By Victoria Hoyle
Central Station — Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)
I entered into Central Station with few expectations. It was my first encounter with Tidhar’s work, either in short or long form; and I knew next to nothing about the book’s premise or evolution. As I mentioned in my shortlisting post, I chose it as one of my six almost entirely based on reputation and the opening pages of the Prologue. Which, it turns out, are not bad selection criteria. Tidhar’s novel is both subtle and quotidian, bolshie and wildly inventive. In common with some of its characters, it is a cyborg patchwork; a novel about a bold future that has its feet firmly planted in the past.
The book started life as a series of short stories, reworked and ordered here within a narrative frame to form a novel. It’s complex and wily, structured around three points in time: a present, a future and a far future. The author introduces themselves quietly in a first-person Prologue, a writer sitting down in a shebeen in Tel-Aviv – perhaps in our present, perhaps not – to tell a science fiction story. They sip cheap beer while the rain falls outside and put pen to paper: ‘Once the world was young,’ they begin, ‘The Exodus ships had only begun to leave the solar system then…’ (2) Our writer in the present addresses us as if were a knowing audience in a far distant future, ‘sojourners’ amongst the stars who tell ‘old stories across the aeons.’ These stories – of ‘our’ past but the author’s fictional future – make up the meat and substance of the book that follows. It sounds like rather a baroque set-up and it’s barely gestured at but it is thematically fundamental. Central Station is a book about how the future remembers, about the future’s past. It’s a historical novel as much as a science fiction novel.
In this future-past we are introduced to the book’s main character, the eponymous Central Station. This vast space port, built in the no-man’s land between Arab Jaffa and Jewish Tel-Aviv, is now home to a polyglot community of humans, cyborgs, discarded robots and Others. Amongst its residents are Miriam ‘Mama’ Jones, her brother Achimwene and adopted son Kranki, an uncanny child engineered in the local birthing labs. The place exerts a gravitational pull on others, like Boris Chang, Miriam’s erstwhile lover returning from Mars after decades spent trying to escape, and Carmel, a Strigoi or digital vampire who follows him home from the stars. In spite of the extraordinary adventure of deep space travel the station, like Earth itself, is a centrifugal force. It gathers in a cast to play out the book’s thirteen vignettes, a touchstone for their shared experience: ‘the centre of the universe, around which all planets and moons and habitats rotated, an Aristotelian model of the world superseding its one time victor, Copernicus.’ (28)
Its centrality is also a kind of liminality – it’s ‘a liminal place, a border town’ (37) – sitting in between warring nations and at a cross-roads of human and technological diversity. The robotniks, battle cyborgs reanimated from dead combatants, haunt its lower reaches traumatised by a war they barely remember and living off vodka and spare parts. R. Brother Patch-It is a Pastor in the Church of Robot, a rusting reminder of a brief moment in time when AIs were given physical bodies, before the ascendency of purely digital existence. The Others were developed there, digital intelligences who evolved on secure servers but now let lose via the Communication, the chatter of data and information that connect humans to one another from the moment of (artificial) conception. Like the past itself, Central Station is both at the edge and at dead centre of how we experience the future.
And what a motley future Tidhar imagines, a whirl of ethnicity, religion, identity, physicality and sexuality that defies accusations of diversity tokenism. This isn’t one of those books that expects you to congratulate it for having two men kiss. Tolerance is hard-won though. Central Station is not a world without its norms and boundaries, although they may not be the ones we recognise. In the most unabashedly romantic of the story threads Motl the Robotnik and Isobel Chow, a young human woman, fall in love; in another Achimwene, whose lack of a Conversation node is a shocking disability, and Carmel strike up an unlikely partnership. Both couples recognise the ways in which their relationships transgress societal norms. Tamara Chong, Boris’s aunt, has chosen to extend her life by becoming a cyborg, a decision opposed by her brother Vlad whose own preference is to die rather than change into another kind of self. He accuses her of being nothing but a machine. ‘We’re all machines’ she rebukes him, ‘You’re a machine, I’m a machine…’ (251) The tense relationship between the digital, the biological and the mechanical is a core theme. If there are no boundaries to our humanity, then where does that leave us? It leaves us, Tidhar suggests, with love.
If there was one thing I didn’t expect from this novel, it was all the love: romantic love, familial love, the love between friends. That, and the joy. Tidhar has an admirable gift for writing tenderness and affection without cliché. The prose is sensory and sensuous; we are forever being reminded how things smell, taste, sound and feel. The book is full of weather. It’s a quiet carnival of feelings, expressed through the exuberance of commas, conjunctives, the breathless ‘and’ and ‘and’ and ‘and’ of the novel’s style. The book’s romantic pairings – Miriam and Boris, Motl and Isobel, Achimwene and Carmel – are its load-bearing structure, while the family relationships – between Boris and his father Vlad, between Miriam and Kranki, Ibrahim and Ismail – are its four solid walls. Memory is the stuff that cements it all together, although it’s not an unequivocal good. Boris’s grandfather Weiwei Zhong was so determined to be remembered that he made a deal with the Others that means Boris and his father Vlad, as well as all of their relatives and descendents, share a familial memory. They can recall things that have happened to one another with cinematic accuracy. While it brings them close together, luring Boris back to Central Station in spite of his attempts to escape, it’s also their curse. Vlad is suffering from a kind of dementia, in which his many thousands of memories are fragmenting, losing coherence and emerging at random. It’s a surfeit of remembering that leaves him unmoored and battling to recapture what makes him Vlad; while he loses some of the things that are important to him – his wife’s name – he is burdened with the arcane memories of his ancestors. It’s a powerful metaphor for how the past, and our memory of it, is both a tool and a weapon. It can’t be a mistake that Central Station is set in Tel Aviv, a city founded on a utopian vision of strategic remembering and forgetting that told one story at the loss of many others. We use and misuse the past to justify our choices, and shut out the parts we’d rather not own.
I return to the love though, and how this book left me with a giddy feeling of possibility. It ends on a note that suggests a powerful belief in hope, in joy even in death. However the past marks us, however the future will change us, Tidhar imagines continuity amidst the wrenching disjuncture. In the shadow of a space station ‘laundry [is] hanging as it had for hundreds of years’ (55), and from the far distant future of the Prologue we are still telling stories about it. For me this is the kind of story that people were yearning for in Becky Chamber’s A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet but with all the nuance and poetry that book lacked. Like that story this one is episodic, sometimes repetitive (a function, no doubt, of the stories being published separately in other venues), diverse, transgressive; unlike that story it’s original, tightly structured, rigorously imagined. The book extends outwards too. Central Station is little more than a taste of what this imagined world is capable of and you can tell, from the cheeky character list at the end of the book, that Tidhar has more, infinitely more, stories about it in him.
Victoria Hoyle is an archivist, blogger and part-time PhD student. She lives with her partner and a dog called Juno in rural North Yorkshire in the UK.