Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Chicago Nerds- Central Station

For June's meeting of the Chicago Nerd Social Club, we discussed "Central Station" (2016) by Lavie Tidhar. It's a "fix-up" novel, stringing together a number of his previously-published short stories.

This should come with a disclaimer if you don't already know: there's no over-arching plot here, so don't hold your breath for one. But at the same time, it's not just an unrelated collection--Tidhar uses a series of interconnected anecdotes to sketch out a setting and his cast of characters with surprising depth.

With the exception of the "no plot" caveat, this was a really well-received book. Possible spoilers below!

Lots of praise for the writing in "Central Station", perhaps the more so after slogging through last month's selection. We really liked the characterization here, and the way that Tidhar conveys really human stories and a deep sense of place by making these sort of thin slices of description across an interwoven cast.

(Side-note: in the pre-discussion, talking about style, I was mentioning Sofia Samatar's love/hate reading at Wiscon & Cormac McCarthy, and it was suggested that anyone wanting to read a thorough take-down of "muscular prose" check out "A Reader's Manifesto" by B.R. Myers.)

At CNSC, we've frequently concluded that a book would be better if it was 100 pages shorter--here, most unusually, we felt the reverse. We could have done with 100 more pages, and perhaps more of an overall arc. We thought that Kranki and the other sort-of magic kids might be the closest to a central story here, but it's buried and a bit inconclusive.

However, a lot of us liked the "let's just see how life is like there" approach. We were fascinated by each character and segment, from the religious robots and data-vampires to the very human inheritors of Weiwei's Folly. We particularly liked that ethnic history feels realized here--characters' cultural heritages are actually fleshed out. We talked for a bit about how, in addition to not having some save-the-universe plot, it's also neither a utopia nor a dystopia, it's just a place with people living their lives, which is unusually realistic. And we wondered why SF has generally been uncomfortable with examining the "small lives of quite desperation" of normal folks--why that tends to be left to "literary" fiction.

We did wonder a bit about what Central Station actually is--does it come out and say it's a space elevator? Because, if so, a bit odd that it's not on the equator. Perhaps just a high-altitude launching/docking chamber?

Family is a huge theme here, as is love--but really, without ever using the word, this seems to be a work very much concerned with post- or trans-humanism. With the possible exception of Achimwene the rare book dealer, there's not a character here that doesn't qualify as post-human: intricately fused with social media and information technologies, augmented with xenobiological additions, sharing body-space with AI "Others", Frankensteined into cyborg fighting machines and then left to fend for themselves... Fusion with otherness, becoming more than baseline while remaining human is a major theme, and deftly handled.

It's also pretty impressive how Tidhar layers SF references without hanging textual impact on them (unlike something like "Ready Player One", for instance). You don't need to know that Carmel's story is an homage to C.L. Moore's "Shambleau" for it to work...but it's a nice extra if you do. Likewise the Burroughs-inspired Martians, or the use of "ubik" as a verb. Even the sneaky inclusion of Scientologists as "Elronites" seems like a reminder of the kind of pulpy SF L. Ron Hubbard wrote.

Tidhar wrote an article about a few of the book's influences for Tor, by the way. In retrospect, the Cordwainer Smith elements seem obvious.

I collected a long list of other collections/fix-up novels/"pastoral" or "geography-and-people, not plot" works that we mentioned. We characterized this as bit like "Garrision Keillor does SF", or perhaps "SF does Sherwood Anderson's 'Winesburg, Ohio' (1919)". But we also mentioned:
  • "A Visit from the Goon Squad" (2010) by Jennifer Egan
  • Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles" (1950)
  • William Gibson's work, both for some of the cyberpunky bits of "Central Station" but also for his penchant for place and intriguing side characters--I kept thinking that the Finn would have felt at home here.
  • Orson Scott Card's "Folk of the Fringe" (1989)
  • Shared fictional worlds like "Wild Cards" and "Thieves' World"
  • Le Guin's "Changing Planes" (2003)
  • Mosaic/ensemble fillms like "Magnolia", "Love Actually", "Snatch", or "Nashville".
  • Place-based expanded universe stuff like "Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina" (1995) ed. Kevin J. Anderson
Really a delightful discussion, and personally I can't suggest "Central Station" enough. A change of pace, a change of place, with a real mix of styles here--horror, SF, comedy, pastoral. The overall impression I get from the book is a surprising kind of gentleness that is all too rare in SF/F--gentle without being precious--and acts as a kind of framing to highlight some really nice moments of wonder.

Also! Now I want to dry some arak. Also, recommended: the 99% Invisible podcast, The White Elephant of Tel Aviv, about the current/real Central Station.

And speaking of elephants, next month's selection is the Nebula-nominated "Barsk: The Elephant Graveyard" by Lawrence M. Schoen. Keep up with the Chicago Nerd Social Club on their website and Facebook group.

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