Golem

Tagged: Theme

The medieval Jewish legend of the Golem comprises a set of Proto-SF stories about the maker and the made. Several well-known rabbis and Judaic scholars of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance had Golem stories ascribed to them, the most elaborate cycle being that connected with Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (1512-1609), the Maharal of Prague, a controversial and admired sage and community leader. "His" version of the Golem, Joseph, is an automaton made from the sand and mud lining the Vltava River. To animate him, the rabbi orders one of his assistants to make a circuit of the figure seven times, entrusting him with combinations of letters to utter as he does so; subsequently the rabbi and his assistants recite Genesis ii.7, which refers to the creation of Man as a single entity, and the Golem comes to "life". This Prague version of the legend contains explicit discussions of the Golem as artificial human being and as human instrument: a being without past or future. Three uniquely human faculties are denied it: inclination, either to good or evil; the soul associated with language; and the power to engender. It is used to inspect the streets of the Prague ghetto.

The tale of the Golem is important to sf not because of any primacy it might claim regarding the concept of an artificial creature but because it is a narrative, and because it centrally concerns the making of the most complex tool imaginable: something (or someone) who looks, and superficially acts, like us. It is a study in how we shape the environment to meet our needs, and how we relate to that changed environment while dead labour assists in the structuring of live labour. It augments Joanna Russ's curiously neglected suggestion that work is one of the central concerns of sf.

Several earlier tales and fragments of tales, including some Talmudic references, have survived. One significant version of the legend is associated with a rabbi of Chelm near Lublin in Poland; in this variant there is a fear that the creature may grow, and it is destroyed. The Chelm version gave rise to Christian developments of the material into what might be called the Promethean Gothic: tales in which a nameless rabbi manages to deactivate the creature, but is himself smothered in its fall.

Of twentieth-century responses to the fable, the most famous is probably Gustav Meyrink's Der Golem (December 1913-August 1914 Die Weissen Blatter; 1915; cut trans Madge Pemberton as The Golem 1928; full version of Pemberton trans in The Golem/The Man Who Was Born Again anth 1976 US, ed E F Bleiler; new trans Mike Mitchell 1995). In He, She and It (1991; vt Body of Glass 1992) Marge Piercy retells the tale to enforce an analogy between the Golem and Robots. Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) and Lisa Goldstein's The Alchemist's Door (2002) both deal with the legend, the latter centrally. Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel Feet of Clay (1996) deals with golems in Robot-like terms as an enslaved underclass driven by literal written programs in their heads; liberation is possible by replacing this paper with a receipt for the golem's purchase or manumission, and the first golem who thus acquires free will plans a campaign (continuing in later Discworld volumes) to buy the freedom of fellow-golems. In the Alternate Cosmos of Ted Chiang's "Seventy-Two Letters" (in Vanishing Acts, anth 2000, ed Ellen Datlow) there is an industrialized golem Technology which also proves to be (rather than genetics and DNA) the essential basis of life. [EMP/DRL]

see also: Supernatural Creatures.

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