The best opening sentence in the history of modern science fiction belongs to William Gibson. And with his new novel, Central Station, Lavie Tidhar now holds the title for best opening paragraph:
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 sounds of gunshots and it drenched the burning buggy down the street, and the old homeless man taking a s--- by the dumpster, with his gray 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.
It pushes all the buttons: Solar gliders root it in a practicable future, with electric buses giving it a tether to the already futuristic now. The musical reference is so specific, knitting together decades of rock and roll re-mix culture to give us a then-and-now frisson. There are gunshots and fire to offer danger. The old man to ground us in the sad brokenness of humanity. The smell of jasmine. The silver sheets of falling rain.
And, of course, it is beautiful. Light-fingered. Sweet and deeply sad both at the same time. And all of this, before we even know where we are.
Where we are is Tel Aviv, in the ramshackle neighborhoods surrounding Central Station — a spaceport and transit hub rising out of the center of that embattled place, built across generations to service a fractured, far-flung people coming and going from the planets and moons of our own little solar system. And we are there, walking with Mama Jones and her boy Kranki — young, adopted, magical — who can catch a single raindrop in his hands and hold it there, suspended, like a jewel. Mama Jones has come to Central Station from the little bar she runs in the neighborhood because Kranki makes her come, every Friday before Shabbat, to see if this is the day that his father comes home from the stars.
He does and he doesn't. Tidhar's first pages, alight with wonder and the perfectly realized, dusty, crowded, rain-slick and sun-baked streets of this jumbled-up and liminal place, are rich with mysteries. With history and speculation and hints (odd, vexing, perfectly phrased) of a vast, teeming world stretching beyond the covers and the bounds of the story he is telling. There's genetic engineering and spaceflight. The rush of permanent, global interconnectedness called, simply, the Conversation — a million-million voices all talking at once like the loud, operatic offspring of our own socially networked lives. Love (so much love), and wars upon wars upon wars.
Central Station is, really, a linked series of short stories, variously published over the years by Tidhar, cleaned up here and threaded together by recurring characters, shared histories and a persistent world. The man Kranki sees coming out of Central Station is Boris Chong, an old flame of Mama Jones', who left her years ago to go to space. He is back now to see to his own ailing father and comes pursued by a near-mythical girl-vampire named Carmel who sucks data rather than blood. Carmel falls for a dealer in antique books and, together, the two of them become detectives (of a sort) while the book dealer's friend, The Lord Of Discarded Things, collects the broken pieces of the world in his junkyard kingdom and Kranki and his friends (magical children all, possessed of powers hardly explained and barely understood) live their impossible childhoods among the bombs and the robots, the chaos and the Conversation.
I read 50 pages of it in a sitting and told anyone who'd listen that this was it — the new jack Neuromancer I've been waiting for since forever, all goopy and biological where the original was hard-edged and chromed; a story of refugees and castaways, artists and terrorists, of a used-up earth gone exhausted with age, and a new one still waiting to be born. Sure, there was a long bit with a robot mohel that dragged a little. Some stuff about drugs and religion that was somewhat heavy-handed. But Tidhar has this ability to pivot on a dime — to go deep on some weird tangent, pause, and then come roaring back in a completely different direction, burning up page after page with longing and heartbreak and cyborgs, all written with such aching beauty that I could've lived a year in his fractured world and still been sad to leave.
What matters is, Central Station held together. 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. He has pockets full of them. Enough here for 10 books, easy.
But the best compliment I can give this one is that as soon as I finished it, I sighed, smiled, closed the back cover, then turned the whole thing 'round and immediately started over again at Page 1.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.