Central Station, by Lavie Tidhar
Posted June 10, 2016on:
published May 2016
where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (Thanks Tachyon!)
I’ve been reading Lavie Tidhar on and off since I started this blog. I really enjoyed The Tel Aviv Dossier, thought The Bookman was just OK, enjoyed some of his short fiction and the World Science Fiction anthologies he edited with Apex, and then I bounced pretty hard off of Osama. His work has won a lot of awards, and I constantly feel like I’m either not taking his work seriously enough, or taking it so seriously that I’m missing the point. With that background, it should surprise no one that this beautiful ARC of Central Station sat on my to-be-read shelf for as long as it did.
But . . good news! By the 2nd chapter of Central Station I was hooked, by the middle I was grinning every time I learned about another character’s back story, and on the morning of Memorial Day I had either the best timing in the world or the worst, as I read about the robotnik soldier beggars of the future.
I don’t know why, but I shy away from using the term “mosaic novel” to describe Central Station. Yes, the novel does fit the definition of a mosaic novel, and it also fits the definition of a “fix up” novel. . . and the problem is that both of those terms feel too flat and too small to encompass this book. Central Station has the overwhelming sensory overload of an Ian McDonald, the fantastical descriptions and bio-technology of a China Mieville, and the each story is a foundation of the next of Cat Valente’s Orphan’s Tales. With nods to scifi greats like Cordwainer Smith, Philip K. Dick, and Isaac Asimov (and was that a Burroughs reference I saw?), Tidhar touches on history, culture, and socio-economics to tell a story about how we’re all stuck together and should really make the best of things because these kids need a village to raise them. Reading this book was like being a bartender at bar frequented by locals – Everyone has a different story to tell, but all their stories are interrelated and interconnected. The further I got into this novel, the more I enjoyed myself.
Central Station takes place in a Tel Aviv of the future. A city shared by Jews and Arabs, and generations ago when the space station needed to be built laborers from all over the world flooded the city – people came from China, Thailand, Sudan, Nigeria, the Philippines, and elsewhere, to work construction and maybe start a new life. By the time the station was completed, these laborers had married locally, perhaps converted to the local religions, and were raising families. It was neat, for me, to read a story that takes place in Israel, yet the characters have family names like Chong, Jones, and Chow. And now I feel a little less self-conscience about my not-Jewish sounding last name.
Early on, we meet Miriam Jones and her adopted son Kranki. Kranki patiently waits for his father to come home, and it’s not the little boy’s father who arrives, but Boris Chong, a man from Miriam’s past. Boris’s father is dying, so he’s returned home. But someone has followed him. And Boris’s father is dying of something other than old age. Isobel Chow, who works in the virtuality, is engaged to a Robotnik who is getting over a drug addiction. Sure, the characters have futuristic alien symbiots and custom genetics and many of them have left Earth. But when it comes down to it, they are just trying to navigate their lives, just like you and me. Miriam wants to give Kranki a normal childhood, Isobel wants to have a normal relationship, others want to find faith, or freedom, or acceptance, or release.
I’m going to spoil a minor plot point for you. It’s not a big deal in the book, but it made a big impression on me. The Robotniks. The perfect cyborg soldiers from a bygone age, they got cyborged to go to war, they got shot up, they came home and got repaired, and it was wash rinse repeat. But no one has made a robotnik in over a hundred years, there’s no one left alive who knows how to repair these things, the parts haven’t been manufactured in over 80 years. No one even remembers what the wars were about. But their creators made them too well, and after the wars ended, the immortal robotniks couldn’t die, and couldn’t go back to or even remember their old lives. So they rust. They try to repair themselves. They sit on street corners, begging for scrap metal, begging for parts, begging for money to buy the alcohol that fuels their cores. They try to find faith that their creator didn’t abandon them, because it’s part of their programming to love humanity. Is this the future of military veterans?
You guys, I read Motl the robotnik’s story the morning of Memorial Day, and #allthefeels doesn’t begin to cover it. I was a mess that morning, and I was okay with that, and I wanted to read that chapter again. Sometimes getting all the feels is a way to get through them, you know?
Many of the chapters in Central Station were previously published as short stories in publications like Interzone, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Analog, and anthologies such as Robots: The Recent AI and Dark Faith: Invocations, and some of the stories were substantially changed and “fixed-up” to work coherently into Central Station. What’s really neat about this, is you can read Central Station as a chronological novel, or thanks to the chapter’s episodic nature, you can treat the book like a short story collection, and hop around the table of contents however you see fit. The flip side to that is that this book as a whole does not have a coherent beginning, middle, or end, and it is not designed to. If you go into it expected a typical novel’s story arc, you’re not going to be satisfied. It’s like biting into a hamburger and saying “hey, this doesn’t taste anything like french fries!” For those of you who are new to Tidhar, Central Station is a great place to start with his work.