By Jonathan McCalmont
Central Station — Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)
Nowadays, when people talk about science fiction being socially relevant, they often gesture towards Dave Hutchinson’s on-going Fractured Europe series and how the early books seemed to pre-empt not only the break-up of the European Union but also the brutal militarisation of European borders. Though dystopias will always have a role to play in helping us to prepare for unwanted futures, there is also something to be said for books that make a positive case for what it is that we are about to lose. Hutchinson’s books may be about the ugly, regressive, and nationalistic future we are going to get but Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station is about the beautiful, strange, and unapologetically multicultural future we need.
The book is set in a future Tel Aviv where suicide cults and apartheid states have given way to a Judeo-Palestinian union that is neither seen nor referred to directly by any of the characters in the book. We never learn how the region was restored to peace or what the nature of that peace might be; we are simply told that Tel Aviv is now home to Central Station, the planet’s largest space port and primary connection point between Earth and the rest of the solar system.
Tachyon Publications have released Central Station with an eye-catching cover design by Sarah Anne Langton; Dark purple edging towards violet, the cover shows a trinity of golden-age space ships soaring above a futuristic city dominated by a mushroom-like eruption of futurity that we must assume is Central Station itself. Striking as this design may be, it is rather at odds not only with the actual Tel Aviv skyline but also with Tidhar’s suggestion that his future Tel Aviv is not all that different from the one that occupies our present. From the prologue:
I came first to Central Station on a day in winter. African refugees sat on the green expressionless. They were waiting, but for what, I don’t know. Outside a butchery, two Filipino children played at being airplanes: arms spread wide they zoomed and circles, firing from imaginary underwing machine guns. Behind the butcher’s counter, a Filipino man was hitting a ribcage with his cleaver, separating meat and bones into individual chops. A little farther from it stood the Rosh Ha’ir shawarma stand, twice blown up by suicide bombers in the past but open for business as usual. The smell of lamb fat and cumin wafted across the noisy street and made me hungry.
Tidhar goes on to explain how this “Central Station” was actually just modern-day Tel Aviv but the image of different cultures connecting in cramped spaces where past and future collide with violence and beauty is a recurring motif throughout the novel. As we move through the book, we learn more and more about the people and places surrounding Central Station but the spaces they form are always depicted as lists of things that ought not to fit together and yet somehow magically do:
The sounds and sights washed over her: deep space images from a lone spider crashing into a frozen rock in the Oort cloud, burrowing in to begin converting the asteroid into copies of itself; a rerun episode of Chains of Assembly; a Congolese station broadcasting Nuevo Kwasa-Kwasa music; from North Tel Aviv, a talk show on Torah studies, growing heated; from the side of the street, sudden and alarming , a repeated ping – Please help. Please donate. Will work for spare parts.
The series of complex ideas crammed together in short sentences that are never unpacked let alone explained recall the eyeball kick-infested prose of the first-generation Cyberpunks while the careful juxtaposition of science-fictional imagery with fragments from older cultures recalls the deconstructed weirdness of M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract sequence where fin-tailed rocket ships land next to fin-tailed Cadillacs on planets that feel more like collections of discarded futures than actual places. However, while these kinds of intellectual collages may now be familiar to most genre readers, Tidhar also deploys them in more mundane settings as a way of returning our thoughts to the present:
Houses sprouted like trees, blooming, adaptoplant weeds feeding on the rain and sun and digging roots into the sandy ground, breaking ancient asphalt. Adaptoplant neighbourhoods, seasonal, unstable, sprouting walls and doors and windows, half-open sewers hanging in the air, exposed bamboo pipes, apartments growing over and into each other, growing without order or sense, creating pavements suspended in midair, houses at crazy angles, shacks and huts with half-formed doors, windows like eyes –
When Gibson and Harrison used collages to evoke feelings of strangeness and alienation, they omitted to mention the fact that these feelings are entirely commonplace for even the most sheltered of urban humans. Indeed, when I first read Gibson’s Neuromancer, I did not view the Sprawl as either alien or futuristic… it just reminded me of London’s Tottenham Court Road in the early 1990s.
Gibson famously wrote that while the future may be here, it is unevenly distributed. Tidhar’s response to Gibson is to point out colliding cultures, connecting sensibilities, and pervasive difference is actually what many people view as normal and has been since the emergence of the first cities. In 2017, there is nothing futuristic or alien about living in a multicultural world.
The reason I began this piece with a discussion of Tidhar’s prose and politics is that Central Station is structurally different to most genre novels. Despite their futuristic trappings, most science fiction novels take their cues from the Victorian era in that they tend to revolve around relatable characters interacting in a consistent environment. Sometimes those characters fight, sometimes those characters fall in love, and sometimes they interact in ways that make them different people but the assumption is almost always that character matters. Even if the real focus of the novel is the exploration of overly-elaborate fictional worlds, genre novelists use character as a means of determining both what is seen and in what order. Central Station departs from the Victorian model of novel-writing by using place rather than character or narrative as its central unifying point. This unusual structure is due to the fact that the novel started life as a series of short stories that appeared in venues including Interzone, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and Analog.
Back in the day, film studios would sometimes fill the gaps in their production schedules by getting directors to make short films that would later be packaged together and sold as features. Famous examples of this form include the British anthology horror film Dead of Night as well as more recent experiments with the form such as Moonwalker and Four Rooms. No longer that popular with audiences, the format lives on in so-called composite films in which directors present us with a series of short narratives structured around a single theme such as racism (as in Paul Haggis’s Crash), illness (as in Stephen Soderbergh’s Contagion), the international drug trade (as in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s 21 Grams), or the evils of sex (as in Fernando Meirelles’ 360). Rather than viewing this book as a series of short stories, it is better to think of Central Station as being a ‘composite’ or ‘mosaic’ novel set in and around a space port and exploring themes of urban multiculturalism.
The novel begins with a man returning home from space. Referred to as ‘Boris Chong’ in yet another tip-of-the-hat to cultural collision, the character steps out of the space port and finds himself confronted by feelings of intense nostalgia and yearning for his one-time lover, now an aging shopkeeper with children of her own. While the character’s name suggests a collision of Chinese and Russian cultures, his headspace is dominated by an intense conflict between past, present, and future. In a move that recurs throughout the novel, Tidhar has his character look back to a distant past amidst the sand-blown poverty of the Middle East only to then regret a more recent past in which he wallowed in the intense futurity of inter-planetary travel and a career spent tending underground clone tanks. The past is the past but also the future, and the present is both and neither.
Chong’s turmoil over past, present, and future is accelerated by the fact that he carries two neural implants: One created by his father as a means of binding his children both to each other and to his dream of a family business, the other genetically engineered from the fossilized remains of Martian DNA. Tidhar refers to the parental implant as an I-loop and treats it as a metaphorical representation of the way in which we never completely rid ourselves of the ideas forced upon us during childhood. The purposes of the Martian implant are never explained but it represents horizons broadened by travel and time spent in other cultures. Chong’s head is a warzone because he is torn between the desire to return home, and the fact that his thought processes will forever be just that tiny bit alien.
Having introduced a few characters and ideas, Tidhar moves us to another story where Chong’s former lover hands our attention over to a woman who makes her living as captain of a virtual starship.
If the first story explored conflicted feelings about returning home, the second story explores different modes of escape as the virtual starship captain falls in love with a man who traded his humanity for a bunch of cybernetic implants that allowed him to survive a long-forgotten war. Now referred to as ‘Robotniks’, these partially-decommissioned killing machines make a living begging for spare change and spending what little money they have on spare parts and a drug that allows them to feel all the benefits of religious faith.
Unlike Chong, who left home but couldn’t escape and later returned home but couldn’t feel comfortable, Isobel and Mortl find themselves reluctantly being dragged back into the real world by feelings of love. Mortl was quite content to rot his brain with drugs until he met Isobel. Isobel was quite content to let her body rot in a gaming pod until she met Mortl. Beautifully drawn, the relationship between the two characters is as much about finding a way to live where you are as it is about the transformative power of love.
Each chapter unravels the life and concerns of a different character. Each unravelling shines a light on a different corner of Central Station and, as different characters interact with each other, we get to not only revisit their lives but also to re-discover them from different perspectives. For example, one of Tidhar’s neater ideas is that of a vampire that roams the space-ways feeding on the knowledge and memories and isolated travelers. When we encounter the character from Chong’s perspective, she feels like an abusive ex-lover who exploited her partner’s knowledge and contacts before moving on to greener pastures. Conversely, when we encounter the exact same character from the perspective of an infatuated and non-networked book-trader, the character represents both a frustratingly unworkable relationship and the anguish at being denied access to another person’s mental world. Both perspectives are correct, both perspectives have real beauty, but neither offers us a complete understanding of either the character or her worldview. It is only by confronting the strangeness in our lives that we can hope to overcome the distances that separate us from other people.
As the book progresses, the ideas pile up like dried leaves: Virtual realities that represent both the world of work and the spiritual realm, gods that bloom with the seasons, inspire intense religious fervor, and whither on the vine come season’s end. Robots that perform circumcisions with superhuman accuracy but would rather serve all religions and none than jump through the hoops required for becoming Jewish and Messiahs that are grown in tanks only to be left by the side of the road. Any one of these ideas could sustain a trilogy of novels but Tidhar seems content to throw them over his shoulder and keep moving forward.
At times the density of the prose and the power of ideas are so intense that you cannot help but feel a tinge of vertigo but an anguished looked down at the city below only serves to reveal the genius of the novel as stepping back from the characters and individual narratives allows you to realise that Tidhar’s ideas had not so much been casually discarded as deliberately positioned in such a way as to create an image that speaks to you at a level more profound than story.
Central Station is a novel about cultural difference and the way that intense differences can be both attractive and terrifying. Each of the book’s characters has a complex identity that embodies this tension in different ways and each of these identities and tensions is skillfully unpacked using the metaphorical toolkit of science fiction. However, as the book swings round and round the question of how we are to deal with cultural difference whilst keeping a handle on our sense of identity, we realise that subjecting people to different viewpoints and frames of reference actually promotes understanding and so makes those identities stronger. Like vines crawling up the walls of a vast space port, identities, beliefs, and frames of reference only ever grow stronger by intertwining. Central Station could have been the story of Boris Chong but the decision to structure the novel around a setting rather than a character allowed us to explore the ways in which people are shaped and re-shaped by not only their environment but also by the people that surround them.
Ten years into the Financial Crisis it is clear that neoliberalism has entered a period of terminal stagnation. At this point, the only thing standing between us and complete economic collapse is a programme of quantitative easing that drives stock prices upwards and keeps private banks in business but does little to create jobs or arrest declining standards of living. As government after government find themselves incapable of remedying the situation, people in America and across Europe are beginning to question the basic tenets of neoliberalism and are demanding national solutions to what the media encourages them to see as national problems. Ever opportunistic, the right has been quick to capitalise on this growing mood of disaffection by demonising the most vulnerable members of our society; the new, the different, and the foreign.
Ever reactionary, the right is presenting antiquated forms of nationalism and cultural exceptionalism as remedies to problems they themselves helped to create. If the crisis was brought about by immigrants taking all the jobs, claiming all the benefits, and stealing all the housing then if follows that the crisis can be solved by having non-immigrants assert their historic rights and begin taking back control. They tell us that we have been too tolerant of difference and that this has ruined us, they will tell us that the time of cultural purification is at hand but we know these are nothing but self-serving lies.
Right-wingers are correct to link multi-culturalism to neoliberalism as embracing the free movement of people and capital has allowed us to travel from place to place in search of better pay and conditions. However, while the flaws and inconsistencies of neoliberalism undoubtedly made the world a more insecure and unjust place, it also allowed a generation of people to experience what it feels like to possess many different identities and to have each of those identities resonate in different ways with the people that surround them. Nationalism is first and foremost about cultural simplification and restricting the range of identities allowed within a particular state. The global turn towards economic nationalism means that we now desperately need works that will argue for the economic, cultural and spiritual benefits of multiculturalism and that is why Central Station may yet turn out to be the single most important and culturally-relevant work of science fiction to be published in decades. If ever you wanted a novel that spoke to the Now, if ever you wanted a novel that looked to the future, if ever you wanted a novel that understood what it means to be modern then seek out Central Station.
Jonathan McCalmont is a film critic, fan writer, and columnist for Interzone magazine. One-time Londoner and low-level academic drone, he has now surrendered to the forces of entropy and taken up residence in a wood.