Thursday 19 May 2016

Central Station - Lavie Tidhar

   When Boris Chong returns to Tel Aviv from Mars, much has changed. But his vast, extended family continues to pull him back home.

   Boris’s ex-lover Miriam is raising a strangely familiar child who can tap into the datastream of a mind with the touch of a finger. His cousin Isobel is infatuated with a robotnik—a cyborg ex-Israeli soldier who might well be begging for parts. Even his old flame, Carmel—a hunted data-vampire—has followed him back to a planet where she is forbidden to return.

   Rising above all is Central Station, the interplanetary hub between all things: the constantly shifting Tel Aviv; a powerful virtual arena, and the space colonies where humanity has gone to escape the ravages of poverty and war. Everything is connected by the Others, powerful entities who, through the Conversation—a shifting, flowing stream of consciousness— are just the beginning of irrevocable change.

   I admired Osama and The Violent Century a great deal and I loved A Man Lies Dreaming but Central Station is a novel to fall in love with. Tidhar, it goes without saying now, is a fantastic writer and his new book is a rare and glorious thing, full of sublime ideas and beautiful, evocative prose:

"Boris Chong, who had once been beautiful, when she was beautiful, in the soft nights of spring long ago as they lay on top of the old building filled with domestic workers for the rich of the North, they had made themselves a nest there, between the solar panels and the wind traps, a little haven made of old discarded sofas and an awning of colourful calico from India with political slogans on it in a language neither of them spoke. They had lain there, and gloried in their naked bodies up on the roof, in spring, when the air was warm and scented with the lilacs and the bushes of jasmine down below, late-blooming jasmine, that released its smell at night, under the stars and the lights of the space port." (P7)

   The story of Central Station "that vast space port which rises over the twin cityscapes of Arab Jaffa, Jewish Tel Aviv" and a community of characters that live and work within and outside it is full of longing and sensuality, smells and sounds, textures and tastes. It's a novel set in an extraordinary, mind blowing, far future about ordinary people trying to live their lives with dignity.

   As often with sf I'm not entirely confident of my intertextual imaginings as my sf reading is so patchy* but I couldn't help but think of various other writers. Tidhar's novel is weird and wonderful in the manner of Philip K Dick and Cordwainer Smith; it is generous, calm, intense, elegant and dreamy especially in the way Tidhar connects his short stories into an organic whole, Martian Chronicles stylee. I kept thinking of Mike Harrison's Light too - in the ease with which the novel introduces difficult and surreal concepts and ideas but also because, as Robert MacFarlane has written "His [Harrison's] books gleam with the lustre of found beauty and brief happiness: moments of being that exceed the claims of market forces. This aspect of his work is, I think, what led Michael Moorcock memorably to christen him "an anarchist aesthete". There are no candy cane epiphanies or take-home morals – just occasional light-flares from unexpected sources and surges of sensation that might make existence worth enduring." Don't misunderstand this comparison - Central Station is very different too, most surely in its hopefulness and the hues of romanticism that colour it. Finally the novel put me, happily, in 2000AD space - that space that first fully engaged me in sf - all that detail, a tone carefully and knowingly constructed, all those ideas, many of them inspired by 60s and 70s sf, and a pulp sensibility, less present than in the other novels, but still there in the ether. 

   In previous novels Tidhar has used metafictional devices to investigate and complicate history and politics. That self reflexive impulse is still present in the new novel - a central character is a bookseller fascinated by genre and storytelling, and make sure you remember the prologue - but it's less central to the structure and has a gentler purpose. Otherwise there is much in the form and structure to appreciate and linger over: the use of those evocative lists and careful juxtapositions, an intriguing narrative voice, plenty of jokes and references to ALL kinds of stuff (Star Trek Voyager and Peter Davison era Doctor Who.....well, maybe I was imagining some of them!), plus a singular pleasure and play in language and style.

   One of my complaints this year, against even the better fantasy and sf texts is that they're so caught up in ruling class intrigue. Sure it can be a useful lens through which to examine power, greed and imperialism but part of me finds it increasingly difficult to connect with those stories any more. One of the delights of Central Station is that it successfully interrogates the legacies of war and imperialism, of poverty and immigration, of belonging and identity but does so with a cast of characters who exist on the margins but are still fundamental to the fabric of life: shop keepers, children, priests, workers, refugees, forgotten soldiers, beggars, lovers, romantics. In large part the novel is a testament to family and community, steadfastness and determination:

"Oz meant “strength,” in Hebrew. But the real strength, Miriam thought, wasn’t in intimidating helpless people, who had nowhere else to turn. It was in surviving, the way her parents had, the way she had—learning Hebrew, working, making a small, quiet life as past turned to present and present to future, until one day there was only her, still living here, in Central Station." (P19)

   So yes the lives that Tidhar gives us here may still be precarious and prey to larger forces in society but there is satisfaction to be had in the shapes and stories of everyday life, in the surprise and ardour of loving, in friendship.

   Central Station is a rich, complex and satisfying work of art. It manages to be spectacularly lyrical (I was going to write 'literary' but stopped myself) and spectacularly sfnal too. I'm not sure it has ploughed down into my unconscious like a Harrison text or as novels by Robson and Fagan have this year but I realise that doesn't matter. It's more of an aesthetic pleasure - the pleasure of language and ideas, of cerebral oohs and aahs and of wonder. It is metaphorically rich in its thinking about the relationship of places and spaces to time, memory and history. It is meditative and kind. It is daring and full of grace.

   It is a novel to fall in love with.

[Hold on though, isn't there a but? There's always a but....

Well the conversation I've been having with myself, in my gloomy, 'how on earth is humanity going to last another 100 years' and 'how the hell is there ever going to be peace in the Middle East' way is about whether Central Station is just too hopeful and unrealistic. On one level it IS fascinating that my pessimism about Palestine/Israel and my rage at the increasing barbarity (and stupidity) of Zionism impacts on my ability to accept sf tropes. Anyway, thankfully I've been able to tell that part of me to shut up and stop being stupid. Perhaps of all regions on this planet the Middle East deserves a little hope. And it certainly deserves this novel. 

That winning side of me remembered too that I have a treasured CD/DVD of the West-Eastern Divan orchestra with Daniel Baranboim playing Tchaikovsky's Fifth that I haven't watched for a while. Maybe I'll watch it again tonight again, for the umpteenth time, and let that hope breath a bit longer.]

*So, after I wrote this I couldn't resist a bit of detective work. First there's this lovely article at Tor about influences, a good interview here and a small paragraph on Lavie's blog here. I shall be reading Miguel Street and C L Moore asap. 

Wednesday 11 May 2016

Shortlist discussions - Clarke, Kitschies and more.

The Discussion

There’s the beginnings of a discussion about the future of the Clarke Award with excellent posts by Nina Allan here, Jonathan McCalmont here and Martin Petto here and here. [I'd definitely endorse Niall Harrison’s all-female lists and David Hebblethwaite's comment]. The posts and the comments discuss the difficulties of judging and scheduling, hopes and ideas about how to keep the award relevant, interesting and vital plus hopes and ideas about how to broaden the discussion around the Clarke and Kitchies shortlists. If you haven’t read them already I’d urge you to asap!

Nick Hubble also posted a link to Allan’s essay on FB (posted, 29th April on Contemporary British Fiction if you want to find it) and provides a useful reminder of “the dangers inherent to valuing the ‘literary’”, aware as he is about “how literary valuation and canons are complicit with hierarchical power relations across English studies as a discipline”. He also stresses that there are different ways of being ambitious and gives as an example Dave Huchinson’s fantastic Europe at Midnight. This is obviously important in any discussion opposing ‘literary sf’ with the ‘genre heartlands’.

The Kitschies

Part of me has little to add to what has already been written. The Kitschies, for all the brilliant books it has brought to my attention over the last few years, will become irrelevant to readers if it can’t adopt a decent structure and a clear timetable and forum for debate. I hope it does because there desperately needs to be a space for critical debate about literary speculative fiction.  But I won’t support it next year unless there is sufficient time to read the books and we get some kind of platform for discussion. Otherwise, Jonathan’s assessment seems depressingly spot on:

“If you want to know the future of the Clarke Award look no further than the Kitschies as they seem to provide publishing professionals with everything they could possibly want from an award: Winners announced two weeks after the publication of the shortlists in order to maximise free PR and a drinks party serving the second or third least expensive wine on the list. Tentacle headgear is optional, no riffraff.

The Clarke

If the Clarke award is slowly taking a journey to the genre heartlands then it will simply become far less relevant to me. I’d like to be able to say that this is fine. I didn’t find my love of books in fantasy or sf. I found it in horror and thrillers, and later in my teen years, in ‘literary fiction’. Sf didn’t come until much later – first with Banks and Le Guin in my 20s and then, increasingly, with my discovery of Mike Harrison and China Mieville (and their lists). I’ll still be able to identify the books I want to read because I’ve built up a large store of knowledge and because I’ll continue to look to Strange Horizons, Nina Allan and various others for recommendations. And I still read more literary fiction over the course of the year even if I’m drawn most to that which messes and plays with genre boundaries.

However, a lot of that knowledge was acquired by reading the critical debate over the Clarke shortlists by Nussbaum, Roberts, Hartland and others (see Martin’s post above) over the years and by going back and reading many of the novels. Indeed many of those novels mean a lot to me. I already miss that debate somewhat but since it depends on a great deal of good will and intelligence I’m not confident it will be forthcoming. Furthermore shortlists that are fun and conservative, as opposed to difficult, provocative and challenging are likely to inspire less debate and less critical insight too.

Thus, for what it is worth, I clearly don’t want the Clarke to retreat to the genre heartlands. One look at my Clarke shortlist this year will show that I clearly favour ‘literary sf’. I can just about accept that The Shore and The Swan Book are too leftfield for the Clarkes but that Glorious Angels, The Thing Itself and Aurora aren’t on the shortlist is well, unforgivable? Preposterous? Inane? I’ll wait until I’ve finished all the novels until I give a full account. So far, Hutchinson deserves its place, the others really, really don’t.

   Of course, however objective one likes to think oneself, looking back through shortlists and their winners is highly instructive and of course should give anybody pause to question their certainties. Frances Hardinge, Adam Roberts and Claire North – 3 of my favourite authors - were judges for the 2014 Kitschies, but did I agree with their winners? Hell no, but that was fine because the shortlists were fantastic. I love the 2007 Clarke shortlist but Martin (see above) is less inspired. And then there is Naam and Mann in 2014???? And how did Richard Flannagan beat Ali Smith in the 2014 Booker (or even Fowler or Mukherjee)? I could go on and on. And this year’s Bailey’s shortlist is a stinker….

So, honestly, I don’t expect perfection, and I don’t expect to agree wholeheartedly. That would be ridiculously dull and conservative of me. Indeed I want to have my certainties challenged, my horizons stretched and my mind blown. Is that too much to ask?

Paraphrasing Jonathan’s last paragraph a little, I will continue to seek out, appreciate and praise criticism that is willing to rock the boat and ask awkward questions. Moreover I want art to push me and perplex me. I’ve never understood those people who tell me art is just for fun or consolation and here I’ll quote Jeanette Winterson:

Art cannot be tamed, although our responses to it can be, and in relation to The Canon our responses are conditioned from the moment we start school. The freshness which the everyday man or woman pride themselves upon; the untaught "I know what I like" approach, now encouraged by the media, is neither fresh nor untaught. It is the half-baked sterility of the classroom washed down with liberal doses of popular culture.                                                   

  The media ransacks the arts, in its images, in its advertisements, in its copy, in its jingles, in its little tunes and journalist's jargon, it continually offers up faint shadows of the form and invention of real music, real paintings, real words. All of us are subject to this bombardment, which both deadens our sensibilities and makes us fear what is not instant, approachable, consumable. The solid presence of art demands from us significant effort, an effort anathema to popular culture. Effort of time, effort of money, effort of study, effort of humility, effort of  imagination have each been packed by the artist into the art. Is it so unreasonable to expect a percentage of that from us in return? [Art Objects]