Last year, Michael A. Burstein invited me to write a story for his anthology Jewish Futures. I accepted and began to think of the form that my story would take.
I decided to explore a future in which the Israeli government took a sharp turn to the right, both politically and religiously. This change caused an exodus of secular Jews from Israel. However, rather than having them immigrate to either Europe or the United States, both of which were seeing a rise of antisemitism in my imagined future, they would head to the east.
In 1929, the Soviet government created an area known as the Jewish Autonomous Oblast centered around the town of Birobidzhan. Despite being the first official Jewish region in modern history, the percentage of Jewish population of the J.A.O. was never particularly high and, although many Jewish writers and artists promoted the area, it fell out of favor with the Soviet government, culminating in the Night of the Murdered Poets, when thirteen Jews who had helped promote the J.A.O. at the request of the government were executed for trying to establish a breakaway region when that same government decided the J.A.O. was no longer needed.
Today, Birobidzhan has a flag with some Jewish symbolism, a menorah in front of the train station, and a ramshackle synagogue, Beit T’Shuva. Officially, it is still the Jewish Autonomous Oblast despite a miniscule Jewish population. In my future world, however, in the 2030s, it becomes an alternative home for Jews dissatisfied with the direction Israel had taken.
Michael A. Burstein was born on February 27, 1970. Burstein is an Orthodox Jew and many of his stories are informed by this background, from the main character of “Reality Check” to the entire story “Kaddish for the Last Survivor.”
Much of his short fiction is gathered in the collection I Remember the Future: The Award-Nominated Stories of Michael A. Burstein. His debut story “TeleAbsence” won the Analog Readers Poll and the Science Fiction Chronicle Readers Poll. His later novella “Sanctuary,” also won the Anlab poll. Burstein won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1997.
“Reality Check” was first published in Analog’s November 1999 issue, purchased by Stanley Schmidt. It was reprinted in Burstein’s collection I Remember the Future and was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novella and shortlisted for the Theodore Sturgeon Award.
Michael Burstein’s four linked stories, “Broken Symmetry,” “Absent Friends,” “Reality Check,” and “Empty Spaces,” deal with parallel universes linked together through a Superconducting Supercollider. Although “Reality Check” is the third in the sequence and refers to the subject of “Absent Friends,” it requires no knowledge of the previous story to enjoy it (although the four appear sequentially in I Remember the Future).
David Strock is a theoretical physicist specializing in low energy research. When one of his papers gains the attention of a government facility in Texas, he is invited to see the classified work they are doing. Despite his better judgment, and the desires of his wife, he visits them and decides to take a temporary appointment to work on the secret project, offering him the chance to collaborate with another universe. Strock tries to balance his research and time in Texas with his home life in Boston, although the strife in Boston seems to be worse than Burstein shows.
When Strock meets a woman who reveals that he has a near doppelganger on the other side, his interest is further piqued in the project, although he tries to point out to her that he is not the person she has heard about from the other universe. In the end, Burstein successfully ties together disparate scenes of Strock’s home-life, his lunches at MIT with a graduate student, his doppelganger, and the research he was conducting.