[Shadow Clarke] REVIEW — Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station (2016)
Ever so slightly behind schedule (the real shortlist is announced on the 14th — CRUMBS!) comes the fourth review from my selected shortlist of potential nominees. The review may have been late but I’m glad I wrote it as I genuinely think that Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station was the best work of science fiction published in 2016. I also think that it’s an incredibly important book that speaks directly to the political climate in which we currently find ourselves.
Set in a future in which the stars have been explored and the nation-state has atrophied, Central Station is about a place far more than it is about a group of people. Sure… there are people in the book — people who fall in love, experience things, and have adventures — but the book’s episodic structure and willingness to revisit the same characters over and over through different sets of eyes signals (to me at least) a desire to explore how spaces create subjectivities and how those subjectivities interact with people’s personal histories to create all new identities. In other words, Central Station is a book about multiculturalism published at a time when liberals and conservatives are falling over each other in their haste to throw those values under the bus:
The global turn towards economic nationalism means that we now desperately need works that will argue for the economic, cultural and spiritual benefits of multiculturalism and that is why Central Station may yet turn out to be the single most important and culturally-relevant work of science fiction to be published in decades. If ever you wanted a novel that spoke to the Now, if ever you wanted a novel that looked to the future, if ever you wanted a novel that understood what it means to be modern then seek out Central Station.
Re-reading my review, I am rather struck by the thematic similarities between this piece and Sarah Lyall’s widely circulated (and absurdly over-designed) piece for the New York Times entitled Will London Fall?
Lyall’s takes the view that multiculturalism and neoliberalism are inseparable in that the free movement of capital begets the free movement of people and the free movement of people creates spaces in which people from wildly different backgrounds are forced to co-exist. Lyall goes on to consider the future of London in light of a Brexit vote that must (apparently) be interpreted as a vote against the free movement of people and the multicultural spaces it creates.
My problem with Lyall’s piece is that while I agree that neoliberalism is very good at creating the kinds of conditions in which multiculturalism naturally emerges, I don’t think that multiculturalism requires neoliberalism and I certainly don’t think that Brexit is somehow going to turn London into the urban equivalent of Midsomer.
Multiculturalism is, at the most basic level, an ethos that allows people with different cultural heritages to co-exist. Some argue that Brexit will make Britain a more mono-cultural place but the British government are already in talks with places like India and the Philippines and that is without mentioning the fact that London has been a multicultural space since the time of the fucking Romans. Even if Theresa May reduces the country’s net immigration to zero, London will still have to cope with the fact that British people from different backgrounds are living, working, and dating together every single day. If London is going to fall, it will be killed by property developers and not by some attempt to impose economic nationalism on a multicultural city. Multiculturalism isn’t a political ideology that one can turn away from… it’s a product of the fact that your parents’ parents’ parents’ happened to come from different places, hooked up, and now people speak three different languages over Christmas dinner. To believe that multiculturalism can be overthrown or defeated by even a powerful political movement is to ignore how subjectivities and identities are even formed.
I mention Lyall’s piece because it annoyed me, but also because I think it touches on a number of themes and ideas that are present both in my piece and in Central Station so it might prove an interesting companion.
My fellow Sharkes have also reviewed the book but they seem to have responded to very different things (which is precisely why criticism is both an intensely personal art form in its own right and fucking awesome)…
Victoria Hoyle is surprised by how emotive and moving the book turned out to be:
I return to the love though, and how this book left me with a giddy feeling of possibility. It ends on a note that suggests a powerful belief in hope, in joy even in death. However the past marks us, however the future will change us, Tidhar imagines continuity amidst the wrenching disjuncture. In the shadow of a space station ‘laundry [is] hanging as it had for hundreds of years’ (55), and from the far distant future of the Prologue we are still telling stories about it. For me this is the kind of story that people were yearning for in Becky Chamber’s A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet but with all the nuance and poetry that book lacked.
I absolutely agree with Victoria’s points here and I think the comparison to Becky Chambers’ A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is really on point. Chambers’ wrote an ostensibly anti-racist novel by hacking up a load of racist stereotypes, using the pieces to assemble a group of alien races, and then talking at length about the importance of using the appropriate pronouns. I think while Chambers’ approach to racism comes from a ‘good place’ its methodologies and ideas about racism turned out to be at best simplistic and at worst reactionary. Central Station is also about a load of people from very different places living together in cramped science-fictional quarters but the book presents cohabitation not as a series of rules to be followed but as a process of understanding and solidarity growing from shared space, mutual interest, and the natural process of recognising the personhood of other people. Central Station is about the world we actually live in whereas A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is about the world you wished you lived in because you’re terrified that someone might call you a racist. It came as no surprise to me that while Central Station was overlooked by Hugo voters, the sequel to A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (which I have not read) made it onto the shortlist.
Maureen Kincaid Speller’s review latches onto the book’s depiction of its science-fictional present as a collision between past and future that creates something refreshingly mundane and real:
Central Station is not clinically futuristic; instead it is quotidian. And in being quotidian it offers the space for so many things that readers and critics of science fiction have argued for – ordinary women going about their daily business; a diverse cast of characters drawn together by likely circumstance rather than authorial anxiety; space travel being no more important than bus travel; people just about making ends meet, like most of us do; a future in which the ordinary and the extraordinary continue to meet and collapse into one other, much as they’ve always done, and a literature in which, while the past provides a foundation for the future, it does not insist on continuing to shape that future.
A lot of my writing over the past few years has been informed by a profound alienation from commercial genre fiction. These days, I can no more tolerate violent moral fantasies than I can identify with messiah-like individuals. The world is a complex place and change must come from below and I really struggle to read anything that conflicts with that fundamental worldview. Central Station is a bit more ‘science-fictiony’ than the books that I tend to enjoy and I think that my enjoyment comes from Tidhar’s commitment to the realness of place. I want to read stories about real people, in real places, having real experiences, and facing real problems. I read to inform my thinking about the world, not to escape it and what I really loved about Central Station is the fact that it felt real in a way that so little commercial genre writing manages to achieve.