with content that’s relevant to a far more diverse and global audience.

Dune, I think is in a similar boat, and has a leg up on Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein: the fans have remained engaged with the huge number of new books that have come out over the years, keeping interest alive in the franchise as whole. The same could likely be done with the works of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, provided the right person was at the helm, with the willingness to not merely re-release their books, but reinterpret and build on their worlds and IP for new audiences.

I feature Andrew Liptak's work in this newsletter a lot, and he actually just launched his own sci-fi themed newsletter. You can follow it here, a sentence I wrote against my more mercenary impulses given that it's about as direct a competitor for this newsletter that I'll ever see. Anyway, here's another interesting story from the guy:

How a fan fiction for Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem became an official novel
Andrew Liptak, The Verge

Next year, Tor Books will publish a new novel set in the same world, titled The Redemption of Time, but it won’t be by Liu. Instead, the book is written by Baoshu, an ardent fan of the series who originally published it online as a novel-length fan fiction story — one that became so popular that the trilogy’s publisher decided to release it as an official novel.

Thing I Wrote Recently: How Science Fiction Magazines (And Their Payment Rates) Shaped The Genre
Really, this was more of an excuse to get my hands on an advance copy of Alec Nevala-Lee's Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction. My review: It's great!

A Non-genre-fiction Thing: Okay, this tweet history of the Sears catalog at the intersection of racism and capitalism is a little outside the realm of "genre fiction," but, in my defense, it's pretty good! Also, if you're still following my 70s Sci-Fi Art blog, you should know by the amount of 80s art I've posted that I don't stick to strict definitions.

Music I'm Listening to Recently: I forget if I've mentioned this before, but here's a 7-hour playlist of what is apparently called "Retro Darkwave Horror Synth." I don't know what that means, but I've been enjoying it off and on for months. Like, I have spent a truly embarrassing amount of my life listening to it by this point. It's like if you could distil the pulpy cheesiness of the entire 80s horror film genre into a soundscape. It's also Halloween-themed, so now's the time to recommend it.

Hey, my first year anniversary of this newsletter was October 22! As a birthday present to the newsletter, consider forwarding this to someone who might appreciate subscribing! Thanks for following along.

Next Time on Maddd Science: Haunting of Hill House, for real this time

Header image: “think happy thoughts,” by Daniel Williams.

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