Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2008)

Subgenre: Alternate history

From Hyperion, a novel that is more fantasy than science fiction, I come to a novel that isn't really fantasy or science fiction at all, but belongs to the broader category of "Speculative fiction." That isn't a complaint - this book is well in the science fiction tradition of asking "What if..." - but it's hard to look at this, possibly the most grounded Hugo-winner, in the context of novels like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress or A Deepness in the Sky. The Yiddish Policemen's Union supposes that, instead of being excluded from the United States, Jews escaping from the Holocaust were permitted to settle Alaska - a proposal actually advanced by a member of FDR's cabinet, but never implemented.

In the 2007 of Chabon's fantasy world, Jews live a threatened existence, their quasi-state about to be dissolved. Meyer Landsman, drunk and living in a cheap-ass junkie's motel, as befits a detective, has a few murders left to investigate, and a touch of corruption to fight. It's your basic Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, except that everyone's Jewish and very, very cold. Due diligence: I think I'd love any book that had that description. I mean, one of my favorite novels has "hard-boiled" right in the title, and Michael Chabon wrote another - Wonder Boys is probably the best story about a sketchy professor I've ever heard, including all the true ones.

So how does it work? Chabon uses the archetypes from detective fiction as a base, freeing him to do characterization based on personal relationships. He doesn't need to describe a world-weary detective: we all know Sam Spade already. Instead, we see Landsman's relationship with his father, his ex-wife, his gigantic Tlingit Jew of a partner. The alternate history aspect exploits our knowledge as well, the real-world history used as the backdrop for the novel, subtly informing our understanding of the Alaskan Jewish state and their relationship to the native Tlingit. The world is always characterized in casual opposition to ours - a quick reference to President Kennedy's second wife, Marilyn Monroe, or a Manchurian space program. This distorted mirror of our times plays a strong role in the climax of the novel, and I wonder if it will carry the same impact twenty years from now.


  • Glad to see Landsman's another Jew who can't stand blintzes.

  • Characterization in a line: "Bina accepts a compliment as if it's a can of soda that she suspects him of having shaken."

Hugo-worthy? I'm a little surprised at the selection, honestly, because it falls so solidly in mainstream fiction. Hugo voters did pick a Harry Potter book at one point, though, so this isn't the strangest pick yet, and it's certainly a deserving novel. A

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