Science Fiction Writing's 'Pulitzers' Handed Out
ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Imagine. It's the year 1940. Jews are looking for a place to call home. Israel is falling apart, so a piece of land is carved out for Jews thousands of miles away in Alaska. That's where Michael Chabon's novel "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" begins.
Last night the book earned Chabon a Hugo Award for Best Novel. A Hugo is like a Pulitzer but from the World Science Fiction Society. I told Michael Chabon that his book sure doesn't sound like science fiction.
Mr. MICHAEL CHABON (Author, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union"): Well, the book is flexible or agile in its approach to literary genres, but I think, more than anything else that's a mark of how flexible those genre distinctions can be and are. And I mean so, you know, the world of science fiction or let's call it the territory of science fiction has very porous boundaries.
And there's definitely room in it for a work of alternate history, which is sort of the portal into which this novel passes into the land of science fiction.
SEABROOK: Your alternate history here is pretty - pretty alternate. Just a quick sketch?
Mr. CHABON: Well, you know, all alternate history, I think if it's done in the usual manner, it all starts with one change, one small difference. In the case of this novel, there was this bill that was introduced into Congress in 1940 and it would've allowed an unspecified but presumably rather large number of Jewish refugees from Europe to enter into the United States before, this is actually before the U.S. entered World War II.
And it proposed allowing them to settle in Alaska on a temporary basis just as kind of a shelter to get them out of harm's way. But in the world of this novel, the plan actually eventually comes to pass, and as a result you have ultimately, if you combine the immigration before the war and then the people who came after the conclusion of the war, you end up with a couple million people living up there in Sitka, Alaska.
SEABROOK: Can I ask you, what do you think of other work that's going on in science fiction right now? Do you read science fiction?
Mr. CHABON: Yes I do. I still read science fiction, and I see all of kinds of diversity. I think - I find a very intense ongoing kind of intellectual and aesthetic debate in the world of science fiction. The people who are reading it and the people who are writing it seem to me to be engaged in an ongoing conversation about the fiction that they love on a level that I think is enviable, that would be a credit to the world of mainstream fiction.
SEABROOK: I understand the Coen brothers are working on a movie of your novel.
Mr. CHABON: Yes. That's what I'm told.
SEABROOK: You don't - actually haven't spoken with them?
Mr. CHABON: No, I haven't.
SEABROOK: For our listeners, they made "Fargo," they made "No Country for Old Men," "Raising Arizona" among other great films.
Mr. CHABON: "Miller's Crossing."
SEABROOK: Mm, yes.
Mr. CHABON: That's one of my favorites. And "The Big Lebowski," of course.
SEABROOK: Of course.
Mr. CHABON: Yeah, no, that's the idea, at least. And I've been told they're working on the screenplay, you know, right now, which is very exciting for me to contemplate. And I can't imagine better suited filmmakers to this material. They've proven how comfortable and skilled they are at handling noir-ish kind of material over and over again.
And then to add this layer of kind of this loopy, skewed Jewish America that never existed, it feels to me like a perfect match for them.
SEABROOK: What are you working on now?
Mr. CHABON: I'm writing a novel.
Mr. CHABON: Yeah.
Mr. CHABON: I'm going to see if I can, you know, rack up a, maybe one of the romance awards.
Mr. CHABON: I don't know.
SEABROOK: Or whatever they call them. I don't know what they are either.
Mr. CHABON: No, this is a mainstream, more of a mainstream kind of novel. It's set in recognizable present-day consensus reality, at least so far.
Mr. CHABON: No superpowers yet.
Mr. CHABON: You never know. It's early days still.
SEABROOK: Michael Chabon won a Hugo Award last night for his novel "The Yiddish Policemen's Union." Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us.
Mr. CHABON: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you very much. I'm happy to do so.
Correction Aug. 13, 2008
The introduction to the story said Michael Chabon's novel, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," begins "a few years after the Holocaust." It actually begins in 1940.