Resolved: A book should be resolved!
On a sultry August evening, the thunderstorms threatened outside and inside as the Beamers tried to wrestle a meaning out of our latest book, Central Station by Lavie Tidhar, a short work that seemed overly long on ideas but not on plot.
A Work by R. Brother Patch-it?
A principal stumbling block for the Beamers was the structure of the work. Central Station is a fix-up, a series of connected short pieces that attempts to deliver one (or more) coherent narrative(s). Published over the course of 4 years (2011 to 2014) in various sf magazines and anthologies, it tells the braided stories of a group of people and cyborgs and robots and digital beings who live in and around a giant spaceport, Central Station, that rises above the old cities of Jaffa/Tel Aviv. Also included are two new segments written especially for the collected volume, as well as some re-writing of the previously published material.
And that conglomeration was at the heart of the issue that most Beamers took against the work. Should a reader expect the crisp jab of a short story or the longer, slower poking of a novel? In a work that tries to deliver both, is the combination a series of more powerful pokes or a sequences of off-balance punches that come in all directions and leave only a confused impression of direction? For many Beamers, the switching between multiple viewpoint characters left a feeling of half-resolved plot points and constant interruptions of further unsolved mysteries.
Too Much of Too Many Good Things
Liz felt that the ideas and concepts were coming too fast and furious, pushing the work over the top, with every character having some key science fictional advance (digital life, data vampire, robotic clergy) that simply piled atop and obscured each other instead of clarifying how the universe worked. Fran, too, agreed that the choppy feel of the narrative was not helping point the reader toward a resolution but instead away from any completed answers. Jon also argued that the individual chapters served as sketches without being self-contained stories, and the ending was a “fade to black” scene of characters driving off without actually addressing their individual or collective questions. Only one chapter, the euthanasia-by-roller-coaster segment, struck him as having anything like proper closure.
In contrast, Alan, while agreeing that the work lacked the unity of a novel, and thus was initially disappointing, pointed out that the individual chapters, accepted as short stories, were effective sketches of the characters and their dilemmas and challenges. If they lack closure, then he observed that closure (as of the 1960s) was not a firm requirement for a short story. I was a bit more positive in favor of the book’s structure, as I did not find the lack of unity or the resolution of character problems to be too much of an obstacle. (To be fair, I do always look for copyright notices in books to see if the work was conceived as a single composition or as a re-working of separate segments being brought together; the fix-up is an old sf method of building a novel out of a working writer’s many shorter pieces, especially in the days before sf authors were offered book contracts.)
The Character Arcs Bend Slowly, But Bend toward Resolution?
In fact, I found that a lot of the character issues were resolved in the book. For example, we open with Boris Chong returning to Central Station and meeting his old love, Miriam, and her adopted son, Kranki; and we end with Boris, Miriam, and Kranki taking that summer’s drive. While we do not know if Boris and Miriam will wed and raise Kranki together, we certainly get a strong hint. And Kranki, one of the mystery children who appear to live both inside the digital realm and the real world? What will happen to them is left open, but that corresponds nicely to Miriam’s prescription: “All childhoods end … But they did not have to end too soon.”
Genre as Conversation (the Hartwell Theory)
As that quote indicates, Central Station is also littered with sf references like “childhoods end”. Most Beamers did not pick up these Easter eggs, nor did they find them too valuable when they were brought up in our discussion. But I was fond of them as they brought up a lot of classic works about which I am quite fond. If, like Jon, you do not care for Dune, then having this work retell Frank Herbert’s eco-theological novel (battles in the desert, featuring giant sandworms hunted by local tribes for venom/medicine) in 2 pages would not offer much to make up for the irritating shifts of narration.
Worse, if, like Donna, the character of the data “vampire” seems too much a fantasy element and not a shout-out to a famous sf figure keyed by the name “shambleau”, then the rest of the book also seemed to lack the essential quality of rigorous extrapolation that marks good sf from other speculative genres. “Shambleau” was the first story published by sf grandmaster Catherine Moore in 1933, and it featured an alien with seductive powers that preyed upon humans, like a vampire. So, perhaps the Beamers need to do a bit more reading of the founders of sf to get a clearer sense of Mr. Tidhar’s intentions.
It Takes a Pretty Diverse Village
As mentioned, the cast is varied, even within the human characters, who include descendants of the Chinese and Nigerian and Filipino immigrants who came to Israel for work and stayed to raise new families. The plethora of characters also proved to be a stumbling block for most Beamers, who echoed Jon’s complaint that few of them were well-rounded enough to truly give a sense of community to the setting, despite the author’s seeming desire to fully populate the streets and shops of Central Station. Chris could not find any characters about whom he could honestly care. And the more alien ones, the digital beings called the Others, exasperated several Beamers, who, like Liz, could not figure out how they existed nor what motivated them.
Alan did remind us that the digital beings were called “Other” by the human characters to emphasize the alien nature of their existence even to humans who lived with permanent Internet connections in their own skulls. Which reminder did not help Jon understand the “digital liberation front” who freed the first Others from their “nursery” server, nor appreciate the emergence of the Central Station spaceport itself as a character. (Though I did find it bemusing that a conversation with an elevator brought out no acknowledgements of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)
Overall, then, Central Station proved to be a disappointment for the Beamers, lacking some of the cleaner connections between problems and solutions that we prefer in sf. While the quality of the writing was not in question, being praised in everyone’s summary, the haphazard feeling of the book’s structure and its intent not to tell us what the intent of mystery Others having a space vampire supply her digital “infection” to a group of half-physical/half-virtual children left us unsatisfied.