Tachyon Publications, 2016
Perfect bound, 288 pp., $15.95
Review by Eric Maroney
Science fiction is more concerned with the present than the future. This has always been the most important element of the genre. Writers of science fiction transform our contemporary fears, like the rise of intrusive technologies, and through imaginative exaggeration they often project a future where technology enslaves humanity. Science fiction, simply put, is a barometer of our present-day fears.
Lavie Tidhar, in his ambitious novel Central Station, certainly follows the traditional stricture of science fiction. His future world is cluttered with our trepidations on the role of technology. In the world of Central Station are creatures who are conjoined human flesh and robotic parts; there are entities called Others, who are wholly virtual, inhabiting a liminal zone between reality and a hazy, digital world. People across the world, and on human colonies in the solar system, communicate through a type of free-floating internet called the Conversation, which is a noisy, distracting, and vibrant “space” of competing voices.
Tidhar’s real innovation is the setting of his novel: Israel. The Central Station of the title is a massive space port that looms above what was once Tel Aviv, and is now part of a political entity called the “Judea Palestina Federal Union.” Central Station is located on the ruins of south Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station. The bus station was built in a concrete, brutalist style, and has long been maligned by Israelis. The blighted neighborhood around the bus station is home to Israel’s legal and illegal immigrants: people from the Philippines, China, and West African countries working low-paying jobs. Nearby is Tel Aviv’s red light district, controlled by organized crime, fed by the heroin drug trade, and supplied by brutal human trafficking. This area of south Tel Aviv is home to the socially and economically marginalized people in Israel.
Tidhar expands the neighborhood’s outcast status to galactic dimensions. The Central Station is not only a hive of space transportation, but also acts as a home to residents from all over the solar system. There, both this world and otherworldly cultures mix. The reader is reminded of the station’s unique place in the history of the region: “The city had been called Tel Aviv. Central Station rose into the atmosphere in the south of the city, bordered in by the webwork of silenced old highways.” Central Station is not only a transport hub, but a melting pot. One major character, Mama Jones, was born in Tel Aviv to a Nigerian father and a Filipina mother. A veritable babel of tongues is spoken at the station, including Asteroid Pidgin, the patois of extraterrestrial miners. Tidhar’s characters slurp booze in banned bars called shebeens, a Scottish word for the illegal pubs. There they drink Israeli Maccabi beer served by Nigerian bartenders.
The greatest dangers for Jews and Arabs in this novel are not each other, but “strigoi” humans with vampire-like power. They consume the data a person stores in her body from interactions with the internet-like Conversation. They steal memories, and in the process, further erode personal and ethnic identity in Tidhar’s dizzying multicultural world.
Yet, for all that has changed in Tidhar’s Holy Land, a few things remain the same, or have reverted back to their status before Israel became a state. Tel Aviv is still divided into the fashionable and expensive north part of town where “…the Jews lived in their skyrises, and in Jaffa to the South the Arabs had reclaimed their old land by the sea.” Tel Aviv, founded in 1909 as the first modern Jewish city in Palestine, was originally a suburb of the much older Arab city of Jaffa to the south. After Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, most of Jaffa’s Arabs fled, and Tel Aviv and Jaffa were combined into one municipality. In Tidhar’s novel, Tel Aviv is wholly Jewish, while Jaffa is once more Arab. South Tel-Aviv is entirely its own district, both belonging to the surrounding cultures, and alien to them.
Here, in between, there were still those people of the land they had variously called Palestine or Israel and whose ancestors had come there as labourers from around the world, from the islands of the Philippines, and from the Sudan, from Nigeria, and from Thailand or China, whose children were born there, speaking Hebrew and Arabic and Asteroid Pidgin, that near universal language of space.
At Tidhar’s Central Station, ethnicity, religion, race, technology, and virtual reality rub elbows. This is a heady mix and overall, Tidhar exploits it to great effect. There are two major sticking points. First, Tidhar often, though not always, uses terms and phrases for his future world that don’t live up to the imaginative landscape he has created. Terms like “robot” and “Asteroid Pidgin” fall flat, and when they are used, drain the novel of some of its imaginative capacities.
Second, Tidhar weaves a complex plot, with many characters and details. Overall, he ties together the complex plot he has created. But at times, the intricacy smears the lines of Tidhar’s narrative goals. Tidhar is an eager and ebullient writer, and much to his credit, crafts a novel where both intricacy and narrative drive meet with overall success.
Above and beyond this, the success of Tidhar’s Central Station ultimately rests on the reader’s comfort with solid, unadulterated science fiction. Tidhar has written a novel with an ambitious agenda. Central Station boldly and unapologetically sticks to its genre with resolute determinism. In the end, he has produced a vibrant work with a strong imaginative strain and fearless drive to create a new world.