Central Station is the latest novel by very-many-award-winning Israeli author Lavie Tidhar, and tells the story of…well…I’m not really sure what it tells the story of and I just read it. This book was a very strange experience for me. It felt as though the story was just meandering around with nothing I could point to as being a plot for most of the length, and yet it was very compelling. Then when the story events picked up, it was a mad rush to…again…sort of something? As strange as the plot and flow of the novel was, it was nevertheless very enjoyable. Definitely an experience.
A worldwide diaspora has left a quarter of a million people at the foot of a space station. Cultures collide in real life and virtual reality. The city is literally a weed, its growth left unchecked. Life is cheap, and data is cheaper.
When Boris Chong returns to Tel Aviv from Mars, much has changed. Boris’s ex-lover is raising a strangely familiar child who can tap into the datastream of a mind with the touch of a finger. His cousin is infatuated with a robotnik—a damaged cyborg soldier who might as well be begging for parts. His father is terminally-ill with a multigenerational mind-plague. And a hunted data-vampire has followed Boris to where she is forbidden to return.
Rising above them is Central Station, the interplanetary hub between all things: the constantly shifting Tel Aviv; a powerful virtual arena, and the space colonies where humanity has gone to escape the ravages of poverty and war. Everything is connected by the Others, powerful alien entities who, through the Conversation—a shifting, flowing stream of consciousness—are just the beginning of irrevocable change.
At Central Station, humans and machines continue to adapt, thrive…and even evolve.
So I spent a much longer than usual time sitting and thinking about this book before I started writing the review. Always a good sign. It was a very strange feeling because it seemed like everything I had to say about the book was a complaint, but that didn’t mesh at all with the feeling I had that I just read a really good book. I very much don’t mean that in the ‘so bad it’s good’ way, or even the ‘enjoyed in spite of X’ way. I mean it in a really unusual way for me, which is that I was having a really hard time putting my feelings into words. I do think I figured it out though. I think this might be one of the most ‘literary’ science-fiction novels I’ve ever read.
Let me unpack that a bit. The reason the things I had to say about the book felt like complaints is that they felt counter to my expectations for a science-fiction novel talking about data-vampires and mind-plagues. There was very little by way of contiguous plot. The blurb describes a number of things about Boris Chong’s life and surroundings, as though he is the protagonist, but while he does get, I think, more page time than any other single character, he’s definitely not the majority stakeholder by any stretch. It felt like this was a collection of vignettes rather than a novel. In fact, it does appear that the whole thing was published as a large number of shorter pieces that were now collated into a whole, but those seams definitely still show.
In discussing my feelings about this book with others, it was suggested that what I was describing sounded more like “classic” literature than SFF, comparisons were made to Dickens or to F. Scott Fitzgerald. And the more I think about it, the more I do sort of feel like this is more of a The Great Gatsby sort of thing. Rather than being one continuous narrative that has the ‘standard’ SFF path of rising action, climax and denouement, with a plotline that pushes the characters, Central Station was much more…I’ll say metaphorical or maybe philosophical approach to things. More of the story is gleaned from implication and the actions of the characters than is shown to us directly, and there are hints of much deeper stories swirling around all of the characters.
I wish I’d come into it with a better understanding of what I was in for, because when you look at Central Station as a series of glimpses into the lives of the people of this world, and as hints around what’s happening in the greater scheme of this world, it’s absolutely fascinating, and incredibly well written. But between my expectations for ‘most’ SFF and the blurb implying a lot more of a traditional story, that subversion of expectations meant it took me much longer than it should have to really grab me and engage me. Because once you realise what the structure of this book is, it becomes dramatically better.
I suppose this is the benefit of a book review. Now you have a better idea of what you’re in for so you can decide whether you’d like to read it. If you’re looking for something a little more philosophical and thoughtful than the usual fare in the genre, look no further than this book. By the end, it really was a fantastic read.
Dan received an advanced review copy of this book from Tachyon Publications via NetGalley