It strikes me as odd that people still are into this whole Literature vs. non-Literature distinction, especially people who review science fiction. Yet publishers like Tachyon make themselves complicit to this continuing confusion when they slap stuff like “magnificently blends literary and speculative elements … Readers of all persuasions will be entranced” on the back cover of their books.
It’s understandable Tachyon does so: it adds cultural credits and a veneer of Serious Art to Lavie Tidhar’s newest book. They hope it will help sell more copies of Central Station, also outside the speculative crowd. I think they are mistaken. More on that later.
First, a quick paragraph on my literary views. I don’t think a clear division between literature and non-literature can be upheld. What one can do is list criteria to judge how “good” a book is. People who have spent a couple of years at a university studying literature tend to like stuff like complexity, “depth” and originality. So yes, one could argue for a division between interesting books and superficial books. Whether a book is speculative or not isn’t a factor in that dichotomy. Of course, science fiction has a history in pulp magazines. True. But – newsflash: most books that people dub “literature” are bland and uninteresting too. Pulp is everywhere, not only in the speculative sphere. It’s Sturgeon’s law!
So, back to Central Station. I doubt readers that consume only non-genre “literary” fiction will find much to love here. More on that later. Sure, some will love it because of the novelty value they’ll experience: for somebody who isn’t initiated in SF this book might seem original, ticking off one of those criteria I listed. On the other hand, people that read only SFF might be persuaded that they’ve read something “deep” as Publisher’s Weekly said this has true literary elements, and it feels a bit, yeah, hard to explain, it feels like literature, it’s vague and, well, hard to explain, it has this vibe.
So, why did Publishers Weekly make its claim? I suspect a big part of it is the fact that Lavie Tidhar himself loudly claims to write “literary pulp” or “pulpy literature”. That sounds catchy, and it’s fun to quote, so it’s ideal for the lazy journalist who has to get his word count up. What it actually means is something else. I don’t think it means a lot. It’s just self-aggrandizing gibberish. The pulp part is easy, but I doubt Tidhar has a good definition of literature lined up to back up his claims, let alone a definition he could apply to Central Station.
So, what are the “literary elements” to be found in Central Station? The fact that it is a book made of short stories reworked and stitched together? That’s a very formal definition of big L literature. Or is it the fact that the overall story is rather loose? Or the content rather impressionistic? But these are both results of the first fact, so again, a rather empty bag…
That leaves us with the final question: is Central Station a good book?
I tend to read fiction for a couple of reasons: interesting world building (social, technological and scientific imagination), interesting characters (emotional imagination), interesting prose (artistic imagination) and an interesting story (dramatic imagination).
Central Station‘s world building starts really well. There are plenty of interesting ideas, like forms of human-alien symbiosis and human-digital symbiosis. But it quickly becomes clear that none of these ideas are explored, let alone used to advance the story or character evolution. There just there as gimmicks, it seems. It’s of note that while the book is set in the far future (thousands of years ahead?), it still has a fairly contemporary vibe.
To me, Central Station‘s characters lack depth. Simple as that. They’re there for the same reason as the technology: a display of cool ideas. A data vampire, anyone? An oracle? A weather artist? A cyborg “robotnik”? A guy with “multigenerational mind-plague”? They drop in and out of the pages as easy as – insert whatever.
The prose does the job, but nothing more. Unremarkable. Okay.
The story? It is best to approach this as a collection of vignettes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as there’s collections I like a lot. But this collection? The book has 271 pages. I was enthralled until page 65, 70. By page 150 I was bored, and I had to struggle to continue to the end. Like the characters, it lacks depth.
One more thing. People might be tricked into thinking the book has interesting political stuff to say since the setting is future Tel Aviv. It is not the case. Granted, there are new immigrants all over, and veterans from old wars. But that aside, Tel Aviv as a setting is as superficial as the rest of the novel: just a backdrop, not a fictional commentary on one of the most pressing real world contemporary crises. A shame, as Lavie Tidhar was born and raised in Israel. One would think he could offer more than pulp on the issue. Then again, opinions tend to differ. Publishers Weekly found “characters wrestle with problems of identity forged under systems of oppression, much as displaced Easterners and Westerners do in the novels of Orhan Pamuk.” I guess it’s all in the eye of the beholder: maybe you’ll find them too, after you’ve read those Orhan Pamuk novels. They won him the Nobel Prize. Will Tidhar someday? I guess after Dylan all bets are off.