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What We’re Reading: Central Station

2016 March 17

What We're Reading

Central-StationCentral Station by Lavie Tidhar (Tachyon Publications, May 2016)

Central Station takes place on, in, and around an enormous, future space station rising from Earth into space and serving as a hub and launch pad for travelers of the universe. It’s a liminal space, situated in between Jewish Tel-Aviv and Arab Jaffa, and so the station has all the benefits and drawbacks of a transitional, middle space: possibility paired with despair, great potential paired with great failure, the rich moving amongst the poor, celebrities and vagrants, etc. Nearly everyone in this future world is augmented in some way, either through the ubiquitous “nodes” implanted at birth that allow people to access to the great Conversation going on at all times (think every social media feed, YouTube video, and a million, million other pieces of ephemeral, often banal data being broadcast around and into you every second—that’s the Conversation), or through other, more invasive and explicit augmentations (four-armed Martian Reborn, human/robot amalgamations called Robotniks that speak Battle Yiddish, actual robots that practice religion, etc). It’s an eclectic, imaginative population filling a strange and often-recognizable world.

Central Station is an assemblage of vignette-like chapters that shift POV but remain inside and around the titular hub. On the levels of process and history, this makes sense; many of the chapters in the novel have been converted from stories published elsewhere. For many writers, this could lead to something fatuous, a loosely linked set of essays that promise continuity but offer bare contemporaneity. However, Tidhar is magic, and in his hands these individual stories pull life from one another. The novel reads like extended poetry, cycling through descriptions of Central Station or its denizens through the eyes of different characters, expanding and reworking those descriptions and understandings endlessly, a machine cycling through its routines and finding beauty anew in each iteration.

Narrative, in this way, is necessarily fractured in Central Station, but the fracturing creates a sense of momentum and power in the narratives. One for instance, splits the narration between a woman known only as the Oracle (who, we learn, was once named Ruth) and her distant relation, Mark Cohen, who created and bred the Others, entities existing solely in the digital space. Tidhar has some serious work to do in this chapter—it’s near the end of the book, and neither the Oracle nor the Others, despite having both featured in the narrative earlier, are yet clear to the reader. We still have serious questions about how these things work, what their value is to the larger narrative, and what their value is to the micronarrative of the chapter. It’s a lot to accomplish, and Tidhar does it with aplomb, balancing the exposition necessary to grease the narrative wheels with intrigue, emotion, and stories that, despite being set in a scarily distant future, seem real. And true.

The individual chapters and characters are all wonderful—both for themselves and for the larger narrative they come to inhabit and impact. I don’t want to spoil any of that for you, because it’s a real treat to discover the small and large ways things come together, but I do want to talk briefly about one character in particular: Achimwene, a man born without a node or any sort of augmentation. He can’t connect to the Conversation or see the digital world and, fittingly perhaps, he sells ancient, mostly useless artifacts: paper books. Achimwene’s story, without getting too much into the plot, curves away from the banal when he meets Carmel, a strigoi (a data vampire). And Carmel is many things to Achimwene: a mystery, a danger, a love interest. You know the stories (now ubiquitous) about vampires, but here’s the thing: so does Achimwene. This is a man still dependent on narrative to make sense of his life, still, in this fast, digital future, reading pulp novels and imagining himself as the detective or the monster hunter or whatever. He gives us perhaps the most relatable and personal moment in the entire book:

He looked at the things in the box, these fragile, worn, faded, thin, cheap paper-bound books. They smelled of dust, and mould, and age. They smelled, faintly, of pee, and tobacco, and spilled coffee. They smelled like things which had lived.

This is Achimwene’s world, surrounding himself with relics and long-ago stories. And this is where Tidhar’s true mastery reveals itself. Achimwene thinks of himself as being in a love story when he meets Carmel (complete, of course, with all the problems that often come with heteronormative love stories told in pulp fiction), but soon they get it into their heads to investigate Carmel’s origins, to investigate how it was she came to be allowed in to Central Station. In other words, Tidhar tells the reader exactly what he’s going to do; he’s going to switch this narrative from a love story to a mystery, and yet the magic of his trick is not in his telling us this Important and Necessary Stuff about how narratives shape our lives (though, that’s important, too), it’s in his ability get us to believe it. About five or six pages into this new mystery narrative, I was totally hooked. I was into it. I had completely forgotten that the author told me exactly what he was about to do; I was enthralled by the mystery, by the pacing, by the intrigue. Tidhar, in this moment, is like the magician who shows his set-up, tells the audience what the trick is called and how to do it, and then somehow still gets a standing ovation—raucous cheers and joyful tears included—when he does the trick. It’s an amazing moment.

Central Station is a treat. I’ve yet to find a Lavie Tidhar book or story I didn’t love, and this new effort by the author is no exception. It’s due out May 10th. Do yourself a favor and pick it up.

Have you read any excellent books recently by tried and trusted authors?

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