Central Station is unlike anything I can recall having read either recently or a while ago. Not a traditional novel, Central Station is a mosaic novel comprised of several older short stories previously published in different short fiction venues and two entirely new ones. Tying all these stories together is Central Station, a space station on the outskirts of Tel Aviv that has become a primary hub of space travel and an constantly oscillating area of cultural exchange. In this future, data is both the medium and the stuff of reality driving knowledge, understanding, and reality. Humans coexist (or not) with sentient machines, robots, cyborgs, data vampires, and Others, creatures made up of pure data itself.
Central Station features a cast of recurring characters such as Boris Chong, who’s just returned from Mars after several years away from Tel Aviv and is now picking up with his old flame Miriam while dealing with his elderly father, Vlad, who is trapped inside his own memory. Motl the robotnik, a metal machine with the brain of a formerly alive human man, and who was created to fight one of Israel’s long-ago wars and discarded when the technology became obsolete, is in love with Isabel, whose job it is to play a fully immersive MMO as the captain of a spaceship. Ibrahim is the rag-and-bone man, also known as the Lord of Discarded Things, who regularly provides the inhabitants of Central Station with ancient tech and treasures of times long ago. His son Ismail and Miriam’s son Kranki are two mysterious boys who may represent humanity’s next step in this digital age. These characters and many more drive this multifaceted novel of both a provincial land-bound community and a far-flung expansive world out amongst the stars.
Something I can’t get over about Central Station is how unabashedly pulpy the universe and stories and characters feel without losing a bit of complexity. These stories require a lot of work—Lavie Tidhar drops you immediately into this barely familiar world of future-Tel Aviv and its semi-new status as a gateway to the stars, and you as the reader simply have to keep up with the world-building details and insights revealed to you through each line of action and dialogue. In my opinion, this technique is probably far more effective in Central Station than it was when these stories were published individually, because at least in the book-version several world-building details are both confirmed and elaborated upon with each successive story. (For example, the first two stories, “The Indignity of Rain” and “Under the Eaves” together serve as the book’s intro and do so quite well, but they wouldn’t make for as understandable or fruitful reading if you were to read those and none of the others.) Nevertheless, the world is fully-realized and immersive world such that once you become familiar with it, you want to continue spending time exploring all the nooks and crannies within Tel Aviv and out on Mars and its moons and all the other planets.
But the real thing I can’t get over is how Central Station dances between the dusty, parched, semi-legal/illegal realities of everyday, seemingly random people and concerns and conversations with the “sensawunda” feeling the science fiction genre is known to strive for and that many readers are constantly seeking, whether to recapture that sensation they felt reading the first science fiction novel to awaken that feeling or to push at and broaden what that it is that provokes that “sensawunda” in the first place.
Central Station is a universe where everything is data, and that is not an oversimplification. Almost every human, or sentient being, exists in two worlds simultaneously: the physical and the virtual, constantly updating and being updated and being a part of the worlds-wide conversation that is existence. Yet despite the primacy of data, the universe of Central Station continues to carry physical weight and texture and sensations, with humanity existing in a liminal state between purely material and purely digital. And that liminal state is something Lavie Tidhar pokes at and examines over the course of the arrangement of these stories, asking overwhelming questions about the nature of existence, identity, faith and evolution while rooting them in the mundane, normal concerns of regular citizens going about their lives and loving their friends, families, and significant others. Central Station is neither uplifting or cynical, neither optimistic or “grimdark.” Tidhar’s interest isn’t in projecting a future with deliberate implications for what our possible future might look like, but in creating a sandbox future of humanity and technology’s continued evolution that is neither “good” or “bad” but simply is. The advances in digital technology and investment in digital universes and identities, even at the behest of physical ones, isn’t attached to any sort of morality, but a facet, an important one, of how the characters understand and interact with their world.
Speaking of characters, my favorites include the aforementioned Motl the robotnik, a decrepit outdated soldier robot with a Crucifixation habit, Carmel the data vampire who feeds on the data—the lives—of other people, Achimwene, a book collector and seller of physical books centuries old and the only one who cannot access and be a part of the constant stream of data, and the two boys Kranki and Ismeil, and the mysteries they represent. Some favorite stories include “The Smell of Orange Groves,” “Robotnik,” “The Oracle,” and “Vladimir Chong Chooses to Die.”
Finally, Central Station reads clearly as Israeli science fiction, and by that I mean the stories are as much an homage and recognition of the complexity of land ownership, past history, and religious and personal faith as they are entertaining escapades. Reflecting the land’s eons-long history as the birthplace and battlefield of several faiths, Central Station includes a plethora of different religions with their plethoras of practitioners, all seeking answers for the same kinds of questions religion and its practitioners have been trying to answer. Additionally, many of the characters who are Jewish Israelis of Central Station are of immigrant descent (China, Nigeria, etc.). These are multiracial, multiethnic stories about generations of immigrants and their families alongside those who have been there forever, and alongside creatures of metal and data who alternately represent Israel’s past or its future.
If it isn’t clear already, I loved Central Station. It’s not at all like the kind of stories I normally read, and it is all the better for it. It’s imaginative, it’s complex, it’s clever, it is full of that “sensawunda,” of modernity and new ideas mixed with older, nostalgic feelings of “so this is what it feels like to imagine a world bigger and grander than your own.” It’s also heartwarming. This isn’t a character-centric work, nevertheless the lives of these characters come to feel meaningful and important the more you read of them. I’d highly encourage anyone who’s looking for something that feels both new and old in their science fiction to read this book.