Central Station by Lavie Tidhar: a review by Megan AM

Central Station by Lavie Tidhar: a review by Megan AM

By Megan AM

Central Station — Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)

As one of the more popular Clarke-eligible novels among the shadow jurors, much has already been written about Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station. Maureen sees it as a metafictional next step in science fiction, Victoria sees it as a tale about love and nuanced optimism, and Jonathan values its use of multiculturalism and space (physical space, not outer space, but that omission is just as key in this novel). What I adore about this novel is that it is all of these things, embracing traditional science fiction while reworking it, molding it into a human, rather than a techno, landscape.

Set in a far-future Jaffa-Tel Aviv, the novel meanders through a community set at the base of space port, primarily centered on the doings of one family, their lovers, and their acquaintances. The chapters highlight daily life in this busy district, while at the same time linking each character’s subplot to grander themes of connectedness and humanity.

Part of the way it reworks things is that it’s not about the Up and Out, but the ups and downs. The rigors of life are always present: people make decisions, those decisions impact life, and they rarely have anything to do with that giant monstrosity towering from the south that hurls people into outer space. The Central Station of Central Station is a mere landmark, an economic hub and cultural icon, but as Maureen K. Speller points out in her review, “…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.” The Central Station of the future is the airport of today: not that big of a deal.

In the long tradition of celebrated science fiction fix-up novels, Central Station includes previously published short stories set in the same future setting. But unlike other fix-up writers: Van Vogt and his darting, bucking plot twists to stitch random things together; or the serialized stories of Isaac Asimov or Charles Stross (and everyone in between), Central Station displays a continuity and flow that does not easily betray its origins. As a novel, it works, but it’s important to recognize that this is not a new, experimental approach to science fiction, nor is it an un-novel-like format.

Not only does Central Station pay homage to a traditional sci-fi format (replete with maps and a character list laced with trademarked Tidhar snark), it’s packed with decades of homegrown sci-fi references that add another layer to the tale, but without burdening readers with prerequisite reading. Perhaps the most striking genre juxtaposition, for me, at least, is with Clifford Simak’s Way Station. Both novels, in their own grounded ways, portray life on Earth around a single space hub, while raising questions about world peace and human nature. Whether intentional or not, Central Station speaks to its forebear by canceling it out, giving noise and plurality to Simak’s Midwestern, on-the-brink isolationism, and humble humanism to Simak’s disappointed optimism. Where Simak’s single Great Man makes intergalactic connections while the rest of humanity falters, Tidhar’s cast of characters just keep on keeping on. Where Simak seems to be saying, “We’re so messed up, we should stay away from others until we’re perfect beings,” Tidhar seems to be saying, “Dude, it’s happening whether you like it or not.”

 

Of course, Simak’s point-of-view is from an insulated space, but, while Central Station is different from Way Station’s sterilized, liberal American approach to futurism, to call it a novel about multiculturalism feels like Western gaze on what Tidhar likely sees as a matter-of-fact, inevitable trait of an already attractive, cosmopolitan region. Tidhar instead is shifting the center of future globalism back to the Middle East (“but east of what? middle of where?”), reclaiming SF from western models. Much of Tidhar’s work has been a global re-centering of pulp and SF tradition, and Central Station is an elegant, artful success.

 

Along those lines, however, it would be too simplistic (and possibly insensitive) to accept this future Jaffa-Tel Aviv at face value as a model of cultural peace. Located within the so-called Judea Palestina Federal Union, things seem suspect: sure, there’s mention of a crumbled border wall, but it’s not cleaned up, and, as the narrator also points out, “In North Tel Aviv the Jews lived in their skyrises, and in Jaffa to the South the Arabs had reclaimed their old land by the sea,” with descendants of refugee laborers inhabiting the in-between. Like a veritable human wall between two competing cultures. Descriptions like these, and the characters’ avoidance of even passing discussions about the political situation, hint that the Jaffa-Tel Aviv of Central Station seems less like a peaceful post-tension setting, and more simply a critical economic hub that’s too expensive to dare limit movement and commerce, and too important to tolerate much conflict.

 

The lack of awkward neighborly political discussion symbolizes more than just repressed social tension, though; it’s also normal social etiquette. Maureen K. Speller adds in her review, “Central Station is not clinically futuristic; instead it is quotidian,” which, to the consternation of many a sci-fi writer, is the actual reality of any kind of valid futurism. Glittering with robots, data vampires, and Other intelligences, Central Station is packed with science fiction tropes, but prefers to focus on the daily life of those tropes. This quotidian focus is why, perhaps, I find this novel so refreshing. It’s not future-shock or future-gloom, but more like future-“eh, it is what it is.”

It’s about the ups and downs, not the Up and Out. Central Station ends with a euthanasia roller coaster ride: a metaphor for life, death, home, and – why not? – science fiction, which, for a novel about a space station, feels more like an anti-space novel. Throughout its progression, nobody escapes the gravity well; they make home in it. And, as Vladimir Chong reaches the end of his life, consumed by unpredictable and unreliable memories, he opts not for death in the void, despite such a convenience being right there in his own backyard, but for simulated space travel: a slow ticking up a track to a bird’s-eye view of the twin cities, followed by a plummeting down, followed by relentlessly crushing deathspins against a generated gravitational force.

It’s a lot to consider.

But I think it all comes down to the beginning, that far-future flashback introduction:

Once, the world was young… Dr. Novum had not yet come back from the stars. People still lived as they had always lived…

*

Megan AM is a lifetime SF fan, but a longtime sufferer of bland SF. She realizes now that this is the fault of the commercially-hyped SF publishing industry and spoonfed awards machine that insists on promoting cheesy, regurgitated SF, and she’s pissed off about all the good books she’s missed as a consequence. She blogs about her reading experiences at From couch to moon but she’s kind of bitter about it because it shouldn’t take this much work for a layreader like her to find inventive and well-written SF. She writes for no one.

>> Read Megan’s introduction and shortlist

 

2 Comments

  1. PhilRM 4 months ago

    As a novel, it works, but it’s important to recognize that this is not a new, experimental approach to science fiction, nor is it an un-novel-like format.
    Yeah, and having read a good chunk of it in Interzone (where most but not all of it was published), I have to say that not all of the pieces that were published individually actually worked as short stories; some of them simply read as fragments of a novel, which is of course what they were. So that continuity and flow in the novel was obtained at the cost of the independence of the previously-published sections. But that’s really more a comment on its publishing history than on the novel.

    As I said in a comment on Maureen’s review, one of the many things that impressed me about Central Station is that it does something that is not all that common in SF (pace Gene Wolfe), even in stories with Galactic empires that are supposed to have existed for thousands of years: it effectively conveys that sense of layer upon layer of history, now largely forgotten, beneath the feet of its characters (and with nary an infodump in sight).

    My only real quibble with the novel is an engineering one: I’m pretty sure that no one would build a spaceport where vessels land on top of a building! The potential failure modes are rather mind-boggling.

  2. Mark 4 months ago

    I would have to disagree that “Central Station displays a continuity and flow that does not easily betray its origins.” Its fixup nature seemed pretty obvious to me within a few sections. If anything I found it less coherent than e.g. an Asimov fixup because it quite deliberately loops around its narrative rather than forging forward. That’s not necessarily to its detriment, as I think it’s an effect the author wanted rather than being driven to it by the exigencies of publishing, but it produces something that is quite oblique in parts.

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