Sunday, April 24, 2016
Central Station - Lavie Tidhar
Gathered around the foot of Central Station are a quarter of a million people from all corners of the globe. They have created a society with a huge number of cultural influences, a place where human and robot form a gliding scale, where genetically engineered beings are commonplace and where the boundary between the physical and virtual world is thin. In this melting pot of cultures, religions and advanced technology, Boris Chong returns after a long absence. He will have to deal with an old lover, a father in poor health, a child he's helped create and someone who has followed him down from space among other challenges.
I name Boris Chong the central figure in the book but that is probably not entirely accurate. Many of the story lines are connected to him but the real centre is Central Station itself. Tidhar is in search of the genius loci as much as the motivation of his characters. Throughout the book you get the feeling that the place is on the verge of awakening, of achieving self-awareness. It's a looming presence, always watching over the shoulder of the characters. It reminded me a lot of China Miéville's Perdido Street Station in that respect. Central Station is a book with many influences and that novel is probably one of them.
The text refers heavily to the greats of speculative fiction. From Bram Stoker's vampires to Frank Herbert's Sandworms, just about every creature or technology you can imagine seems to have found a place in the chapters. There are so many of them that I probably missed half during this first read. There's a dash of New Wave, a helping of Cyberpunk and a pinch of Philip K. Dick. All these ideas are mixed into an almost surreal world, one that pays homage to almost every subgenre in science fiction since the Golden Age. It's a book that has got a lot to offer for the experienced science fiction reader.
The plot meanders quite a bit. Through the eyes of several characters we explore the various aspects of Central Station. Some characters are very old and give us an insight into the past of the place. Others see it for the first time and experience the bewildering environment with fresh eyes. There are lots of tragedies worked into the stories. Characters struggle with imminent death and the possibility of immortality, drowning in perfectly stored memories, complicated old and new love affairs and how to deal with intelligence that is not quite human. Despite meeting most of them only briefly, the reader is made intensely aware of their state of mind.
With so many cultural influences on the society that has formed around Central Station, it is no surprise that the language is influenced as well. Most characters speak several languages, and Tidhar introduces a pidgin language early on in the book as well. There is a bit of English in it but a lot seems to come out of other languages. There's bit of Yiddish in the novel too. Throughout the book Tidhar pays a lot of attention to the surroundings. The descriptions of the city and its institution are colourful, rich and tantalizing. There is constantly the feeling that you really want to explore one of the elements of Central Station further. Tidhar keeps us on track however. Many of the fascinating things that can be found in Central Station are only mentioned in the passing.
All in all Central Station is one of the most peculiar books I've read in a while. Tidhar could have made it into a collection but chose to rewrite the stories to make them fit into one narrative. It would probably have worked as a more traditional collection, but I must admit the rewrites add something to the book. The meandering plot will not please everybody. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that Tidhar refers to so many classics in science fiction, yet chooses a structure for his work that not many of those writers would have considered. It's a work in conversation with the genre but not afraid to go off the beaten track. As such it is not a book for everybody, but if you like a book that is a bit different, Central Station might be your thing. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I wouldn't be surprised to see this one on the Nebula shortlist next year.
Title: Central Station
Author: Lavie Tidhar
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
First published: 2016