2010s, 2016, Arthur C. Clarke Award nominee, fixup novel, Israeli, John W. Campbell Award winner, Lavie Tidhar, Locus Award nominee, post-cyberpunk, Sarah Anne Langton, science fiction, Tachyon Publications, transhumanism
The towering spaceport of Central Station rises over the old city of Tel Aviv, a melting-pot of Arab, Jew, and the multicultural thousands who flocked there in the wake of a worldwide diaspora. The city’s sprawl is unchecked, packed with hundreds of thousands of people both real and digital, all blended together in one Conversation—the digital network and stream-of-consciousness that cascades all noded life-forms into one stream of endless data. It is the transhuman future, a complex hybrid of beauty and decay… a world as brilliant in its originality as it is startling in its familiarity.
Tidhar’s novel—a fixup constructed from a dozen or so short stories—follows the footsteps of a few people living under Central Station’s shadow. The aging Boris Chong has returned home from Mars, one of many who left Earth to explore the mysteries of the outer belt. Much has changed in his absence. His old flame is now raising a strange yet familiar child who can tap into the Conversation with a mere touch… and whose similarly familiar friend exists only within the Conversation itself. His cousin is in love with a robotnik—a decaying cyborg soldier, reanimated to fight in some long-forgotten war, begging for spare parts or acquiring them by dealing religious narcotics. Boris’ father is terminally ill with another of the war’s side effects, a multigenerational mind-virus, while his mother is rising in rank within the Church of Robot. Hot on his trail is a feared Shambleau, a data vampire, who takes up with Boris’ ex-lover’s brother, an antiquarian whose lack of a node leaves him isolated from the Conversation. Central Station follows the ways these characters are connected—by geography, history, family, and love—a great web of intersecting lives, connected by technology yet transcending both the physical and digital realms.
The novel has been compared to Gibson’s Neuromancer, and while they are very different animals, I made the same comparison myself while reading it. Gibson’s work set the tone for modern SF back in the ’80s, a gritty neo-noir future made up of dot-matrix imagery and droning modem dial tones. It’s little like Central Station’s Tel Aviv other than they are both detailed and defining; the post-cyberpunk spaceport of Central Station is still filled with grit and grime, rusty in spots and spattered with oil-droplets left by passing robotniks, underscored by the scents of jasmine and rose wafting through the lush orange groves. Tidhar’s prose presents the ethereal beauty of a landscape blending the ramshackle, the exotic, and the alluring, blending sickly-sweet fresh love with the sad pangs of heartbreak. Tidhar has quite a way with words, and paints the poetic imagery of future Earth with precision; the plot is a delicate and ephemeral thing, but his writing has a captivating power that I found hard to put down.
Central Station is very much in the vein of literary science fiction, rooted in human-driven drama and eschewing genre’s typical love affair with plot—it’s nearly plotless, to be honest. But is as much a “literary” novel as it is a homage to pulp fiction—see the cover—a love-letter to SF which has come before. There’s a multitude of easter-eggs references scattered throughout these pages: a nod to God’s nine billion names; things will use the verb “ubicked;” the term for “data vampire” is a homage to C.L. Moore’s pulp story “Shambleau,” chosen with obvious care. Mainstream readers will miss many of these gems but they should appeal to the SF faithful, acknowledgement of what has come before and establishing a reference point for Central Station. Both literary SF and pulp homage are acquired tastes, and I fear the book’s literary side in particular will chafe some readers: the writing is rich with beauty and powerful ideas, yet it thrives on the same open-ended ambiguity of modern literary novels, offering little sense of focus or finality by following a non-traditional (and less commercial) story structure. It provides few answers to its many questions.
That, of course, is probably intentional; in life and in the book, love and loss are merely one step in a longer journey, which does not end like a door slamming shut once the driving plot is concluded. Central Station offers some interesting insight on humanity and its various post-human offshoots, less a novel and more a mosaic built like a richly woven tapestry incorporating dozens of lives—plot-threads, story lines, all cut from one small district of one city—just a snapshot of a larger whole. It has a galactic scope as humans push their technology forth among the stars; its long and detailed history was impacted by wars fought so long ago that even its living still-living robotnik veterans cannot remember why or who they fought; it’s still recognizably our Earth, though altered by the spread of dozens of new technology inherited by generations of globalized multiculturalism. And yet it’s a very intimate novel, focusing on the lives and problems of a handful of people… and is quite effective at doing so.
Central Station is a subtle but well-written novel, handling emotionally rich and complex themes with dazzling clarity. The lack of closure for some of its plot-lines may be a bit unsatisfying for mainstream readers, but the novel is never boring—quite the opposite, it’s intoxicating, a dreamlike masterpiece (or near enough to a masterpiece for me). It’s one of the most unique and ambitious SF novels I’ve read of late, and I won’t be surprised to see it on awards lists (particularly the Nebula) later this year. Central Station is available now, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to see what the future of science fiction looks like.
Title: Central Station
Author: Lavie Tidhar
First Published Date: May 2016
What I Read: ebook (Tachyon Publications)
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via publisher)
MSRP: $15.95 pb / $9.99 ebook
ISBN/ASIN: 978-1616962142 / B01A5VHDEY