by Lavie Tidhar
Review by Sam Lubell
Tachyon Publications Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781616962142
Date: 10 May 2016 List Price $15.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Central Station by World Fantasy winner Lavie Tidhar is a mosaic novel or fix-up consisting of several linked stories that share a setting and group of characters. In the far future, Central Station, in the ancient Israeli City of Tel Aviv, links Earth to the stars. This book has the story of the people who live near the Station, refugees and those in poverty or just one step above it.
Central Station is a wonderful piece of worldbuilding. The book takes place in a future Israel, where some Jews have Asian names and robots can conduct Jewish rituals. Nearly all the characters are linked in the Conversation, essentially an internally accessed wireless Internet/virtual world. Data vampires called Shambleaus can feed off of humans' connections to the Conversation. Other humans have Martian symbionts. There are the few remaining robots and robotniks--discarded cyborg soldiers reduced to begging or odd jobs. There are mentions of mysterious Others, never really defined. People have jobs in the virtual world they can convert into rent money. And a few children with hacked genes from a Messiah breeding program have special powers.
The book opens with an unnamed first person narrator even further in the future than the rest of the book visiting old Central Station and starting to write down the old stories. The first story/chapter starts with Mama Jones and her adopted son Kranki, who has special powers, waiting outside the station because Kranki's dead mother had promised that his father would arrive someday on a Friday so not to be late for the Jewish Shabbat. When the boy accosts a man, asking if he's his father, Jones recognizes him as her former love Boris Chong who had gone out to space many years ago. He has returned to Earth, with a Martian symbiote, due to his father's illness caused by an ancestor whose had asked an Oracle to make his descendants share a family memory.
Meanwhile, in other stories/chapters Isobel Chow starts a relationship with a robotnik; a robot, R. Patch-It, performs the Jewish ritual of circumcision on a Jewish male baby; a (possibly immortal) junk dealer has another Messiah-child with special powers; and a space-vampire who preys on humans' connections to the Conversation is rescued from a mob by a collector of rare books who lacks this connection. In case the reader has trouble keeping track of who's who, there is a cast of characters list at the back of the book.
But the plot is the least important part of Central Station. What makes this book special is the strong literary quality to the writing. Tidhar writes like Cordwainer Smith would if he had been raised with Middle Eastern influences instead of Chinese. There's even references here to two Smith characters Mother Hitton and C'mell. (Other SF references here include calling the data vampires Shambleaus (from CL Moore's first story), having wireheads addicted to using current to stimulate the brain's pleasure centers go to Louis Wu emporiums (after Niven), and placing L. Ron Hubbard on the same level as Jesus, Mohammed, and Uri Geller.) There's a strong sense of myth in the text and incredible descriptions and language. For instance:
"Memory like a cancer growing. Boris was a doctor, he had seen Weiwei's Bridge for himself--that strange semi-organic growth that wove itself into the Chongs' cerebral cortex and into the grey matter of their brains, interfacing with their nodes, growing, strange delicate spirals of alien matter, an evolved technology, verboten, Other."So, is it a novel or a story collection? There's no table of contents listing the stories in the front and the chapters are numbered as in a novel; on the other hand the Extended Copyright note at the end lists original publications of most of the chapters with the other two listed as 'Original to this collection'.
This book is perfect for literary readers who want something different, who enjoy images and language more than plot and action. This is a book that needs close attention and a re-read for a more complete understanding. It's not a light beach read or for multi-tasking while watching television. Central Station is not like anything else you've read. This book shows clearly that Lavie Tidhar is an author to watch.