Why is this sci-fi novel different from all other sci-fi novels?
Because “Commencement” includes at least five major Jewish themes, explains author Roby James.
Roby James (“daughter of Henry, sister of Jesse,” she jokes) is the nom de plume of Rhoda Blecker, who recently published her first novel some 20 years after she began it.
“One of my rabbis said to me, ‘There’s an awful lot of Torah in this book because there’s an awful lot of Torah in you,”’ says James, sitting in Dangerous Visions, the Sherman Oaks bookstore beloved by local readers of science fiction, fantasy and alternative history.
If you are a regular here, you know that “Dangerous Visions” is the title of a landmark anthology of short stories edited by Harlan Ellison, who lives nearby and often drops in. As a thank you for the name, owner Lydia Marano gave 2% of the business to the acerbic writer.
Before our meeting, James had sent me her book, a paperback original in Del Rey’s Discovery series. (Del Rey will also publish the sequel, “Commitment.”) “Commencement” tells the story of Ronica McBride, a female with Class A talent, including the Sting, who finds herself badly wounded and inexplicably powerless in a strange and hostile wilderworld. Confused? It becomes perfectly clear as James builds a world for Ronica, word by word.
I confess to James that I have started “Commencement,” but haven’t finished it, not because I don’t like it but because science fiction, like romance, is one of the few genres I don’t mainline. Poor woman. Here’s her shot at the Los Angeles Times, and she’s with someone who couldn’t recite the three laws of robotics on a bet (actually I could, but my son coached me). James is not the first writer to include religious themes in books about other worlds, not even the first to incorporate Jewish themes. Indeed, there is a site on the World Wide Web devoted to the analysis of “Star Trek” from a Jewish perspective, a cultural phenomenon that has Oy vay written all over it.
But James’ is a serious book that deals with such constants of Jewish life as tikkun olam, the obligation of every Jew to do what he or she can to heal the world; exile and the need to be part of a people, a tribe. “I’ve promised everyone who gets all five a certificate,” James says. The sacredness of life is another continuing motif, though not an exclusively Jewish one. James won’t reveal the fifth because she doesn’t want to ruin the end of the book for me.
Personal healing is yet another universal theme of “Commencement.” (Ronica has the enviable ability to knit up her broken bones and seal off bleeders using only her special gifts). James lost her mother when she was 11, and she was molested as a child. Like Ronica, James survived that ordeal and, with the help of a good man and a good therapist, has found new strength and optimism.
Some of her favorite kudos are from people, not necessarily science-fiction buffs, who tell her the book has helped them recover from addictions and old wounds. “I want to encourage people to hope.”
Using her real name, the Reseda resident has written about how she found her way deeper into Judaism with the help of Mother Miriam, a Benedictine nun. Active in local Catholic-Jewish affairs, James spends three weeks each year at the order’s island cloister off the coast of Washington, writing in rare peace in exchange for her labor. “They let me work in the garden, but they don’t like me to cook.”
Goaded by her “inner control freak,” James has gone all out to promote her book. Self-promotion is often the only kind first-time authors get, especially for a mass-market paperback. James sent more than 1,000 flyers to everyone she could think of--friends, family, members of science-fiction groups and people she met when she lectured on Jewish spirituality and Jewish-Catholic relations. She visited bookstores from here to Santa Barbara to line up signings. And she always asks people to recommend the book to their friends. “I want everybody in the world to read this book,” she says, unapologetically.
It’s working. Dangerous Visions manager Arthur Cover says he has received 200 requests for autographed copies of the book, a remarkable number for the shop. “She’s the most effective self-promoter I know, and I’ve seen a few over the years,” Cover says. “If I had five more authors like her, I’d be rolling in bucks.”