Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Tidhar, Central Station (2016)

Lavie Tidhar, Central Station. Tachyon Publications, 2016. Pp. 240. ISBN 978-1-61696-214-2. $16.95 pb/$9.99 e.

Reviewed by Wendy Bousfield

Lavie Tidhar’s moving, lyrical, insightful work of speculative fiction, Central Station, extrapolates a future in which humanity is entering a new evolutionary stage, triggered by growing immersion in the Internet. In Tidhar’s world, “nodes,” implanted at conception in “birthing clinics” (there are no natural births), provide direct access to the “Conversation”: “a hundred thousand… voices, channels, music, languages, the high-bandwidth indecipherable toktok of Others, weather reports, confessionals, off-world broadcasts time-lagged from Lunar Port and Tong Yun and the Belt…” (23). Akin to Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Central Station traces the emergence of children psychically linked to one another and to other minds, both human and mechanical.

Located on the border of Arab Jaffa and Jewish Tel Aviv, Central Station is home to a multiplicity of sentient beings. “Central Station” refers to the world’s first space station, as well as to the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual community around it. The adult residents of Central Station are an interracial mixture of Arabs, Jews, Russians, Chinese, and Africans. “Robotniks” are “the lost 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…” (24). Machines, like the talkative elevators and household appliances, are equipped with nodes and also participate in the pervasive Conversation.

Genetically engineered children, humanity’s next evolutionary stage, subsist like the Robotniks on the streets and in derelict buildings. These new children are “hacked together” by birthing clinic technicians “out of public property genomes and bits of black market nodes” (9). Miriam, proprietor of a small bar, adopts one of the new children, Kranki. Ibrahim, an alte-zachen man (he collects/repurposes trash), finds Ismael in a box on the street. Moving at will between virtual and natural reality, Kranki and Ismael have “the knack… to both appear and disappear” (17). Despite the new children’s unprecedented psychic talents, they are above all, for Miriam, children who need care and love.

At the top of the evolutionary ladder are the Others, disembodied digital entitles. For reasons never elucidated, the Others are behind the development of the new children. Like the Overlords in Childhood’s End, the Others unobtrusively oversee humanity’s evolutionary progress. Generations ago, a renegade engineer, Matt Cohen, developed the electronic beings that would evolve into the Others. (In one of Central Station’s many cults, Cohen is worshipped as “St. Cohen of the Others.”) Existing in “worlds of pure mathematics” (99), the Others communicate in a language that human nodes can access but not translate. In Asteroid Pidgin, Central Station’s lingua franca, this pervasive “Conversation of Others” is called “toktok blong narawan.”

Central Station is a droll, insightful extrapolation of early 21st century electronic commerce, communication, and entertainment. Central Station characters are metaphors for the various ways that a growing immersion in online worlds might affect romantic relationships, family ties, work life, and religious belief. The culmination of our compulsion to share the minutiae of daily life online, Central Station’s “memcordists” broadcast everything they “saw and felt and smelled” (5). Infected by the Nosferatu Code, a virus developed for war-time spying that now plagues the civilian population, Carmel is a “strigoi.” An insatiable data-addict, Carmel vampirically drains victims of accumulated data. The creators of Central Station’s virtual reality worlds freely reshape historical fact: “New Israel,” for example, was “preparing a vast virtuality in which the Holocaust never took place” (64). The new children, of course, are a metaphor for our 21st century generation gap: technologically savvy children effortlessly master electronic devices that stymie adults. Where, Central Station asks, will society’s engagement with email, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, online vendors, and multiplayer virtual reality games lead us, as individuals and societies?

Perhaps surprisingly, Central Station is not a dystopia. Far from making Central Station residents narcissistic, the Conversation fosters empathy. According to R. Brother Patch-It, robo-priest, “Without the network we would each be alone, isolated nodes, pinpricks of light in a vast intergalactic darkness” (101). By participating in the pervasive electronic Conversation, beings with nodes transcend their isolated egos. Central Station’s characters are warm-hearted, cherishing family members and embracing needy strangers. Like Emerson’s Over-Soul, the Conversation connects all sentient beings.

Tidhar is not merely an astute social critic, but also a gifted stylist. Woven into the text are allusions to classic works of science fiction, especially those of Philip K. Dick and Cordwainer Smith: characters are “ubicked”; refuse is “kipple”; spacers travel into the “Up and Out”; “C’Mell” is worshipped as a saint. Tidhar’s writing is lyrical and startlingly metaphoric. Crippled by information overload (his father’s memories have been implanted in his brain), Vlad forgets his wife’s name: “Her name disappeared, the way keys or socks do. Misplaced and, later, could not be found” (242). Tidhar outdoes Anthony Burgess (Clockwork Orange) in constructing not one, but TWO syntactically consistent future languages. The Robotniks speak Battle Yiddish, developed “like the Navajo of Code Talkers” for a “long-gone war” (114). Asteroid Pidgin is “the near-universal language of space.” Here is Hamlet’s famous soliloquy in Asteroid Pidgin: “Blong stap o no blong stap / Hemi wan gudfala kwesjen ia…” (106). The droll, allusive, poetic, polyglot language of Central Station is one of its greatest joys.

Though Tidhar is a prolific novelist and winner of the World Fantasy Award (Osama, 2012), many readers of mainstream fiction may well have never heard of him. Though Central Station is in every way a literary masterpiece, it will not, alas, appear on the best seller lists. While the public embraces space operas like Star Wars and medieval fantasies like Game of Thrones, true speculative fiction remains a niche market. The ghettoizing of speculative fiction is unfortunate, since its mission is to bring to imaginative life the potential futures toward which we are blindly rushing.

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