Wednesday, December 09, 2020

Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

Diversity is not one thing. Books can be diverse in authors, in characters, in style, and in ideas. Preferably, the world of books would be diverse in all of those things, plus others I'm not thinking of right now, and individual books slot in interestingly into multiple diverse categories simultaneously.

Sometimes it feels to me like the current diversity drive in SFF is entirely around authors and characters -- so the Chosen One defeating the Big Bad to Save The World can be someone different, and their author can be someone different as well. That's a great step forward, but I don't want to read stories about any Chosen One, no matter what kind of person they are or who's writing about them. I don't become more interested in your book about dragons just because you're Chinese rather than Welsh.

Diversity in ideas was the killer app for SFF from the beginning, so that's just table stakes. If you can't bring that to the party, this isn't the party for you to begin with.

That leaves me with diversity in style, as you might expect from a self-declared literary guy. (Hey, I got an English degree from a fancy liberal-arts school, and I don't get a lot of opportunity to use it in everyday life.) So I tend to gravitate to books that do interesting literary things -- told in quirky ways, incorporating techniques from literary fiction, or just telling different kinds of stories.

I liked Lavie Tidhar's The Violent Century when I read it last year. More importantly, I was deeply impressed by it: it was a taut, smash-cut race through a hundred years of alternate history. From that, and what I've heard about the rest of his books, he sounds like my kind of writer: always doing something different, as influenced by literary traditions as by SFnal ones. And as I get older, I appreciate writers who do interesting books more than the ones who do the same thing over and over, even if I loved that thing. 

So I wanted more Tidhar. I had several of his books on my shelf: this is what happens if you keep acquiring books but aren't reading them as quickly. Central Station looked enticing: a linked collection, or maybe a fix-up, of stories set in an indefinite future, around the beanpole spaceport of the title, right on the border between an Israel and Palestine that are at least somewhat less hostile to each other than the current versions.

The quotes mentioned Naguib Mahfouz rather than A.E. Van Vogt, which was a good sign to me -- not that I've read Mahfouz (to my shame), but I've definitely read too much Van Vogtian stuff already.

And Central Station is quieter and more personal than most SFF. Its cast is large and diverse; several loosely related families of mostly the descendants of people from all over the world who came to help build the beanpole and who then put down roots in the neighborhood. Each story is about one or three or five of those people; they interlock and appear in each other's stories. But there's no overall plot -- Central Station is about these people and this neighborhood and their relationships. There are no Big Bads to be defeated, no Chosen Ones -- just people.

Some of those people are robotniks, transformed into mechanical bodies an unknown time ago to fight in now-forgotten wars. Some are Others, or paired with Others, the purely AI consciousnesses that live in a system-wide shared mental space called the Conversation. Some are physically unable to access the Conversation at all. Some have been off-planet, and come back inherently changed -- some have never been here before, and were also changed, against their will.

All of them are good people, more or less, the way we like to think we and our families are good people, more or less. All have basically good intentions, though some are more destructive than others, and some of them, as Tidhar puts it dryly in his list of characters at the end, "tend to meddle."

All of their stories are personal ones, which is not the same thing as small ones. All the best stories are personal.

This is a wonderful book, full of life and nuance. Each story is a separate gem, but together they combine to show a more complete picture of this world and these people. Tidhar never says how far in the future this is, though some hints imply "centuries" is the low bound. And he's never quite clear on how long these people can or do live -- though, in at least some cases, centuries would also be a low bound. Tidhar's cast is large and interesting, and their world is equally so: this is the kind of book that implies vastly more than it says, and lives in your head for a long time afterward.

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