Lavie Tidhar is one of the most interesting and original fantasy authors in English. The Guardian has described his novel, Man Lies Dreaming as a “twisted master piece”, and one that will be published in Spanish next year by Kailas. His novel Osama won the World Fantasy Award 2012 and, since then, titles like The Bookman or The Violent Century, or Art & War continue to make readers and critics agree in their favorable opinions.
Central Station, his last published novel, was a synaesthetic experience for me, a canvas in which each story is part of an ensemble that talks about a crossroads, a unique location in which peoples lives blend, featuring original ideas in a plausible way. The location, a hub situated in a future Tel Aviv, is so realistically described that we can smell, hear and taste as much as see the characters in their domesticity. Tidhar’s talent is such that, despite the distance in time with this place, we can actually picture ourselves on it: our future is nothing more than our present filled with speculative elements. In that regard, Central Station is a character in itself, influencing its inhabitants almost in a Solaris-sort-of-manner.
Diasporas have been a favorite in human History. In a way, we are witnessing a big one right now in the form of immigrants from war zones -there always have been military conflicts and it looks like they will always been-. In Central Station Tidhar narrative is built around the results: the constant outpouring of people coming and going; the half men-half machine soldiers in the aftermath of wars, the colonization of other worlds, etc. The consequences of society’s great relocations can be seen no just in the spreading of human life in the universe but also in the creation of parallel worlds in the digital realm. So the novel is filled with cyberpunk as much as with contact with other intelligent beings.
Technology is overwhelmingly present: from a virtual reality in which you can live a parallel life, to a constant integration with the Conversation –the Net-, as well as genetically engineered babies, digital vampires, priest robots, and cyborgs. The author conveys it all in a kind of impressionistic painting, better enjoyed from far. I’ve always thought Lavie’s prose has the intensity and power of impressionist painters while the topics and ideas he tackles are mostly expressionist: with few strokes of his words, he can submerge the reader in an intense state, sort of a Van Gogh’s picture, walking a fine line between a descriptive art and this expressionistic themes. This is exactly what I admire in Tidhar’s art.
You, reader, need to get this book and read it. This is a glimpse of a probable future, one that is closer than one can think, with all its gradients of grey; with immortality and new sicknesses; with isolation and boredom as well as new ways to communicate and relate to reality; with new types of humans, from the half-machines, or the symbiosis between men and aliens, to tranhumans.
After being one of the guests of honor in the last Celsius Festival, SuperSonic was able to interview him to get to know him better.
Cristina Jurado: How much did you have to rework the stories of Central Station to unify them into a novel?
Lavie Tidhar: Hi! Well, it's an interesting question. You have to understand that the plan from the very start was to write a mosaic novel - I put the accent on novel here! - which in turn is in following a long tradition in science fiction (think Simak's CITY, Zelazny's LORD OF LIGHT, etc). Which is of novels made up of more or less stand-alone "episodes" which were published first in the magazines of the day. It was something I long dreamed of doing, but never felt able to do, before.
So this is what I did, but when I was done, it didn't quite work. Not entirely. And I was too close to the material to know what I needed to do in terms of editing. Luckily, Tachyon knew exactly what I was trying to do and were able to offer me the feedback I needed. So, from a technical standpoint, it was things like changing the order of the stories to fit better, cutting one story entirely, cutting another one in half, removing redundancies, smoothing down the linkages between individual episodes, and so on! It was a very interesting process for me, and it felt great! It shows you how important it is to have an editor, someone who both understands what you want to do and able to give you the tools to do it.
CJ: You recently mentioned that there were a total of 120000 words, 28 more stories, set in the universe of Central Station. Do you have any plans to consolidate them all one of few books?
LT: I was always fascinated by the idea of a "future history" - I think Heinlein coined the term, but the one that most inspired me (as might be obvious in the writing) is Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality series. So my more specifically science fictional stories started fitting into this loose world, where I felt I was able to offer a sort of vision of the future of humanity - one future, anyway. Central Station was the culmination of that, I think, and once it was done, I felt I was also finished with that particular version of the future. It's a sort of fun thing to do, though! To be honest, I am not entirely sure about a collection at this point. Much of it was me learning as I went, and some of the early stories might not be as good, or need a lot of polish. But never say never... (and actually, I include my short novel, MARTIAN SANDS, and the novella CLOUD PERMUTATIONS in that universe, as well as an unpublished, far-too-weird novel called CHAINS OF ASSEMBLY, so the total word count on that universe would be in the region of 330,000 words!)
CJ: The next question is related to your vision of the future of humanity. I’ve always been fascinated by your uchronic stories (Osama, The Violent Century, A Man Lies Dreaming, etc) and, in a weird way, your future stories feel to me like also like Alternate Future History. I know it's a strange idea, since the future is unwritten, but you are able to provide a patina of credibility in your stories than make them believable, even when talking about the future (this is the best way I can explain it!). Maybe it’s the familiar elements you include, as well as the themes per se. How do you choose your writing projects and the angle in which you approach them?
LT: Well, Central Station was a way for me to talk about a real time and place - in this case, the part of south Tel Aviv around the real life, and very strange, central bus station, and the real people who currently live there - but to do it through the distorting lens of science fiction. I think an important part of the book, actually, is the sort of prologue, which does open up in the here and now, and then makes that sort of slingshot into the far future. But, I think you're right that, like my other books, it's trying to address very contemporary, real issues.
The other thing I'd say is, it's not so much my vision of the future - more me corresponding with an older vision of the future, that sort of very optimistic "Golden Age" view of the future, and at the same time getting the chance to interrogate it and re-shape it. My next full SF project will be very different, I think, as I've become much more interested in issues of sustainability, for instance.
As to how I choose my projects - I don't! Central Station came from living in Jaffa back in 2010-2011, and being very much influenced by the area of the station, the current situation there. Usually I have several projects on the go at once, but it's about finding the one that somehow clicks, that makes you stick with it. Sometimes you think a book sounds great, but it never clicks, and the idea just sits there, never written or, worse, you've written some of it but then it fizzled out... I find writing books very difficult, it always feels close to impossible that you've actually finished one!
CJ: You mentioned Simak and Zelazny as an inspiration but, what other authors outside science fiction have inspired you in writing Central Station?
LT: I think one very obvious influence on Central Station is V.S. Naipaul's Miguel Street, which is a sort of mosaic about the lives of residents in a small community in Trinidad and Tobago. I wanted to really write about these ordinary people, who just happen to live against this dazzling sort of science fictional future background. I think it's been confusing some people, of course, but I didn't want to write about heroes and battles and epic... stuff. I wanted to write domestic SF!
CJ: I’ve always been fascinated by authors’ creation process. How do you face a new story? Do you use outlines, characters cards and so forth? Do you have beta readers?
LT: I don't really have "beta readers", no. It's more that sometimes I'd be aware of things I want to get a specific perspective on, so I'd run the book by a colleague, but generally I have my own instinct as to what I want to achieve and whether the book has come close enough to it or not. With short stories, I just write them and then send them out.
With novels, I've become much more of a planner. I never used to! Usually novels just germinate for a very long time before I start them - I had Osama in mind for years before I started it, for instance. Some books never take off, of course... Usually I just search for the right voice, I ask who is telling the story. Once I know that, everything else sort of just slots into place.
CJ: You are a British-Israeli writer, and you incorporate a lot of Middle East cultural elements in your stories. Why do you think there is so little science fiction written in Arabic speaking countries?
LT: I hardly think I'm an authority on Arabic literature... though I'm aware of various instances of science fiction writing in the Arab world, in Egypt and Syria for instance. But, you know, it's a very American genre, really. So those of us from outside it, we need to either subvert it to fit our own cultures and perspectives, or... well we need to react either with or against it, but the hard thing is to metamorphose it into something unique. I run into a lot of aspiring writers who just want to transpose their favorite books (or, more likely, TV shows) - say, Game of Thrones, or zombies - and they just want to transpose it, so we get, say, "It's zombies, but in Jerusalem!" you know? And that doesn't work... we have such a rich history and culture, and the secret is to really reach inside and to do something original and startling.