Tachyon, 290 pages
Review By Elsa Bouet
‘Life wasn’t like that neat classification system’. Perhaps this is the sentence that encapsulates this whole novel. Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station creates a world in which lines are blurred, boundaries crossed, and new identities are created and evolve rapidly. Reflectively, the story blends different genres, from ‘everyday life’, a genre that chronicles the lives of people as they are lived, cyberpunk, the detective narrative, gothic and horror, and perhaps even fairy tales. It is a novel reminiscent of the science fiction by Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Octavia Butler or more recently China Miéville, and it makes for an interesting, intelligent read.
The narrative explores the ways in which humans and digital intelligence coexist as both the physical and digital worlds overlap. Humans have been physically modified with a node, a body augmentation which allows them to connect to the ‘Conversation’, the network of the thoughts and memories of all humans and of the Others, digital bodiless entities who have been left to evolve in cyberspace. The story is set in the centre of a futuristic Tel Aviv, where Central Station is located. It is a hub for earthlings to travel to space, to escape Earth and its past, leaving refugees behind to tend to the travellers’ needs. It is also a place where evolution takes its course and new possibilities can be created. The story explores how people form unlikely families, rekindle old flames, fall in love, become friends, and how they forgive, resent and forget. We learn of their past, what shaped their identity and their relation with the Conversation, how this technology affects their everyday routine. The story provides a multitude of hybrid voices: the mixed race refugees; the part-cyborg Israeli soldiers now derelict, abandoned by the state and left to suffer silently from PTSD; people immersed in cyberspace games; the artist creating gods in the virtual and giving them physicality; oracles part-human part-Other; people returning to Earth after a long journey, or those arriving there for the first time; and on rare instances, we even hear from the Others.
What appears to be a banal depiction of the hustle and bustle of life in Central Station is soon disrupted as evolution takes its course at a fast pace. Children manufactured in Breeding Grounds are seen to possess new abilities: they can tap into the Conversation and read people’s thoughts without being connected, which is perceived by citizens of the station as black magic. But more worrying for the inhabitants of Central Station is the arrival of a Strigoi, Carmen. Carmen is an off-world human, infected with a virus which has turned her into a sort of vampire who feeds off data from humans: sucking on their node, she harvests their memories and their identity. Carmen and the children develop a strange connection which marks the start of a change to come in Central Station.
The use of everyday life as a key genre for the novel really leaves it up to the reader to assess the benefits and drawback of what it means to lead a dual – physical and virtual – life. On the one hand, the Communication has brought people closer together, in that everyone is hybrid in one way or another – mixed race, physically remade, or living in the virtual. On the other hand, there are hints to the fact that people are still othered, classified, rejected because of who they are. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to be a thing of the past, division still exist between them: the Muslims live in Jaffa to the south and the Jews live in the more affluent northern part of the city. Carmen and the children are feared because of the change and destruction they can bring. History also seems to fade into oblivion as personal memories and historical facts, such as the names of wars, are forgotten because of the immediacy of the experience of the Conversation, while the Others seem to be able to have some control over the people’s bodies. Through these elements, the novels hints to the fact that the Conversation is not such a beneficial artefact as it first appeared to be: people are perhaps not as well connected as they initially seem, their identity and feelings slowly slips and fades into cyberspace, and reality and virtuality become blurred and undistinguishable. But why and how were the Others created? Are they helping? Can these characters remain human when relinquishing so much of their memories, their feelings and awareness to virtual entities they do not understand? The answer lies in paying attention to the story of Achimwene, the only character who is not connected to the Conversation.
This review was originally published in Shoreline of Infinity Issue 4.