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.

The Fractal Prince – Hannu Rajaniemi

Step into the Palace of Stories, taste their body of fractals…

I gobbled The Fractal Prince up in just a few days, hungry to devour as many pages as possible during my daily commute between tube stations. Or maybe trying to slow down and savor them, sorry to see the book come to an end. Anything inducing such paradoxical states of mind must be more than just good. The follow-up to The Quantum Thief is full of such curiosities. It is pretty short as novels go and yet it feels vast, infinite even. The story is involved to the point of obfuscation, but each day I would sink effortlessly into its winding ways and half an hour later would pop out of the underground, one or more self-contained stories sparkling like exotic jewels in my mind. It is a labyrinth and a room full of mirrors where you can easily lose yourself (occasionally even your self) and where subliminal glimpses of massive creatures moving hidden underneath the surface will startle you, grand colorful illusions will dazzle, memes will burrow and most of what you know will be revealed as nothing more than shifting sands. Continue reading

The Quantum Thief – Hannu Rajaniemi

After the release of The Quantum Thief in 2010 I wrote a gushing, ten-out-of-ten review. Its sequel – The Fractal Prince – is already on the market and I hope to subject it to blogoscopy soon. As a segue into that I decided to reread/rereview the first book, Rajaniemi’s devilishly good debut.

I have to admit my first review was a bit too ecstatic. The book is a real gem, it’s certainly among the best SF works I have read in the last years. But it isn’t a ten-out-of-ten and it’s not without shortcomings. That said, the book left me almost as hooked and craving for more as it did the first time. Continue reading

2312 – Kim Stanley Robinson

“History is a product of labor just like the work of art itself, and obeys analogous dynamics.”

~

“Out of this jumbled superposition of different kinds of temporal models History does in fact emerge––as a work of art, like any other work of art, but made by everyone together.”

~

“Really the question became quite philosophical; how to be? What to care about? And how to become a little less solitary?”

Continue reading

Existence – David Brin

After ten years of absence, David Brin is finally back with a new novel. Reading Existence, it is not difficult to imagine how that monster of a book took so much time to write. It is huge, not merely in terms of word count, but also in terms of conceptual volume. Brin’s 1990 book Earth is a similar creature – teeming with predictions, explorations and interpretations of the near future, ultimately succeeding on most levels. Existence has inherited that DNA, but the author has raised his latest brainchild with even greater ambition. It is not just the near future that is in focus here but the whole timeline of existence, its image refracted through the lens of human civilization. That’s right, the novel’s title aptly summarizes all the numerous threads that make the book, because they all eventually point to that very concept. What is the purpose of life and intelligence? Is survival in the cold universe possible? How do we even define different modes of existence and how do we understand them better? These are the questions that run throughout the text and the curiosity, meticulousness and imagination with which Brin tackles them on every page make Existence a notable event on the SF horizon. Continue reading

The Long Earth – Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett

When I first read about The Long Earth, this collaborative effort between Terry Pratchett and hard SF writer Stephen Baxter seemed to me… a little odd. As it did to quite a few, I am pretty sure. But now that I have finished the novel, I realize my suspicion was absolutely unwarranted. In fact, now I see clearly that this co-authorship is a match made in heaven. The Discworld series is, if anything, one of the biggest arenas for fictional thought experimentation ever imagined, be it related to technology, society, art, etc. Stephen Baxter, on the other hand, has the know-how to take Pratchett’s skill and panache for world creation to the next level – science fiction and its stricter adherence to mimesis. I am happy to say that the brainchild of the two authors delivers spectacularly. Continue reading

Blue Remembered Earth – Alastair Reynolds

In The History of Science Fiction Adam Roberts writes, after Heidegger, that “technology, from windmills to hydroelectric plants, “enframes” the world in a certain way, allowing or shaping the ways in which we “know” the world around us.” Consequently, the science in science fiction is not much different from a classic thought experiment, an exercise in imagining our possible worlds and their technologically-defined architectures. I find this poke at a definition particularly useful when reading that core type of SF story, the futurist novel. It is easy to invent an imaginary science, like jaunt travel in Bester’s The Star My Destination or Le Guin’s ansible. The more difficult task an SF writer is faced with is to predict the technologies of the future and weave them into the textual world. An emblem of good SF writing is that fulfilling readerly feeling when in the final tapestry those technologies both define and are defined by the cultural milieu in which the narrative agents operate.

Alastair Reynolds has always been a very technology-oriented fantasist. Despite the rather huge gap in my reading of his stories (I hadn’t tried anything outside of the Revelation Space novels), I knew what to expect from his new book with a fair amount of confidence. No FTL-drives and other seemingly magical gimmicks. Continue reading