Central Station – Lavie Tidhar

central-station-1Possibly the most useful key to reading Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station can be found after the last page of the story itself. It’s the list of previous publications—used to construct this novel. About a dozen of its chapters are, in the author’s words, substantially revised short stories that have appeared in various places over the last few years; merely a handful of the chapters were written from scratch.

While this is not good or bad in of itself, here it shows. The chapters of Central Station work very well precisely as separate pieces. Tidhar has constructed a dazzling post-singularity world, pieced together of a myriad technological miracles, annealed in the megatext of SF. The world underlying the prose is rich and variegated, there is a lot to it in terms of all those building blocks of the genre: imaginary science and new technology, future history and future languages, the sublime and the grotesque, the various archetypes of SF (per Istvan Csicsery-Ronay’s classification of SF’s seven beauties). Somewhere in Earth’s future, humanity has mostly migrated to other planets, stars, asteroids, virtual realities. People remain on the home planet, however. Beneath Central Station – a towering space port between Tel Aviv and Jaffa – some few hundred thousand of denizens spend their days: mostly the descendants of immigrant workers, living in a post-national world ever teetering on the verge:

“Arab or Jew, they needed their immigrants, their foreign workers, their Thai and Filipino and Chinese, Somali and Nigerian. And they needed their buffer, that in-between-zone that was Central Station, old South Tel Aviv, a poor place, a vibrant place—most of all, a liminal place.

A border town.”

A setting that is naturally viewed from a fractured, multiply-POV-ed perspective, a slippery eel to catch in the nets of traditional narrative. Its characters are humans whose organisms are fully intertwined with biological nodal interfaces, connecting them to the unceasing Conversation of billions of humans and many billions more of smart appliances (like an elevator which dreams of moving in more than two directions). Some of them cyborged to different degrees, some invaded by maleficent viruses and turned into data-vampires; other turned into Others – aliens of the Digitality, evolved here on Earth servers and let free to eventually manipulate the fate of humanity to inscrutable ends. There’s also robots (followers of the Way and the Church of the Robot) and ex-human robotniks (working menial jobs, talking in Battle Yiddish and getting high on crucifixation). There’s gods and godmakers, gene-tinkered children that can manipulate mind and matter as easily as they dream, there’s vast virtual realities that some believe our own world is contained in. There is a lot in Central Station, that much should have become clear.

central-station-2Some of the chapters are indeed wonderful expositions of those vast and yet teeming realities of otherness. The best ones are those that telegraph that radical strangeness and leave the most interesting pieces as lacunae for the readers to fill. A world such as this one should provide the perfect grounds for the construction of a mosaic novel, where the separate pieces touch briefly here and there and paint the canvas in an erratic and hyperreal fashion. Tidhar, however, has chosen another way – that of the family saga. At least, he has tried to build something like that, because in reality the many chapters and POVs hardly coalesce in a clearly structured narrative. Thematically, the book sort of explicitly points to what it is interested in: family, childhood and adulthood, otherness and transition, memory.

Structurally, though, it fails to support its ambitious goals. The characters are too many and their appearances are unevenly strewn throughout the text, its symbols are not coherently organized and profiled, the dramatization is namely that of the short story, rather than a novelistic one. On the lower level of information structuring, the infodump rules supreme. Tidhar writes his infodumps rich and poetic, but that is insufficient to elevate a narrative from good to great. Wordiness, especially in the case of SF, sanitizes the sublime. Probably the best example for that in Central Station is the author’s nagging insistence to translate every single utterance in asteroid pidgin, the made-up language of space:

“Anggkel,” the boy said – uncle, in the pidgin.”

These clarifications are abundant and a disservice to the text. Too much of it reads as if snippets from Google Translate and Wikipedia are inserted in apposition (“Robotniks, the last soldiers of the lost wars of the Jews – mechanized and sent to fight and then, later, when the wars ended, abandoned as they were, left to fend for themselves on the streets, begging for the parts that kept them alive”). This is a pity because Tidhar clearly can write economically and elliptically:

“Ibrahim was old, he had been around when there were still oranges.”

“Later, he, too, worked on the building, two generations of Chongs it took to bring it to completion. Only to see his own son go up in the great elevators, a boy determined to escape, to follow a dream of the stars.”

Either a true mosaic novel or a true family saga could have given this overarching story the shape of greatness. As it is, Central Station now stands as a powerful exemplar of SF worldbuilding, adequately written and occasionally poignant and pregnant with poetry, but eventually falling short of what it reaches for. Double the pity, as it is so imaginatively rich, erudite and well-connected in the graph of SF intertextuality. Fans of Dick, Silverberg, Rajaniemi will probably like it, though I don’t know how many will love it. In one of the novel’s most sympathetic characters’ thoughts:

“It is perhaps the prerogative of every man or woman to imagine, and thus force a shape, a meaning, onto that wild and meandering narrative of their lives, by choosing  a genre.”

lavie-tidhar

Genre, in the formal sense of the word, does not align smoothly to the novel’s thematic preoccupations. But rarely do we see aspirations so lofty as they are in this novel. For that at least, Lavie Tidhar’s novel is worth checking out.

6.5/10

PS: Many thanks to the publisher for the ARC.

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

StationElevenNorthAmericaHiRes“Dr. Eleven: What was it like for you, at the end?
Captain Lonagan: It was exactly like waking up from a dream.”

Disclaimer: The review contains some non-trivial spoilers. Though I am quite convinced that the reading of this particular book cannot really suffer from them, proceed at your own risk.

I like to think about Station Eleven as of science fiction in reverse. Where most SF stories conceive of the future as a superstructure built over their past (and somebody’s present), in this one the future looks back toward the past as a dream of wasted miracles and heartbreaking loss. Against the backdrop of a crippled world and through the excruciating prism of art, a thing of poignant beauty is brought together. Because survival is insufficient.

This last sentence – taken from a Star Trek episode and painted over the wagons of a troupe of actors and musicians, The Traveling Symphony. They ply the erstwhile American lands bordering the Great Lakes, performing their Shakespeare and their music. But America is no more, not for twenty years, since the Georgian swine flu almost wiped out humanity. Continue reading

Slow Bullets – Alastair Reynolds

slow bulletsI’m not very knowledgeable about Golden Age SF, and yet I would risk saying that Slow Bullets has most of its roots in precisely that era of the genre. It is lean, straightforward, functioning mostly on the strength of its focal conceits, and, of course, dealing with grand futuristic ideas. It definitely suffers in terms of complexity and veracity because of these same design features, but one could always argue that was done on purpose. Sacrificing depth for the sake of densely packed conceptual entertainment, pitched against a backdrop of cosmological scale, rarely works with longer fiction. Here, though, in the span of fewer than 200 pages, this compression is quite functional. The author probably had much fun writing this short piece, knowing from the get-go that he didn’t have to dig very deep in psychology, sociology, any –ology for that matter. It’s a pre-New Wave, pre-cyberpunk piece that just goes for that old thrill of exploring a bundle of great concepts, not caring that much about anything else. I imagine it can be a liberating experience for a modern author, to just go with the flow, for the sake of the flow, on a rare occasion. I certainly enjoyed reading it, it took me just a bit more than the duration of my flight to finish, and its succinctness is a quality worthy of applause. Continue reading

Hannu Rajaniemi: Collected Fiction

Hannu_largeIt’s hard to even begin to express how much of a Hannu Rajaniemi fan I am. I have reviewed his books before (here and here in English, and here and here in Bulgarian), journeying through them has always been electrifying. His fiction is a vortex where the science and strangeness of the future meet, exploding in ferris wheel fireworks of bold ideas, narrative complexity and damned good writing. It’s the kind of prose that could go into textbooks on why and how SF is the awesome thing it is (alas, no such textbooks that I know of).

Seriously. Hannu Rajaniemi is one of the few writers who balance a sound scientific background with a vivid writerly talent, expertly enough to hammer out a vision of the future that is truly alien, and yet so very relatable. It is one of the crowning feats of good SF – to make the seemingly impossible behave as though it is reasonable and, ultimately, quite plausible. The miracles of fantasy and SF lure readers with their desirability, even when they are terrifying. The gap between how much we want those miracles and how impossible it is to have them is by now something we as readers are comfortable with (should we really be?). But Rajaniemi’s fiction imbues the genre with a brand new strain of cognitive dissonance: yes, you can have those miracles! Maybe not literally, but you can certainly understand them rationally, you only need to pay attention. Often enough, you don’t even need to have read academic papers in the relevant subjects! Continue reading

The Dragon’s Path – Daniel Abraham

DragonsPath1The Dragon’s Path is the first book in Daniel Abraham’s series The Dagger and the Coin. On the face of it, the series promises a rich dish of the epic fantasy cuisine. The story takes place in a secondary world whose description is bound to raise pretty high the expectations of many readers. This world is a vast one, as it behooves a specimen of the genre; its history reaches thousands of years backward, when it was ruled by the ruthless dragons, who later destroyed each other in an internecine war. The dragons modified extensively – through magic or science, who knows – the genetic make-up of the Firstblood humans to spin from them twelve more races, better adapted to serve their masters’ hungry needs. Continue reading

Creatures of Light and Darkness – Roger Zelazny

creatures1This text is a translation from Bulgarian. The original can be found here.

Putting Creatures of Light and Darkness into categories is a difficult task. From the point of view of genre, form, style, anyhow. Its text is seemingly messy (and remains messy under careful scrutiny), as if under the influence of light drugs. The text itself – if I can be allowed this heavy-handed personification – and not the author who produced it, as underground fan legends sometimes have it.

Creatures of Light and Darkness strikes me as a science-fictional poem. I initially attempted to bolster this argument with the kind of discursive and formally elaborate writing associated with academic literature. Then I decided against it. The reader just needs to read the first chapter – in the House of the Dead – to see the poetry, shining through, crisp and clear.

Continue reading

Boy’s Life – Robert McCammon

Boy's LifeBoy’s Life starts off with the promise of a great novel about to unfold. I mean, just take a look at the opening passage:

“CORY? WAKE UP, SON. IT’S TIME.”

I let him pull me up from the dark cavern of sleep, and I opened my eyes and looked up at him. He was already dressed, in his dark brown uniform with his name – Tom – written in white letters across his breast pocket. I smelled bacon and eggs, and the radio was playing softly in the kitchen. A pan rattled and glasses clinked; Mom was at work in her element as surely as a trout rides a current. “It’s time,” my father said, and he switched on the lamp beside my bed and left me squinting with the last images of a dream fading in my brain.” Continue reading