Human evolution moves in new and strange ways in ‘Central Station,’ Lavie Tidhar’s loosely linked 2016 novel about future Tel Aviv

April 29, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 29, 2019

Central Station, Lavie Tidhar’s 2016 novel, is a rambling meditation on the nature of humanity and the possible directions our species might take in the coming decades.

Tidhar envisions a future Israel that has been apportioned and has achieved a measure of stability. Palestine includes what has become the city of Jaffa, while Jews retain the remainder of Tel Aviv and other parts of today’s Israeli territory. The space port of Central Station straddles the two cities, uniting and dividing them, funneling people and goods both into and out of the sector.

The port serves as a gateway to colonies all around the solar system. But that doesn’t entirely explain Central Station’s amazing diversity: The neighborhood boasts creatures of many ethnicities and native tongues. Some of these are very familiar, others are fantastic and still others are wholly intangible — and a number, like the port, straddle different categories of existence.

Tidhar, an Israeli, begins to outline Central Station’s huge variety with this passage near the start of his book:

The rain caught them by surprise. The space port, this great white whale, like a living mountain rising out of the urban bedrock, drew onto itself the formation of clouds, its very own miniature weather system. Like islands in the ocean, space ports saw localized rains, cloudy skies, and a growth industry of mini-farms growing like lichen on the side of their vast edifices. 

The rain was warm and the drops fat and the boy reached out his hand and cupped a raindrop between his fingers. 

Mama Jones, who had been born in this land, in this city that had been called many names, to a Nigerian father and a Filipino mother, in this very same neighbourhood, when the roads still thrummed to the sound of the internal combustion engine and the central station had served buses, not suborbitals, and could remember wars, and poverty, and being unwanted here, in this land fought over by Arab and Jew, looked at the boy with fierce protective pride. A thin, glittering membrane, like a soap bubble, appeared between his fingers, the boy secreting power and manipulating atoms to form this thing, this protective snow globe, capturing within it the single drop of rain. It hovered between his fingers, perfect and timeless. 

Mama Jones waited, if a little impatiently. She ran a shebeen here, on the old Neve Sha’anan road, a pedestrianized zone from the old days, that ran right up to the side of the space port, and she needed to be back there. 

“Let it go,” she said, a little sadly. The boy turned deep blue eyes on her, a perfect blue that had been patented some decades earlier before finding its way to the gene clinics here, where it had been ripped, hacked and resold to the poor for a fraction of the cost. 

Mama Jones, née Miriam, is adoptive mother to this genetically engineered orphan. She and the boy, Kranki, are about to encounter Dr. Boris Chong, an old flame of Miriam’s who once worked in the local “birthing clinics” and has bonded with a reverse-engineered symbiotic alien life form known as a Martian augment. He’s returned to the city to help care for his ailing father, Vladimir Mordechai Chong, who helped build the space port and is suffering from a form of digitally enhanced senility that traps him in the memories of not only himself but other members of his family.

‘Central Station’ (2016) by Lavie Tidhar

Their stories are threaded with those of other relatives and friends. R. Brother Patch-It, a robotic priest, “had undertaken pilgrimage, the robot’s hajj, to Mars, to Tong Yun City, to the Level Three Concourse deep under the Martian sands, where the greatest of all multifaith bazaars lies, there to meet the Robo-Pope itself, in the robot’s Vatican”; in his service as a local moyel, he’s circumcised a number of Chongs, including Vlad and Boris. Ibrahim, nicknamed the Lord of Discarded Things, is a strangely long-lived alte-zachen man whose adopted son, Ismail, is eerily similar to Kranki. Perhaps more importantly, Ibrahim’s prosthetic golden thumb hosts “an Other,” an entirely digital consciousness descended from the algorithms nurtured by Saint Matt Cohen.

Motl the robotnik overlaps all three categories — robot, human and virtual mind — represented by those characters. Once entirely human, his wounded body was long ago merged with metal components. He and his fellow cyborgs “had fought in wars that didn’t even have names anymore”; now they are rusting vagrants who “spoke amidst themselves in that curious Battle Yiddish that had been imprinted on them by some well-meaning army developer — a hushed and secret language no one spoke anymore.”

Perhaps the most mysterious character is Carmel, who’s been infected with a digital virus that’s transformed her into a type of vampire that the characters call Strigoi or Shambleau. The nature of her disorder is never made entirely clear; nor is it explained why some mysterious forces — apparently the Others — have arranged for her to bypass Earth’s computer defenses. When Carmel isn’t hunting, she frequently hides, lest she be accosted by an angry mob, as happens on the fateful night she is harassed outside the quaint bookshop owned by Achimwene Jones, Miriam’s awkward disabled brother.

The essence of Achimwene’s disability is only hinted at — apparently he is considered lesser than regular humans because he lacks the “node” that enables most people to participate in the networked activity called the Conversation. Regardless, he seems to be immune to Carmel’s propensity to leave her victims a husk of their former selves.

Central Station is an episodic novel: The copyright notice reveals that 11 of its 13 chapters were originally published as stand-alone stories between 2011 and 2014. Consequently, the book’s pace and plot — inasmuch as there is a plot — are rather slack. Tidhar’s goal isn’t so much to resolve his characters’ conflicts as to explore the forms, both corporeal and otherwise, that humans might decide to adopt as our technological capabilities progress.

The vision Tidhar espouses is a fundamentally optimistic one: The Arabs and Jews coexist more or less peaceably, much like Earth’s other tribes, religions and nations seem to do. Some factions are suspicious of one another, but open warfare is a thing of the past. I was also struck by his conception of future Tel Aviv as home to an incredibly varied population — a sort of new New York, a mixing bowl wherein people of Slavic, Asian and African descent all speak Hebrew and indulge in regional customs, like drinking arak.

As such, Central Station is a comforting, even reassuring book to read. In this fraught time, where the institutions that have maintained western democracy and world peace seem to be crumbling, Tidhar suggests that there is a path forward for our species. I’d recommend this volume to readers who are looking for reasons to hope, even if they’re not science-fiction fans.

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