Danny Bloom
I seek the truth wherever it lies.

Prophetic Israeli sci-fi novel from 23 years ago predicted current pandemic

Sci-fi and Corona-Lit just might combine into a new genre of storytelling in the 2020s.

“Science fiction tales about near-future dystopias and plagues and such tend to lean toward the lurid, in order to chill us with dire warnings we then strive to prevent. Hamutal Shabtai’s novel ‘2020’ strikes an especially vivid chord, an alarm about all the fine things we might lose, if fear makes us turn on one another.”

That was acclaimed American science fiction novelist David Brin in California commenting to this blog on the renewed international literary interest in a 1997 sci-fi novel from Israeli psychiatrist Hamutal Shabtai. Some 23 years ago, she imagined what we are all seeing all around us now, although her vision was a sci-fi tale and set at the time she wrote the book what was the distant future.

Fast forward to 2020 and Neta Halperin, a literary critic in the leftwing Israeli newspaper Haaretz, leads off with a headline: ”The Coronavirus Novel: An Israeli Author Wrote a Book on the 2020 Pandemic 23 Years Ago” accompanied by a subheadline that reads:  ”In her science fiction novel ‘2020’ published in 1997, an Israeli author described a global pandemic much like the coronavirus. Now she explains why she went there and how she managed to get things so right.”

“Indeed, ‘2020,’ the novel that Shabtai published in 1997 (with Keter Press, in Hebrew only now with no translation available yet in English), about a virus that threatens to doom humanity to extinction wasn’t on anybody’s radar then. She certainly never imagined how prescient her book would prove to be,” writes Halperin in Israel, who interviewed Shabtai over the phone.

“The Chinese are behaving very much in keeping with my script. The similarity is remarkable,” Shabtai, 64, told her. “It began with television reports about villages in China where people are smashing the roads so no one can come into the village. I thought, that’s just like in my book, places cutting themselves off… That’s where it started.”

Science fiction is popular in Israel.

An anthology of short stories titled ‘‘Zion’s Fiction: A Treasury of Israeli Speculative Literature” edited by Sheldon Teitelbaum and Emanuel Lottem in 2018, did well in its English edition.

Valerie Frankel, a California scholar and author of an upcoming academic study on Jewish science fiction, said of the sci-fi short story anthology that one pundit has dubbed “Zi-Fi: “It’s an amazing achievement — so many different voices from so many Israeli subcultures. You really feel like you’re exploring the country and hearing all its perspectives. Israel’s like nowhere else in the world.”

Teitelbaum told this blogger this week: “Contrary to popular opinion, science fiction almost never predicts the future accurately, nor does it purport to. The genre is invariably about the present as projected through the prism of thousands of scenarios. Israeli author Chamutal Shabtai’s novel ‘2020’ a one-off for the ages. Published 23 years ago by Keter, the book posits a deadly plague that starts off in New York, engulfs the world, and quickly makes any intimate encounter deadly. Needless to say, this doesn’t bode well for the human race.”

Halperin writes that global appreciation for Shabtai’s book has revived this year, even before the current COVID-19 virus emerged as a pandemic, although there is still no English-language translation available for the 600-page novel. With the surge of interest in the book and the media attention it has attracted, Halperin notes. Keter has issued a new edition in Hebrew, which is also available for purchase in digital form in Hebrew.

Corona-lit just might become a new genre in the 2020s and 30s.

About the Author
Dan Bloom curates The Cli-Fi Report at He graduated from Tufts University in Boston in 1971 with a major in Modern Literature. A newspaper editor and reporter since his days in Washington, D.C., Juneau, Alaska, Tokyo, Japan and Taipei, Taiwan, he has lived and worked 5 countries and speaks rudimentary French, Japanese and Chinese. He hopes to live for a few more years.
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