San Francisco: Tachyon Press, 2016; $15.95 tpb; 240 pages
Lavie Tidhar, an Israeli now living in London, is the author of a number of highly regarded novels, most notably the World Fantasy Award–winning Osama (2011), The Violent Century (2013), and A Man Lies Dreaming (2014). Between 2011 and 2014 he also published a series of short stories about the people who live around and beneath Central Station, a gigantic spaceport that towers over a run-down, far-future Tel Aviv. These appeared in such venues as Analog, Interzone, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and various anthologies. Tidhar has now revised these stories, adding a prologue and two new chapters, to turn them into a fascinating mosaic novel. The book has a cyberpunkish feel to it in that most of the characters are augmented in various ways and definitely on the down and out, but it also lacks (quite intentionally, it should be noted) the adrenaline-driven plotting of traditional cyberpunk fiction. Rather, these stories are ruminative, obsessed with memories and what might have been. Each of the book’s ensemble cast is deeply troubled by his, her, or its past, by missed opportunities. Each character is lonely and worried about the future, hoping against hope for some sort of human connection to fill the emptiness in their souls.
To demonstrate Tidhar’s style and tone, let’s start with a passage 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 didn’t know. Outside a butchery, two Filipino children played at being airplanes: arms spread wide they zoomed and circled, 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 shwarma stand, twice blown up by suicide bombers in the past but open for business as usual. The smell of the lamb fat and cumin wafted across the noisy street and made me hungry. (1)
The Prologue is unusual in that it employs a first-person narrator—everything else is in third person—but this excerpt clearly demonstrates some important things about what Tidhar is doing. His settings are always strongly detailed, filled with smells and sounds that bring his ancient Tel Aviv neighborhood to life. At the same time, though, this is a Tel Aviv quite different from the one you might visit today; there are still Arabs and Jews, of course, but the setting has become intensely multicultural, and the complicated genetics and religious affiliations of many of the major characters would undoubtedly leave a twenty-first-century Palestinian or Israeli shaking her head. The streets teem with people, not all of them human, of many different nationalities. Often they are refugees or the children or grandchildren of refugees from wars going back centuries. This setting, a multivalent mixing of the ancient and the new, enfolds the characters in a complex web of sensation and memory from which they can extricate themselves only with difficulty. Their struggles move the various plot threads of the book forward at a pace at once leisurely and painful.
Central Station takes place in a future where humanity has colonized the moon, Mars, and beyond. Exodus ships have set out on generations-long voyages to other star systems. We have met biological aliens of a sort on Mars, but we have also created electronic ones. Robots of a traditional kind and Robotniks—beings created from the remains of dead soldiers—are now considered early missteps in the process, though both still haunt Tel Aviv’s streets. Free artificial intelligences of great power called Others now exist in untold numbers, some interacting with humans, some totally involved in higher concerns. Human beings are mostly conceived artificially, each egg and sperm combined in an incubator with something called a node. From conception these nodes allow people to join in the Conversation, a telepathic, Solar System–spanning Internet-in-the-head, which each individual gradually gains control of but can never entirely escape. When people meet, the electronic side of their interaction is as important as the physical side, and meeting the rare person without a node can be baffling.
And yet, despite the expansive civilization Tidhar has created, all of his characters live in or have recently traveled to the shabby, ancient Tel Aviv neighborhood that exists in the shadow of Central Station. The book tells the intertwining stories of Boris Aharon Chang, a third-generation Israeli who left Earth, became a doctor, bonded with a semisentient Martian aug and who has now returned to the neighborhood seeking the woman he abandoned decades earlier; Miriam Jones, the hard-as-nails owner of a local bar, who is a follower of the sect of St. Cohen of the Others; Kranki Jones, Miriam’s adopted son, who seems to be able to work miracles; Achimwene Haile Selassie Jones, Miriam’s brother, who lacks a node and has devoted his life to preserving and reading ancient paperback novels; R. Brother Patch-It, an ordained minister of the Way of the Robot and, oddly, the local Jewish community’s moyl; Isobel Chow, who makes her living as the captain of a warship fighting in a virtual universe; Motl, a decrepit robotnik who has little if any memory of his previous life but dares to do what his kind aren’t supposed to do, fall in love; Carmel, who was infected by the Nosferatu Code and now lives as an unwilling data vampire; Eliezer, described by Tidhar as both “a god artist” and a “dubious character” who “likes to meddle”; and many others.
What almost all of these characters have in common, as I suggested earlier, is regret. They’ve made bad decisions or in some cases necessary but painful decisions which have left them with significant baggage. They go about their daily lives and make do. None is a hero (except, perhaps, Isobel in the context of her gaming universe), and none is a villain (though Carmel has been compelled to do awful things). They want to do what’s right but are often unsure of what that is. Most of them have the ability to love if only they can find both the nerve to do so and someone worthy of their affections. Together, the people who live beneath Central Station form as memorable a cast of characters as you will find in recent science fiction. Some folks might find Isobel Chow’s Guilds of Ashkelon universe more exciting, but mature readers who are willing to sit down in Miriam Jones’s bar, have a drink, and watch the passing Tel Aviv scene will be amply rewarded.
Michael Levy lives in Menomonie, Wisconsin. His new book, Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction, coauthored with Farah Mendlesohn, is just out from Cambridge University Press.