It’s kind of hard to describe Lavie Tidhar’s Locus- nominated, Clarke-shortlisted book Central Station. It’s definitely science fiction. Absolutely futuristic. Sometimes surreal and sometimes quite practical. But it’s also decidedly unique, a touch bizarre, evidencing a future Earth that is both believable and terrifying in its nonchalance.
Central Station, rising out of the city of Tel Aviv, is the main port to the “Up and Out” – habitable space accessible to the human race, such as Mars, Titan, Ceres, or to Exodus ships, and out further into the known and unknown. But the book is not so much about the station itself as it is about what, or who, passes through the station, leaving or coming into the city of Tel Aviv, or nearby Jaffa, outward into the Judea Palestina Federal Union to interact with those who have lived there for generations, many of whom have never left the confines of their familiar neighborhoods – at least physically.
The book opens with the return of Boris Chong, who had left Earth as a young man after working as a doctor in the birthing labs to wander through different worlds in the Up and Out. Now older, he returns to help with his father, Vlad, who has been overtaken (literally) by the memories “granted” to the Chong family by the Oracle at the dying request of Boris’ grandfather, Weiwei. But the book is not just about Boris; it’s also about those with whom he interacts, and in turn those whose paths cross theirs, as if Boris were a pebble thrown into a pond and we end up riding the widening ripples.
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Indeed, the book, while following a general progression, feels like tales cobbled together through observation rather than one flowing narrative. Yes, there are stories of the Chong family, but also of Mama Jones, the woman Boris once knew as Miriam, and loved, as well has her good friend Isobel, who works in virtual reality as the heralded captain of the Nine-Tailed Cat starship in the Guilds of Ashkelon gameworld, and who, outside of digital space, is involved in an illicit relationship with a robotnik. Robotniks are formerly human mechanically grafted soldiers rendered obsolete and who now exist begging on the streets of the city for fuel and spare parts, and should not be confused with robots, such as R. Brother Patch-It, an ordained minister in the Way of Robot, and part-time moyel for the Jewish families in the city, due to his steady mechanisms. Robots are no longer produced, and are considered a somewhat awkward evolutionary step between human and Other, who are pure digital entities. There is also Kranki, the young orphan boy who Miriam looks after, whose closest friend is Ismail, a youngster who exists mainly in the digital realm, both of whom are more than what they seem, and there is Carmel, the young woman who follows an unsuspecting Boris from the Up and Out who is a type of data vampire known as Strigoi, as well as Achimwene, Miriam’s “crippled” brother, one of the very few residents with no nodes, no connection to the digital world, who doesn’t hear the Conversation that is part and parcel of life for most of Earth’s diverse residents. Achimwene collects a special kind of rarity: books, mostly his beloved paperback pulp fiction novels.
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And those are just some of the ripples. There is so much more to author Lavie Tidhar’s imagined future through which these characters move with ease; religions, philosophies, moralities, occupations, pastimes, expectations, perceptions. And yet, these “ordinary” characters also exist with bonds that not only anchor them to us, but to generations that have come before us: familial ties, generational histories, enduring landscapes, and always, always, the basics of loyalty and friendship and love.
Central Station is definitely a book – and vision of the future – that is worth experiencing.