Retro science fiction is something of a trend in today’s genre scene. Perhaps only minor, a swell of stories hearkening back to days of old is visible nonetheless. Contemporary authors are going in a few directions with it: imitation, homage, subversion, and otherwise. Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station (2016, Tachyon) is part of the swell (look at the gorgeous cover), but given its mode, takes its own slant.
Central Station is a spaceport story—a milieu of not only people and characters, but science fiction and science fiction tropes, all centered around Tel-Aviv’s central transport hub many years in the future. Paean to genre, it likewise attempts to relate aspects of humanity which appreciate things like science fiction, or, more broadly, get upset at runaway family members, dream of being something more, fall accidentally in love, and ultimately try to live this thing called life. A shop owner, a bookseller, a junk collector, a manual laborer, a doctor, a migrant, an artist—these are the basic building blocks of character, even as a universe of space ships and technology flow around them. Episodic in nature, characters that were once the focus of an episode, later re-appear to support and enhance the current focus, the picture of the spaceport built in the interstices of their stories.
The picture is also built around the decades of ideas science fiction and fantasy have imbued our imaginations with. Retro in this sense, Central Station is loaded with traditional tropes. Black magic, post-humanism, Martian symbiotes, robot workers, psi powers, manned flight between the stars, colonies on the planets, space vampires, weather art, cyberpunk, space languages, digital sentience, suicide clinics, pod births, and other ideas provide genre color (as well as a roller coaster of death, which I have to say I’ve never encountered before). Present too are both subtle and obvious references to the ancestors—Dune, “Ship of Shadows,” The Forever War,” Neuromancer, “Good News from the Vatican,” Asimov's Robot stories, and Crompton Divided among them. Not sophisticated, rather soft, warm, and readable, Central Station opens its arms to readers, welcoming them into the familiar spaces of sf, all the while the people from the spaceport, their dramas big and small, drive the story.
Prosaically, Central Station is a mixed bag. There are deceivingly simple passages that dig at the sub-conscious, evoking a feeling or mood with languid ease. At the same time, there can be moments the reader is caught flat-footed, having to spend a moment to make sense of the proceedings. The first lines of the book read: “The smell of rain caught them unprepared. It was spring, there was that smell of jasmine and it mixed with the hum of electric buses...” Smell of rain, smell of jasmine… which is it? And “unprepared”? Isn’t spring the time to expect rain? Though generally a straight-forward read, there are such moments—occasionally incongruous affectations—that threaten to derail the book. They do not, however, succeed.
Central Station is technically a fix-up of short stories. But unlike many fix-ups of old (see Clifford Simak’s City, for example), Tidhar blends the material into a mosaic whose individual tiles are not always easy to distinguish, something akin to Chris Beckett’s Marcher. An umbrella vision of Central Station emerging by book’s end, I would be more likely to call it a story than stories, even though there are moments, particularly the final few chapters, that tile edges become clearly visible. But overall, the effort Tidhar put into blending the pieces into a whole seems worth it, the title, appropriate.
I’ve quoted it before, and I’ll quote it again: Tidhar has said he’s neither a pulp or literary writer, rather a writer trying to find the space where the two intersect; Central Station may perhaps be his most liminal story yet. And ‘liminal’ feels the word best word. Neither fully collection nor novel, it ranges between. Not wholly a human endeavor, realism is offset by more than one fantastically abstract element. Not well-written and neither poorly, there are patches of text that evoke warmth and wonder, and others occasionally tripping the brain, forcing it back a line or two to re-read for meaning. Ostensibly nostalgic while original at it core, it splits the divide. Caught in the middle quality-wise as a result, Central Station comes recommended for this peculiar intermediacy that so few other books, if any, capture. Retro sf for sure, but likewise something more.