Sometimes a spaceship is just a spaceship
The British Science Fiction Association holds regular events in London, usually on the last Wednesday of the month, at the Artillery Arms near Old Street. These events are free, and open to members and non-members alike. Keep an eye on the BSFA website for news of future events. In September, award-winning author Lavie Tidhar (L below) was interviewed by critic and editor Konrad Walewski.
Lavie Tidhar’s freewheeling style is well-suited to original narrative forms that subvert Western genre fiction tropes, while still engaging with them almost as props. For example, he says this year’s Clarke Award-nominated ‘Central Station’ gave him the opportunity to employ Golden Age imagery, like the action around a spaceport, and then let it fade into the background as if it’s being ignored. This repositioning gives a nonchalant impression, rather like the author’s noirish detective protagonists. However, in the same way the world-weary 40s gumshoe turns out to be the only person in the story with any compassion, so Lavie’s books reveal more complex themes than their setups imply.
The noir angle could be the reason Lavie has been linked with cyberpunk, much to his annoyance. He describes ‘Neuromancer’ as ‘Chandler with computers’ and decries the ten years between that novel and ‘Snow Crash’, in which people emulated what they thought was a new formula for success. Also, there is nothing hard-boiled about ‘Central Station’. While cyberpunk is about cool cowboys saving the world from a rogue AI, Lavie’s books are about people who get the kids to school and then go to work defeating the AI. Indeed, he sees ‘Central Station’ as a romance novel; its wedding-and-funeral climax more Richard Curtis than William Gibson.
Unlike both of those writers, however, Lavie writes texts that recognise they are texts. ‘A Man Lies Dreaming’ is about a man in a concentration camp imagining Hitler as a private detective, rather than a ‘straightforward’ story that begins with Adolf in his beat-up office drinking whisky and waiting for that big case to strut through the door in killer heels. Lavie disregards the conventional requirement of science fiction to be narratively simple so as not to distract from Big Ideas. Instead, his stories layer authentic experience to create a unique impression of humanity in the face of the extraordinary.
The extraordinary can be a figure from the past such as Hitler or events like the New York terror attacks. In Lavie’s novel ‘Osama’, memories of the 2001 atrocity are filtered through a fugue-like narrative in which Bin Laden is a fictional freedom fighter invented by a writer of populist fiction. As with the Holocaust in ‘A Man Lies Dreaming’, familiar nightmares are explored from a haunting, otherworldly new perspective.
Lavie seeks to avoid the traditional plot/action-heavy narratives so familiar in Western science fiction. His ambition with ‘Central Station’ was to create an homage to novels like Clifford D Simak’s ‘City’: a cohesive narrative that evolved in sections. Both books were created as a single work, sold as a series of short magazine stories and then sold a second time as novels. Another influence on ‘Central Station’ is Cordwainer Smith’s ‘The Rediscovery of Man’, with its framing device of characters in the distant future referring to a past that is millennia ahead of 2017.
This commingling of timescales to create a disorienting sense of place has a physical corollary in the real-world model for ‘Central Station’: the bus terminal in Tel Aviv. The terminal was conceived as a futuristic transit facility with built-in theatres and an internal structure based on the ancient City of Jerusalem, with its complex but oddly comforting alleyways. Instead, the place is a vast, dystopian maze haunted by sex professionals and drug dealers, while the bus passengers themselves are often disadvantaged groups like refugees from Africa and economic migrants.
Lavie spent many years living on the South Pacific islands, whose pidgin English informs the dialect of ‘Central Station’. Islanders stop off at the spaceport on their way to work among the asteroids, bringing their language with them. Such is its linguistic power, Lavie says he regrets not making clear in the novel that he didn’t invent it.
The theme of language recurs in Lavie’s work. He has written about a next generation Internet that requires users to have a specific genetic makeup, thus uploading the contemporary class system. That this system is called ‘The Conversation’ is a characteristic blend of language and hierarchy.
Similarly, the historical characters Lavie is drawn to are either powerful but destructive orators like (Hitler, Bin Laden) or problematic writers. Lavie wants to write about HP Lovecraft, but his current work in progress examines a character who has much in common with L Ron Hubbard. Lavie describes Hubbard as the ultimate pulp SF guy who was good at writing the genre and wanted to go a stage further. Lavie feels this inclination was common among Hubbard’s contemporaries, particularly Robert Heinlein, but that Hubbard actually did it and created a whole religious empire. Lavie admits he couldn’t do that; he’s too lazy. Instead, he is fascinated by the intersection of science fiction and religion, from Scientology to UFO cults.
Although Lavie explains he doesn’t see himself as a specifically Jewish writer, his desire to create a science-fictional language as good as Hebrew and co-editing (with Rebecca Levine) short story collections like ‘Jews Versus Aliens’ suggests his culture is a strong influence. Here too there are elements that open out the Western narrative tradition. Many Western heroes are loners or ‘individuals’; while stories from other world cultures include a whole system of obligations involving family members. An Israeli hero, Lavie says, would set off for the stars like any character from a Heinlein epic; the difference is that on the way his mum would call about his second cousin…