By Maureen Kincaid Speller
Central Station — Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)
The shelves inside were arranged by genre
Life wasn’t like that neat classification system, Achimwene had come to realise. Life was half-completed plots abandoned, heroes dying halfway through their quests, loves requited and un-, some fading inexplicably, some burning short and bright. There was a story of a man who fell in love with a vampire. … (140)
Achimwene is the proprietor of a second-hand bookshop in Tel Aviv, a collector, a connoisseur of ‘fragile, worn, faded, thin, cheap paper-bound books’ (129). ‘They smelled of dust, and mould, and age. They smelled, faintly, of pee, and tobacco, and spilled coffee. They smelled like things which had lived. They smelled like history’ (129). In truth, they probably smell like certain old paperbacks I also own and treasure, the only difference being that my books were mostly made within my lifetime whereas Achimwene lives far in our future and his books are rare survivors, coming from old concrete shelters under the city of Tel Aviv.
I start with Achimwene because he reminds us that one of the central themes of Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station is the telling of stories, and science-fiction stories in particular. Indeed, the narrative itself is an embodiment of a pivotal moment in sf storytelling: the move from short story to novel. The earliest sf novels weren’t novels as such; they were formed from several closely connected short stories, sometimes reworked to strengthen those connections, and were known as ‘fix-ups’. Central Station is a fix-up par excellence, bringing together Tidhar’s various Central Station stories, some of them substantially reworked, with a couple of new stories added to the mix, and a Prologue that introduces the novel as an act of storytelling, while itself participating in the act of storytelling not once but twice.
Fix-ups, embedded narratives – there are already many layers of story at work and the novel has barely begun. It will, though, take a couple of chapters for the reader to notice that Central Station isn’t so much one story chronologically narrated as a series of stories, a mosaic, if you like, and if the reader knows Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles at all, the general ambience of the narrative may seem begin to seem somewhat familiar. Those who have read C.L. Moore’s ‘Shambleau’ will recognise the term when it is used in Chapter Five: Strigoi. Likewise, the reference to St C’mell might call forth a memory of Cordwainer Smith’s ‘The Ballad of Lost C’mell’. And if not, that doesn’t matter either, because, while Central Station rests on a foundation composed of all these stories, and many others I’ve either forgotten or never read, it doesn’t rely them to tell its story.
It isn’t, I’m sure, a coincidence that Central Station is set in Tel Aviv, in a space station that was once a bus station and that still looks like a bus station because space travel is unremarkable to the point of being a tedious necessity in getting from A to B. The setting signifies that the story is reaching deep into the past as much as it is reaching into the future. The setting is significant in other ways: Tel Aviv is the Hebrew translation of Altneuland [old new land] (1902), the title of a utopian novel by Theodor Herzl, describing his vision of a Jewish state in Israel. And for those not of an archaeological bent, ‘tel’ is a word for a man-made mound, composed of layer upon layer of the detritus of civilisation, a concrete representation of long passages of history which are not necessarily available to those living on top of the mound. And to complicate the motif even further the Tel Aviv we know is still comparatively young. Only in the future, in Central Station, will it acquire that literal depth of history, a history so deep that its founding has almost been forgotten. What I’m suggesting, then, is that in Central Station Tidhar shows us what science fiction looks like when it builds on its past rather than constantly referring back to it; what sf looks like when the glittery trappings become a scuffed and dented part of everyday life.
Tidhar introduces us to the community that has, over the years, gathered around the Central Station; in part, this is because the station is the place where people can do business, but also because the station, ‘this great white whale, like a living mountain rising out of the urban bedrock’ has its own weather system, with rain, clouds, and ‘a growth industry of mini-farms’ (5). So much depends on its existence. And the community that has grown up around it is now mature, multi-generational, intermarried – a complex mix of Arab, Jew, Filipino/a, Nigerian, Sudanese, Thai, those who arrived to work on the space port’s construction, those who were here when the foundation trenches were dug. And Tidhar’s focus is very much on the community around the space port rather than what goes on in the space port. These are the people who stayed behind; space comes to them rather than them going to space, and the emphasis throughout is on return, on people coming back to the community, people like Boris Chong, who grew up there before heading off to the stars. The impressionistic, mosaic style serves Tidhar well in introducing the key players in the story, and immersing us in day-to-day life in the community.
It is worth stressing that although it is Boris’s return, driven by concern for his father, that precipitates the events of the novel, this is a novel in which past actions resonate strongly with the present: Central Station is very much a novel about consequences. One might argue that as a novel it is inward-turning when it should set its face to the stars, but my response here would be that just because one lights out for the territory doesn’t mean that the story one leaves behind doesn’t keep going in one’s absence. Whether or not that is Tidhar’s actual point, my sense here nonetheless is that this novel quietly reproaches sf that is constantly reaching for the new shiny thing rather than considering
Boris has returned because his father, Vladimir, is dying, swamped by his memories, the result of his father, Weiwei’s earnest desire to be remembered by his children. Weiwei’s Folly, as it is known, means that the entire family is now privy to one another’s accumulated memories: in Vladimir’s case, the sheer volume of memories has finally rendered him near-catatonic; in Boris’s case, it has alerted him to his father’s situation. All this is in addition to the fact that most people are linked to ‘the Conversation’, the familiar internet, now a constant background murmur of data. More than that, they live easily in a world in which the actual and the virtual comfortably co-exist. However, those who aren’t plugged into the Conversation, like Achimwene, through an accident of birth, can’t fully participate in life, and we might wonder what they miss. We might wonder if books are sufficient compensation.
If Achimwene exists in a perceived state of deprivation because of his inability to connect, Carmel, the shambleau, the data-vampire, suffers because she cannot connect sufficiently frequently. She is hungry for knowledge, she feeds on people’s memories. She has come to Earth, following Boris, and finds herself in a situation perhaps not dissimilar to Vladimir’s, in that she is overwhelmed by the Conversation she finds, so open and unguarded; it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet of the mind, but where to begin? But it is infatuation that has brought Carmel to Central Station rather than a desire to suck the knowledge from its residents; only, once she arrives, she finds that Boris is hesitantly rekindling the relationship the breaking of which sent him into space in the first place, with Miriam Jones, Mama Jones, owner of the local bar.
Boris once worked in the birthing clinics, producing vat-grown children to order. While he has been gone, Miriam has taken in a child found in the streets, and known as Kranki. There are others like him, including Ismail, who lives with Ibrahim, the Lord of Discarded Things. They do strange things, these Midwichy children. Their dreams materialise above their heads when they sleep. They flit between the material and the virtual with nary a thought. They can make virtual contact with people like Achimwene without any need for prosthetics. They are associated with the Others, the Nakaimas, the digital generation, quietly going about their business, puzzling in their ways, but then, children and young people are always a little puzzling to older generations. Except, of course, that these are children in form rather than in content, aware that they also have to secure their future within the community.
While the community is at best disconcerted by the Others, at worst scared of that which it cannot see, it is, on the whole, comfortable with a wide range of physical forms. Many of the characters are cyborgs of one sort of another; some are now almost entirely machine, by choice. Others, like Motl the robotnik, were conscripted and have struggled to come to terms with their new form. I say ‘on the whole’, but there is nonetheless an unarticulated class structure in play. Motl, a veteran of ancient wars, lives on the edges of Central Station society, with his fellow robotniks, but has now, surprisingly, fallen in love with the human Isobel, and she with him. They are nervous as to what others will think. Isobel works in virtual reality, captaining a space ship, Motl’s work is more menial. Can humans and robotniks form relationships? Should they? For that matter, should Conversation-less booksellers and data-vampires form relationships?
Perhaps the most melancholy figure in all this is R. Brother Patch-It, the robot pastor of the Church of Robot, representing ‘the awkward link between human physicality and Other transcendence’ (100), serving his odd little congregation of humans, household appliances and transcendent beings. Historically, robots have been the stuff of science fiction. Right now we’re trying to make them seem cuddly, human, easy to relate to; at Central Station they are a dying breed, with few left, growing old. ‘Humanoid, awkward, they belonged in neither world, the real or the irreal’ (100); in other words, they have become a redundant trope, hanging on in overlooked corners of the world. And yet, in Central Station he is loved and valued as a member of the community, even if, bizarrely, his main work is in acting as a moyel for its Jewish population. He is, after all, the priest to whom Yann and Youssou turn immediately when they decide to marry. He is, like everyone else, a part of things here but he is not the dominant presence. It is not difficult to read R. Brother Patch-It as being representative of that strand of sf that believes itself to be the best kind of sf because, big ideas, scientific ideas, tech, space, etc. whereas his presence in Central Station shows that this too shall pass.
And that, I think, is probably the most significant message Central Station has to offer us: even in science fiction, that so-called literature of the future, nothing lasts forever. The symbolic tropes – space ships, robots, AIs – will all eventually be absorbed and become part of the scenery. I’m not talking about decay or decline. There is rarely a moment when one thing is actively replaced by another, in a single moment. As we know even now, different technologies can co-exist alongside one another for years in the right circumstances. Central Station suggests to me that the familiar tropes of traditional sf will continue to exist quite happily alongside the genre-busting stories I love so much but that their continued existence relies on the willingness of authors like Tidhar to look at them from a different angle.
There comes a time in a man’s life when he realises stories are lies. Things do not end neatly. The enforced narratives a human impinges on the chaotic mess that is life become empty labels … (163)
That’s what I see going on here. Central Station is not clinically futuristic; instead it is quotidian. And in being quotidian it offers the space for so many things that readers and critics of science fiction have argued for – ordinary women going about their daily business; a diverse cast of characters drawn together by likely circumstance rather than authorial anxiety; space travel being no more important than bus travel; people just about making ends meet, like most of us do; a future in which the ordinary and the extraordinary continue to meet and collapse into one other, much as they’ve always done, and a literature in which, while the past provides a foundation for the future, it does not insist on continuing to shape that future. Tidhar offers us a messy human future, in which people, using the term in its widest sense, live, love, bicker, experience fear, joy and wonder, a future which never quite comes to a neat and tidy end. As such, although I tend to avoid traditional future narratives, Central Station is a genuine pleasure to read because it feels ‘real’ to me in a way that so many future narratives don’t. I said before that too many futures I read about don’t seem to have room for me in them: this is a future that does.