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Book Review: Lavie Tidhar’s ‘Central Station’ and the Faith of Robots, Cyborgs and Aliens

Central Station

These days, when you settle down with a work of science fiction, you’re most likely to encounter either a sweeping space opera with interplanetary travel, warring alien races, and societies ruled by corporations, or a dystopia where hope for a future – if it exists at all – is rapidly diminishing due to environmental degradation, violence, or some other form of political or technological upheaval.

You will either be shooting from planet to belt to star, or you will be worrying along with the characters if there will even be a tomorrow.

Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station, published in May, threads the needle between these two approaches to science fiction storytelling. His novel is constructed as a character-focused mosaic with surprisingly intimate portrayals of humans, aliens, robots, cyborgs, and beings called Others, whose DNA makeups are nothing but code, 1s and 0s.

Tidhar is one of a growing crop of international writers whose science fiction is making a mark in the West. It wasn’t long ago that Western readers wanting science fiction from Asia, Africa or the Middle East had to embark on a journey of their own just to get their hands on the stories. Not anymore. Tidhar, who was born in Israel and now lives in London, is becoming a household name in the West, having won both the British Science Fiction Award and the World Fantasy Award.

One of Tidhar’s accomplishments is that he is able to make the non-human characters – robots, cyborgs, and aliens especially – feel, well, human.
Illustration by Charlie Shifflett

Illustration by Charlie Shifflett

The lives featured in Tidhar’s latest all, in one way or another, revolve around Central Station, a towering spaceport built between Israeli Tel Aviv and Arab Jaffa. It’s one of earth’s gateway ports serving travelers, diplomats, and shippers from outer space.

The characters range from a coffee shop owner to a bookseller to a doctor to homeless robots to aliens of both the scary and the non-scary variety. The novel jumps from character to character, often circling back chapters later. Around the middle of the novel, a few narrative threads begin to emerge, and that’s when the book really began to draw me in.

One of Tidhar’s accomplishments is that he is able to make the non-human characters – robots, cyborgs, and aliens especially – feel, well, human. The following exchange between a brother, who is an ordinary run-of-the-mill human, and a sister, whose body is now 80 percent machine, illustrates this:

“For crying out loud, Tamara! Look at you!” [says the brother, Vlad, when his sister criticizes a decision he has made regarding his own health and body.] “…You’re almost entirely a machine.”

“We’re all machines,” she replied. “Are you proud because the parts that make you are biological? Soft, fallible, weak? You may as well be proud of learning to clean your bottom or tying your shoelaces, Vlad. You’re a machine, I’m a machine, and R. Brother Patch-It over there is a machine. When you’re gone, you’re gone. There’s no afterlife but the one we build ourselves.”

“The fabled robot heaven,” Vlad said.

Tidhar’s world is as full of inequality as our own, and it’s also – centuries later – still in the thrall of religious debate and divergence, as the above exchange suggests.

Some characters take pills so they can experience human faith. Robots prepare themselves for an afterlife. People spend their days listening to “The Conversation” – a never-ending stream of information that becomes as central to their worldview as the Bible is to that of many Christians. 

Tidhar, who the Guardian newspaper compared to Philip K. Dick, has given the world a fascinating and imaginative snapshot of a distant future. When you finish reading Central Station, you will likely hope that Tidhar takes us there again – sooner rather than later.

Charlie Shifflett is the author of the forthcoming chapbook, Accomplices, as well as numerous articles, essays and short stories.