Central Station – Lavie Tidhar

I’m an unashamed fan of Lavie Tidhar’s work.  So, I was very excited at the opportunity to read his latest novel, Central Station (published by Tachyon Publications, who provided a review copy through NetGalley).  And every page was a delight.

Central Station is an amalgam of several previously published pieces of short fiction, woven together with new material into a composite novel.  All of the pieces are set in or around Central Station itself, a spaceport built just outside Tel Aviv, in a post-war, post-fossil fuel society.

For all its futuristic setting, Central Station speaks to the world we live in now.  This is a novel about borders and connections, emigration and diaspora and the families we are born into or create for ourselves.  Where people are blends of human and machine, and religion is a literal drug.

Humanity has colonised the stars, and Central Station itself is the jumping off point to those varied communities in space.  The community that has built up around the spaceport is a melting pot of cultures and races, living and working in an informal economy of shebeens, salvage and more and less legal bioengineering.  The novel follows several of the residents of that community as their lives cross and interact.

In Tidhar’s novel, the connections between family and community are manifested through The Conversation: an all-encompassing background chatter of intertwined social media, facilitated by devices implanted at birth.  For some, that level of connection is not enough, and one family patriarch, Weiwei Zhong, made a deal to ensure that his family and descendants will all share each others’ memories.  But the volume of memories are threatening to overwhelm the bootleg technology, leaving his son with the equivalent of dementia as he tries to manage and process the volume of data.  Boris Chong returns from the stars to assist his ailing father, but finds himself confronting the family drama he sought to escape by emigrating and reconnecting with a lost love, Miriam Jones.

The world left behind does not stand still for those emigrants and returners.  Relativity means those who leave and return have not aged as much as those left behind.  As always, the person who leaves expects the place they have left to remain the same, but is the one who often changes least, struggling to cope with a home that has not stood still since their departure.

Around Boris Chong and his family accrete a number of other vignettes of Central Station residents and visitors.  Miriam Jones’s brother Achimwene Jones is a collector and seller of antique books.  He has no node, making him deaf to The Conversation.  But his very isolation and distance from others makes him irresistibly fascinating to Carmel, a strigoi, and Boris’s ex.  Infected with a virus, Carmel is a data-vampire, gifted with the ability – and need – to feed on the knowledge and memories of others.  She becomes integral to a piece of digital performance art made by a god-artist called Eliezer.  In order to help Carmel, Motl, a homeless cyborg former soldier, supplies a drug called Crucifixation, creating tensions in his relationship with the fully-human Isobel Chow.  A relationship that in itself is a taboo.

Motl’s story speaks to how we treat and value the military.  With the conflict that they were created for long concluded, the former cyborg soldiers are discarded and treated as less than human.  Left to beg for scraps, they live on the very margins of society.  But these cyborg soldiers are not as disposable as was originally envisaged.  Their essential humanity persists.  Ostracised for their fusion with the mechanical, they watch from sidelines as, ironically, humanity becomes ever more enmeshed with the digital.

Central Station comes together to become a complex and multi-layered novel that speaks of family and the nature of humanity.  It’s a beautiful thing, and it would be a crime if it doesn’t get some award nominations next year.

Goodreads rating: 5*

A Man Lies Dreaming – Lavie Tidhar

A Man Lies Dreaming is a darkly comic alternate history set in the late 1930s, where Hitler never became Chancellor of Germany and was toppled in a coup.  Instead, he fled to London where he now works as a down at heel private investigator.  As the novel opens, he’s been hired by a rich Jewish heiress to track down her missing sister. But this alternative history exists only in the imagination of a pulp crime writer imprisoned in Auschwitz.

As Lavie Tidhar‘s extensive historical notes to the novel make clear, there is a long tradition of pulp fiction being used by Jewish writers to explore and address issues relating to the Holocaust.  Sometimes the approach taken can be shocking, featuring sexual exploitation of Jewish people, but it has a long history in enabling a culture to come to terms with its past.  Popular culture is as much a part of that as ‘high’ culture, and this is explicitly referred to within the novel, in the form of a debate between two Jewish writers, one based on Primo Levi, the other on a pre-eminent writer of pulp fiction.

By fictionalising and transposing real historical characters (as he did in Osama, his novel which includes a series of books about a fictional freedom fighter called Osama bin Laden), Tidhar is able to examine them in isolation from their context.  With the trappings of power removed, Hitler becomes a comic figure: all impotent rage and frustrated ambition.  A Hitler who is at the mercy of the system rather than in charge of it becomes a figure to be pitied.  His hatreds are petty and over the course of the novel his grip on sanity and rationality begins to slowly unravel.  The extensive footnotes show that this portrayal has been extensively researched and grounded in contemporary accounts of Hitler’s life and formative experiences, lending the book a high level of authenticity.  Other senior Nazi figures also feature, often at the fringes of the law: Hess runs a nightclub, Klaus Barbie is involved in people trafficking and Eichmann becomes the puppet of a US Government seeking to overthrow the Communist regimes that have taken over Europe.

It would be tempting to think of A Man Lies Dreaming as Tidhar’s Holocaust novel, but it is so much more than that.  It has much to say about contemporary society, particularly in how we treat immigrants and minorities.  In Tidhar’s alternative London, Oswald Mosley is on the verge of becoming Prime Minister.  His Blackshirts are a personal paramilitary force, engaged in violent assaults on members of the Jewish community to which the authorities turn a blind eye.  .Deliciously, much of Mosley’s major political speech in the novel is drawn from genuine UKIP speeches (as Tidhar revealed when I met him at SRFC at the end of April), showing just how little has changed in our attitudes to those who don’t conform to a narrow idea of Britishness.

Tidhar pulls off a very tricky balance in this novel.  The Auschwitz sequences are written in such a way as to highlight the brutal treatment of the Jewish community.  But if we didn’t know it was a historical reality, one would be hard-pressed to find it credible that human beings could treat one another in such a way, rendering those sections of the novel more dreamlike and less convincingly real than the alternative London of right-wing bigotry and impoverished refugees.

A Man Lies Dreaming is a difficult and dense novel to read.  Some may struggle in particular with the BDSM sex scenes featuring Hitler, however darkly funny they are written (brain bleach is definitely required).  But it is a rich and complex work that rewards thoughtful reading and stays with you long after finishing it.  It is probably my book of the year so far.

Goodreads rating: 5*