Lavie Tidhar’s CENTRAL STATION [Amazon | Kobo | The Book Depository] centres on a futuristic space port and the surrounding community. Central Station--both the massive structure and the neighbourhood to which it lends its name--lies between Israeli Tel Aviv and Arab Jaffa and is home to a diverse group of people: racially, economically, religiously, and technologically. Prominent families, notorious groups, and established social fixtures abound, and the story herein gives everyone plenty of opportunity to hobnob with others (and Others) from across Central Station’s width and breadth.
CENTRAL STATION began life as a series of short stories published in a variety of magazines and anthologies between 2011 and 2014, with two chapters being original to this volume. Tidhar has reworked the stories so they form a novel, but I’d caution you not to expect much in the way of a traditional plot. Proximity and familiarity, not a common goal, draw these characters together. Tidhar isn’t interested in providing the reader with many answers. Instead, his work issues an invitation to consider the many ways people might come together in a futuristic society that’s traveled to the stars but still has firm ties to Earth.
Unconventional plotting doesn’t mean shallow content, as any litfic reader can tell you. Themes abound, with memory, religion, and family being the moment prominent. The meditations on memory, in particular, make their way to us via the Conversation, which is basically the internet all grown up and ready to party. The vast majority of Central Station’s inhabitants have nodes that allow them to tap into and participate fully in the Conversation, which they utilize for everything from casual fact checks to full-scale immersion in gaming environments that provide reliable income for millions of people. Memcordists use implants to upload everything that happens to them to the Conversation; something their fan bases appreciate. Data-vampires suck the Conversation straight from their victims. The Others are (perhaps) small pieces of the Conversation that have gained sentience and, in select cases, bonded themselves to living humans. One local family shares their memories in common via a members-only Conversation, thanks to their ancestor’s bargain with the Other-bonded Oracle.
And that’s just the smallest sample of how Tidhar works memory, data, and the transfer of personal information into his setting. The book is a feast for anyone interested in using fiction to consider how people communicate and remember in a digital age, with some small focus on privacy, martial applications, and the ways the ever-changing face of technology contributes to peoples' understanding of one another.
Religion also plays a large role in how the characters interact with and understand one another. This future world contains religions the contemporary reader will recognize, like Judaism, Buddhism, and Catholicism, but it also includes faiths that address how things have changed in the centuries between our time and theirs. There’s a Church of Robot. St Cohen, who helped the Others come into being, is revered by many. Some people find religion in drugs like Crucifixation, which imparts a kind of ecstasy to those who take it. God-artists create divine beings right there in the street, then leave them to burn bright for as long as they can. Small children interface with the Conversation on an entirely new level, perhaps branding them as Saviors for a new generation.
Here, too, Tidhar isn’t interested in providing the reader with any concrete answers on the subject. He takes all these elements, throws ‘em together, and lets them play out as they will. It’s up to the reader to decide what meaning they'll take from the resulting story.
(Personally, I got a big kick out of how many artificial intelligences become Buddhists because their consciousnesses are so often transferred from one form to another. They have concrete proof of reincarnation and ponder what device they'll become next.)
And perhaps most of all, CENTRAL STATION is about family and community. Some of the families we meet are related by blood. Others have chosen to join together through adoptions, strong friendships, or romantic relationships that may eventually end but will nonetheless have a lasting impact on everyone involved. Families grow and shrink throughout the narrative as people forge new connections, strengthen old ones, deal with their family members’ various foibles, and fold one another into their lives in ways large and small. The stories matter because of the ways they bind everyone together, as families, as members of the wider community, and as participants in a variety of sub-communities that fit their individual needs.
Tidhar blends these themes together into something intense and wallowsome. I highly recommend it to readers in search of futuristic SF with a strong social bend and a human core.