Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Central Station - Lavie Tidhar

Central Station is a new sci-fi novel by Lavie Tidhar. It opens on the Station of the same name, the base for travel outside of Earth’s atmosphere. The Station, with its base situated in what was once Tel Aviv, is a bustling commercial hub – and the people who live there are vividly imagined, often exceptionally strange, and yet also incredibly human. It’s a book which wants to explore the human condition, and what it means to be human, and does so alongside wider discussions on family, memory and mortality, amongst others.  The format is also worth talking about. It feels like a selection of short stories, all taking place in the same setting, and with the same characters intersecting in different ways, with an overarching narrative running behind and being moved forward in each of the vignettes. It’s a clever approach, and one that works well here, because Tidhar manages to keep the stories self contained, but informed by the context of the narrative around them.

Central Station is at the core of the novel that bears the same name. It’s an environment that Tidhar explores exuberantly, and with what feels like a lot of informed knowledge in every line. There’s a lot going on here, at the base of the station. Rag and bone men drive horse carts alongside gleaming metal spires. There’s AI-like individuals riding the consciousness of others, for what may or may not be mutual benefit. There’s a game world so immersive you can make money doing a menial job there instead of in ‘reality’. There’s viruses that can change who and what you are, and there’s metal men, carrying the consciousness of the dead, veterans of long ago wars. It’s a lavish backdrop, and one to which the author is always adding fascinating detail. It feels like we’re looking through a window at this world, and in following our stories, there are so many others that are only visible from their edges. It’s a rich, varied world, and one which Tidhar makes convincing.  I must admit to a particular fondness for the fusion of the high-tech spire of the Station with the vibrant and diverse, neighbourhood around it, that neighbourhood itself a fusion of the old and the new, of sacred traditions and sparkling novelty. Tidhar’s effort to create a cohesive universe here is a triumph, ending in a city which is recognisably human, and  carries layers of strangeness and wonder  around that core of familiarity. It’s a world that has been thoroughly well-realised.

The characters – well, they’re a motley crew. An oracle carrying an AI. A child who speaks to a friend who may or may not be there. A robot who performs bris. A broken mechanoid soldier in a situation of forbidden love. And a swathe of others. What Tidhard does well is to juxtapose their oddities (and some of them are very odd) with their commonalities, both with each other and the reader. There’s a psychic vampire, of sorts, who struggles to connect to people around her. A returnee from Mars, with a pulsing bi0-augmentation, who has returned to care for his sick father. The narrative celebrates the diversity of its cast, but is never afraid to ground them in, if not common humanity, then common understanding. There’s a lot of great character work here, which is fuelled in part by many of the sections being fairly introspective – we live in an individual as they go about their day to day life, and if that life is strange and wonderful to us, well, it carries the prosaic undertones of our own routines. Each of the characters heading up a section of the book has their own story to tell, and it’s to the author’s credit that I’d like to have followed them all longer, have learned more about them, and been lost in the grandeur and tiny details of their lives.  The characters are, simply put, really well done.

The plot – well, it’s a lot of small plots really. Pacing-wise, each section has its own self-contained arc. Some of those arcs are slower than others – but in many ways this is a reflective text, and that slower pace fits in here, as characters contemplate themselves, each other, and their place in the universe. Most of these feel like character studies, but the conflicts and events within them are well drawn, with a tight, emotionally complex narrative in each. The overarching plot thread could get a little lost some times, but that may have been my fault for getting lost in the minutiae of the individual tales. In any event, the whole is a well done piece of inventive, high concept sci-fi.

Is it worth reading? I’d say yes – if you’re looking for a srandout, absorbing, well realised sci-fi world, with characters who feel like they’re about to stroll off the page and take you for a cup of arak. The book has a lot of great ideas, and isn’t shy of showing them off. There’s not that much in the way of stereotypical action, but there is enough conflict, tension, revelation and humanity to keep you turning pages late into the night.

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