A worldwide diaspora has left a quarter of a million people at the foot of a space station. Cultures collide in real life and virtual reality. Life is cheap, and data is cheaper.
When Boris Chong returns to Tel Aviv from Mars, much has changed. Boris's ex-lover is raising a strangely familiar child who can tap into the datastream of a mind with the touch of a finger. His cousin is infatuated with a robotnik—a damaged cyborg soldier who might as well be begging for parts. His father is terminally-ill with a multigenerational mind-plague. And a hunted data-vampire has followed Boris to where she is forbidden to return.
Rising above them 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 alien entities who, through the Conversation—a shifting, flowing stream of consciousness—are just the beginning of irrevocable change.
At Central Station, humans and machines continue to adapt, thrive . . . and even evolve.
It seemed like such a crazy idea – write a science fiction novel in a series of linked stories, where nothing happens, and set it in the backstreets of Tel Aviv. I figured no one would read it. As it turned out, I couldn't have been more wrong! It's been out in various languages, picked up awards, and I even got to launch the Chinese edition in Beijing just before the pandemic. While Central Station took years to write, it remains one of my favourites. – Lavie Tidhar
". . . a fascinating future glimpsed through the lens of a tight-knit community. Verdict: Tidhar (A Man Lies Dreaming; The Violent Century) changes genres with every outing, but his astounding talents guarantee something new and compelling no matter the story he tells."– Library Journal, starred review
"It is just this side of a masterpiece — short, restrained, lush — and the truest joy of it is in the way Tidhar scatters brilliant ideas like pennies on the sidewalk."– NPR Books
"Beautiful, original, a shimmering tapestry of connections and images – I can't think of another SF novel quite like it. Lavie Tidhar is one of the most distinctive voices to enter the field in many years."– Alastair Reynolds, author of the Revelation Space series
"If you want to know what SF is going to look like in the next decade, this is it."– Gardner Dozois, editor of the best-selling Year’s Best Science Fiction series
"A dazzling tale of complicated politics and even more complicated souls. Beautiful."– Ken Liu, Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy winner and author of The Grace of Kings
"If Nalo Hopkinson and William Gibson held a séance to channel the spirit of Ray Bradbury, they might be inspired to produce a work as grimy, as gorgeous, and as downright sensual as Central Station."– Peter Watts, author of Blindsight
Once, the world was young. The Exodus ships had only begun to leave the solar system then; the world of Heven had not been discovered; Dr. Novum had not yet come back from the stars. People still lived as they had always lived: in sun and rain, in and out of love, under a blue sky and in the Conversation, which is all about us, always.
This was in old Central Station, that vast space port which rises over the twin cityscapes of Arab Jaffa, Jewish Tel Aviv. It happened amidst the arches and the cobblestones, a stone-throw from the sea: you could still smell the salt and the tar in the air, and watch, at sunrise, the swoop and turn of solar kites and their winged surfers in the air.
This was a time of curious births, yes: you will read about that. You were no doubt wondering about the children of Central Station. Wondering, too, how a Strigoi was allowed to come to Earth. This is the womb from which humanity crawled, tooth by bloody nail, towards the stars.
But it is an ancestral home, too, to the Others, those children of the digitality. In a way, this is as much their story.
There is death in here as well, of course: there always is. The Oracle is here, and Ibrahim, the alte-zachen man, and many others whose names may be familiar to you—
But you know all this already. You must have seen The Rise of Others. It's all in there, though they made everyone look so handsome.
This all happened long ago, but we still remember; and we whisper to each other the old tales across the aeons, here in our sojourn among the stars.
It begins with a little boy, waiting for an absent father.
One day, the old stories say, a man fell down to Earth from the stars. . . .
THE INDIGNITY OF RAIN
The smell of rain caught them unprepared. It was spring, there was that smell of jasmine and it mixed with the hum of electric buses, and there were solar gliders in the sky, like flocks of birds. Ameliah Ko was doing a Kwasa-Kwasa remix of a Susan Wong cover of "Do You Wanna Dance." It had begun to rain in silver sheets, almost silently; the rain swallowed the sound of gunshots and it drenched the burning buggy down the street, and the old homeless man taking a shit by the dumpster, with his grey pants around his ankles, got caught in it, his one roll of toilet paper in his hand, and he cursed, but quietly. He was used to the indignity of rain.
The city had been called Tel Aviv. Central Station rose high into the atmosphere in the south of the city, bordered in by the webwork of silenced old highways. The station's roof rose too high to see, serving the stratospheric vehicles that rose from and landed onto its machine-smooth surface. Elevators like bullets shot up and down the station and, down below, in the fierce Mediterranean sun, around the space port a bustling market heaved with commerce, visitors and residents, and the usual assortment of pickpockets and identity thieves.
From orbit down to Central Station, from Central Station down to street level, and out from within the air-conditioned liminal space into the poverty of the neighbourhood around the port, where Mama Jones and the boy Kranki stood hand in hand, waiting.
The rain caught them by surprise. The space port, this great white whale, like a living mountain rising out of the urban bedrock, drew onto itself the formation of clouds, its very own miniature weather system. Like islands in the ocean, space ports saw localised rains, cloudy skies, and a growth industry of mini-farms growing like lichen on the side of their vast edifices.
The rain was warm and the drops fat and the boy reached out his hand and cupped a raindrop between his fingers.
Mama Jones, who had been born in this land, in this city that had been called many names, to a Nigerian father and a Filipina mother, in this very same neighbourhood, when the roads still thrummed to the sound of the internal combustion engine and the central station had served buses, not suborbitals, and could remember wars, and poverty, and being unwanted here, in this land fought over by Arab and Jew, looked at the boy with fierce protective pride. A thin, glittering membrane, like a soap bubble, appeared between his fingers, the boy secreting power and manipulating atoms to form this thing, this protective snow globe, capturing within it the single drop of rain. It hovered between his fingers, perfect and timeless.
Mama Jones waited, if a little impatiently. She ran a shebeen here, on the old Neve Sha'anan road, a pedestrianised zone from the old days, that ran right up to the side of the space port, and she needed to be back there.
"Let it go," she said, a little sadly. The boy turned deep blue eyes on her, a perfect blue that had been patented some decades earlier before finding its way to the gene clinics here, where it had been ripped, hacked and resold to the poor for a fraction of the cost.
They said south Tel Aviv had better clinics even than Chiba or Yunnan, though Mama Jones rather doubted it.
Cheaper, though, perhaps.
"Is he coming?" the boy said.
"I don't know," Mama Jones said. "Maybe. Maybe today he is coming."
The boy turned his head to her, and smiled. He looked very young when he smiled. He released the strange bubble in his hand and it floated upwards, through the rain, the single suspended raindrop inside rising towards the clouds that birthed it.
Mama Jones sighed, and she cast a worried glance at the boy. Kranki was not a name, as such. It was a word from Asteroid Pidgin, itself a product of Earth's old South Pacific contact languages, carried into space by the miners and engineers sent there as cheap labour by the Malay and Chinese companies. Kranki, from the old English cranky, it meant variously grumpy or crazy or . . .
Or a little odd.
Someone who did things that other people didn't.
What they called, in Asteroid Pidgin, nakaimas.
She was worried about Kranki.
"Is he coming? Is that him?"
There was a man coming towards them, a tall man with an aug behind his ear, and skin that showed the sort of tan one got from machines, and the uneasy steps of someone not used to this gravity. The boy pulled on her hand. "Is that him?"
"Maybe," she said, feeling the hopelessness of the situation as she did each time they repeated this little ritual, every Friday before the Shabbat entered, when the last load of disembarking passengers arrived at Tel Aviv from Lunar Port, or Tong Yun on Mars, or from the Belt, or from one of the other Earth cities like Newer Delhi or Amsterdam or São Paulo. Each week, because the boy's mother had told him, before she died, that his father would one day return, that his father was rich and was working far away, in space, and that one day he would return, return on a Friday so as not to be late for the Shabbat, and he would look after them.
Then she went and overdosed on Crucifixation, ascending to heaven on a blaze of white light, seeing God while they tried to pump her stomach but it was too late, and Mama Jones, somewhat reluctantly, had to look after the boy—because there was no one else.
In North Tel Aviv the Jews lived in their skyrises, and in Jaffa to the South the Arabs had reclaimed their old land by the sea. Here, in between, there were still those people of the land they had called variously Palestine or Israel and whose ancestors had come there as labourers from around the world, from the islands of the Philippines, and from the Sudan, from Nigeria, and from Thailand or China, whose children were born there, and their children's children, speaking Hebrew and Arabic and Asteroid Pidgin, that near-universal language of space. Mama Jones looked after the boy because there was no one else and the rule across this country was the same in whichever enclave of it you were. We look after our own.
Because there is no one else.
"It's him!" The boy pulled at her hand. The man was coming towards them, something familiar about his walk, his face, suddenly confusing Mama Jones. Could the boy really be right? But it was impossible, the boy wasn't even b—
"Kranki, stop!" The boy, pulling her by the hand, was running towards the man, who stopped, startled, seeing this boy and this woman bearing down on him. Kranki stopped before the man, breathing heavily. "Are you my dad?" he said.
"Kranki!" said Mama Jones.
The man went very still. He squatted down, to be level with the boy, and looked at him with a serious, intent expression.
"It's possible," he said. "I know that blue. It was popular for a while, I remember. We hacked an open source version out of the trademarked Armani code . . ." He looked at the boy, then tapped the aug behind his ear—a Martian aug, Mama Jones noticed with alarm.
There had been life on Mars, not the ancient civilizations dreamed of in the past, but a dead, microscopic life. Then someone found a way to reverse engineer the genetic code, and made augmented units out of it. . . .
Alien symbionts no one understood, and few wanted to.
The boy froze, then smiled, and his smile was beatific. He beamed. "Stop it!" Mama Jones said. She shook the man until he almost lost his balance. "Stop it! What are you doing to him?"
"I'm . . ." The man shook his head. He tapped the aug and the boy unfroze, and looked around him, bewildered, as though he was suddenly lost. "You had no parents," the man told him. "You were labbed, right here, hacked together out of public property genomes and bits of black market nodes." He breathed. "Nakaimas," he said, and took a step back.
"Stop it!" Mama Jones said again, feeling helpless. "He is not—"
"I know." The man had found his calm again. "I am sorry. He can speak to my aug. Without an interface. I must have done a better job than I thought, back then."
Something about the face, the voice, and suddenly she felt a tension in her chest, an old feeling, strange and unsettling now. "Boris?" she said. "Boris Chong?"
"What?" he raised his face, looking at her properly for the first time. She could see him so clearly now, the harsh Slavic features and the dark Chinese eyes, the whole assemblage of him, older now, changed by space and circumstances, but still him. . . .
She had been Miriam Jones, then. Miriam after her grandmother. She tried to smile, couldn't. "It's me," she said.
"I never left," she said. "You did."
The boy looked between them. Realisation, followed by disappointment, made his face crumble. Above his head the rain gathered, pulled out of the air, forming into a wavering sheet of water through which the sun broke into tiny rainbows.
"I have to go," Miriam said. It'd been a long time since she'd been Miriam to anybody.
"Where? Wait—" Boris Chong looked, for once, confused.
"Why did you come back?" Miriam said.
He shrugged. Behind his ear the Martian aug pulsed, a parasitic, living thing feeding off its host. "I . . ."
"I have to go," Mama Jones, Miriam, she had been a Miriam and that part of her, long buried, was awakening inside her, and it made her feel strange, and uncomfortable, and she tugged on the boy's hand and the shimmering sheet of water above his head burst, falling down on either side of him, forming a perfect, wet circle on the pavement.
Every week she had acquiesced to the boy's mute desire, had taken him to the space port, to this gleaming monstrosity in the heart of the city, to watch and to wait. The boy knew he had been labbed, knew no woman's womb had ever held him, that he had been birthed within the cheap labs where the paint peeled off the walls and the artificial wombs often malfunctioned—but there had been a market for disused foetuses too, there was a market for anything.
But like all children, he never believed. In his mind his mother really had gone up to heaven, Crucifixation her key to the gates, and in his mind his father would come back, just the way she'd told him, descend from the heavens of Central Station and come down, to this neighbourhood, stuck uncomfortably between North and South, Jew and Arab, and find him, and offer him love.
She pulled on Kranki's hand again and he came with her, and the wind like a scarf wound itself around him, and she knew what he was thinking.
Next week, perhaps, he would come.