I thought it would be difficult to find a book at good as Hannu Rajaniemi’s Collected Fiction this year, but Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station, also published by Tachyon, has overtaken it for the top spot in my list this year. By a tiny margin.
For me, Central Station was more than a good—or even great—book. It was an important book, for several reasons. The first is that it is some advanced science fiction that breaks through a number of barriers in the genre, which I’ll dig into below. The second is that it was written by an Israeli author and takes place in Tel Aviv.
Representation in speculative fiction has been a hot topic for the last few years, and I’ve been rather appalled by the backlash in some areas of the community at the idea of diversity in sci-fi and fantasy. I love reading fiction precisely because of the extraordinary opportunity it provides to ride behind the eyes of an Other, to have fleeting moments where the world falls away and I experience the impossible, or at least the highly improbable. The things I cannot experience in this reality. To expand my emotional vocabulary.
But I hadn’t thought much about how the issue of personal representation in genre fiction affected me until reading the synopsis of Central Station. Science fiction often features religion, entirely fabricated or otherwise, but Jews are often underrepresented, or misrepresented when they do appear. From the new testament to Shylock to Dune’s Jews, it suffices to say that we have had a rough go of it inside and outside the collective imagination for the last couple thousand years. It was the status quo, and unlikely to change.
But opening Central Station and reading about the ethnically, religiously, philosophically, technologically different citizens of the Tel Aviv of the future was deeply cathartic for me. When was the last time a character in a sci-fi novel was named Baruch? Yossi? Ibrahim? More importantly, these were people, with all of the rich complications, flaws, beauty, curiosity, hope, and sadness left intact. People with names like mine. Like the people I grew up with. With a shared vocabulary. Shared ancestry. It was a powerful thing to read.
Then there was the setting. Tel Aviv, Israel’s megalopolis, is one of my favorite cities in the world, if not my absolute favorite. My brother lived there when I was young, and I remember driving down from our small village in the north, to visit him in the Big City, and being blown away by its vibrancy, is vivacity, and its vitality. I’ve had reason to visit many times since, and every time I go back to Tel Aviv I catch myself thinking, “this is home. I could stay here forever.”
Lavie Tidhar, an Israeli, imbued the Tel Aviv of the future, the one beneath central station, blinking under the lights of interplanetary vessels coming and going, filled with so many people of different backgrounds, the truest melting pot in the cradle of western religious civilization, with that life. That bright, beautiful, buoyant life. I smelled the smells of Tel Aviv in the first paragraph of the introduction, meat cooking and sweat and sand and Mediterranean air. I saw the city squares, flowing with life and laughter and languages. I felt like I had come home.
Beyond its significance to me for personal reasons, Central Station is an excellent book that pushes at the boundaries of science fiction, while maintaining a deliberately sci-fi core. It was not a story of adventure, or of love, or of horror, though at points it had elements of of all of these. It is a human story. It offers glimpses into the lives of people living their lives, and shows us that no matter how sophisticated our technology becomes or how the world may change, to be human is to struggle, to connect, to love, to fear, to believe and disbelieve. It is absolutely science fiction, and it is also a literary exploration of the human condition through the lenses of family, death, evolution, technology, and religion.
Central Station is told almost in vignettes, which makes sense given that Tidhar wrote and published each chapter separately over the course of several years before compiling them into a book with Tachyon. The cast sometimes feel disconnected from each other, but then you realize their connection is their home. Tel Aviv. Central Station. The writing is superb, sometimes eschewing superficial imagery for abstraction, but always returns to a place of clarity. It flows beautifully throughout the read, and though it is short, it is full.
Central Station blew me away. I hope it will do the same for you. You can pick it up on Amazon.