Central Station by Lavie Tidhar is a far future sci-fi that imagines a space-faring humanity, a vastly changed earth, and the full integration of technology into society. It is a collection of short stories that are all tied together with an overarching plot, and it touches on things like faith, evolution, discrimination, and more.
The story revolves around Central Station, a hub city that provides linkages between the cities of Earth, the colonies of space, and the digital universe known as The Conversation. It is a place inhabited by humans, robots, strigoi, and beings who exist only in a digital frame of reference. There is a rich history, there seems to be no discrimination between gender, race or sexuality (though human / robot relationships are advised against for practical reasons). Discrimination comes in the form of what is considered most important to this society - data. People who cut themselves off from technology and do things like read paper books are not seen as oddballs, they are seen as being disabled in the most terrible fashion, and are treated poorly as a result. Data thieves / strigoi are shunned, outcast or outright forbidden to be in certain locations, though there are those who pity them and campaign for their rights, and there are some whose sexual desires are to be fed on by a strigoi. It is a rich and vibrant world from which many stories are drawn.
The first thing I'll say is that the learning curve is quite steep, with Tidhar throwing you in the deep end and telling you to swim. The concepts are quite alien, the culture is primarily Judaic which you don't typically see a lot of in sci-fi and fantasy, and the story just picks up without any preamble. As I mentioned above, Tidhar doesn't shy away from the controversial themes, and he expresses them through various means like having a robot priest, who is also a part time mohel, provide support to people who suffer from substance abuse or substance dependency. It’s all so unfamiliar that it might be a barrier, or a sizable hurdle at least, for those looking for something lighter and explody.
The characters here have a lot of depth, flowing back and forth between multiple shades of grey. You get the feeling that for a lot of the population they are simply existing, going through the motions of life in a guarded way so they don't get too hurt. It's quite a clever mechanic as it makes the scenes of high emotion all the more powerful by contrast. Tidhar even introduces nodes and symbiotic attachments that allow people to express themselves using digital means along with their biological senses, allowing robots and digital beings to interact emotionally with biological beings. There is so much creativity and original thought here being used to tell a story on multiple levels, which is highly impressive.
I did have a couple of problems with this story. The first was that I found it very hard to connect with any of the characters except for Isobel Chong, and even then it's only a brief connection. These characters experience such a different world in such a different way that I can't imagine how I would react in the same set of circumstances, and as a result I found it hard to critically examine their choices or their morality. Another problem I had was that it peaked way too early (chapter 10 I think, the one about the Oracle, gods, and digital singularity event), and I wasn't able to get into the last few chapters. It didn't help that those last few hours didn't do much to wrap any of the overarching threads of the story. It was such a let down given how strong the first three quarters of the book was.
Central Station is a wondrous thought-provoking book, as you would expect from someone as highly credentialed as Lavie Tidhar. This is a book that asks you to question what you think humanity is, what you think consciousness is, and what you think faith is. It is not a book for everyone, but for those who like literary-style sci-fi that explores complex themes in depth, I think you will love this book.
Review by Ryan Lawler
Gene from USA
This was the most awful book I have ever read. It wandered, it meandered, it had nothing tying any of the individual stories together, and then it just ended...........abruptly and with no understandable closing. Don't waste your time or your money on this.
9.3/10 from 2 reviews