Central Station, Tel Aviv; like any station, there is a mix of travellers of all nationalities, even species, and commerce; being Tel Aviv, there is an undercurrent of danger, a history of suicide bombers. A wall is being built in the desert to the south to keep the refugees out. The writer sits and sips a bad beer and scribbles in his notepad – “One day, the old stories say, a man fell down to Earth from the stars…”
A collection of linked vignettes from the pen of Lavie Tidhar, the well-travelled genre-hopping writer, himself possessed of multiple nationalities, is a revolving door of characters, chance encounters of the denizens of the surrounding conurbation, dilapidated and dustblown, going about their humble businesses of selling drinks and scavenging for second hand books and programming while others tumble from the stars into their lives, some of them strangers from the outer solar system, some of them friends, family and former lovers returning to the place which once was home.
In stark contrast to the gleaming towers of the station, making their best in the poverty of their hovels are Miriam “Mama” Jones, solar panels sewn into her clothes, by her side the labbed boy Kranki waiting for the day when his late mother’s promise that his father would return from space will come true.
Returned from Mars, Boris Chong is not in fact Kranki’s father; rather, he was the designer of the boy, the child hacked together out of public property genomes and bits of black market nodes. A doctor, he has come back to Earth not to see Miriam or Kranki but for his father, Vladimir, nearing the end of his life, not to treat him, but to say goodbye.
It’s a world cobbled together of the old and unchanging which is still necessary – food, drink, cobblers – and the new – gene clinics where rip-off genetic manipulation is available even to the poor, upload centres selling secondhand dreams, a Church of Robot node. Poetic, impressionistic, there is a feeling of being overwhelmed, of all the characters hanging on to something as the changing world wheels beneath them, of the constant possibility of being thrown off and lost.
The characters orbit around Central Station, but they do not enter it; offworld is not for them, though some are travelling in the other direction. The strigoi, Carmel, comes to Central Station, fleeing Titan where her artist lover sacrificed himself to make a statement, an art installation of blood and brain and storm. Her nodes infected by the Nosferatu Code, she is an outcast, shunned by all except Miriam’s brother Achimwene, the book collector.
Considered disabled as he was born without a node, Achimwene is not part of the Conversation, the flow of data across the ether. To his own surprise, he rescues Carmel from an angry mob, perceiving her differently from the others in as much as his own difference makes him immune to the danger she represents.
To Achimwene there is the real world and the knowledge of a digital world superimposed upon it which he cannot access for he has no node, cannot participate in or even passively monitor the Conversation; similarly, Tidhar’s writing is of the real world but with a blossoming of the future overlaid, the people who remain human in their cores despite the technology in their bodies, the data flowing through their brains, their passions and histories and resentments preserved with digital clarity but no less human for that, the pristine corridors of Central Station and the suburbs and shanty towns around it all too familiar despite the exotic enhanced materials from which they are constructed.
As alien as the places and sights are, Tidhar fills them with familiar smells, the accessibility of the sensations making the unreal come alive. Everyone has a past, but nothing is happening in the present. The pieces are moving, but to what? Better read with the awareness that it is a series of stories set in a common world, a common location, it should not be anticipated that they will build up to a greater whole, for they do not.
There is a feeling that Tidhar is writing too much for himself rather than the reader, that the pages are cluttered with digressions and descriptions and history and repeated phrases because they can be rather than because it’s necessary to advance the plot. Written with the density of a short story, the constant cramming of information where space is at a premium, but at the length of a novella can becomes overwhelming, but perhaps, as is the nature of the near post-human world, this was Tidhar’s intention?
Central Station will be published by Tachyon on 26th May