"The Shambleau called Carmel came to Central Station in spring, when the smell in the air truly is intoxicating. It is a smell of the sea, and of the sweat of so many bodies, their heat and their warmth, and it is the smell of humanity’s spices and the cool scent of its many machines."
In “Central Station” by Lavie Tidhar
This is a navel gazing novel; a friend of mine would say it's a novel about the human condition. Back in the day, this was the stuff that interested me less. But they say SF at its best is allegorical and because contemporary versions are all about we live in navel gazing times, this one was much up my alley. Quoting from “Blade Runner”, in one of the most wonderful Roy Batty lines, just so you know how geeky I am: "I've felt wind in my hair, riding test boats off the black galaxies and seen an attack fleet burn like a match and disappear. I've seen it...felt it!", one can sense what makes us human even in a SF milieu. This existential part is what makes the genre so appealing to me. I wonder when they will do a film based on Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars stuff? It has to be high-quality to do justice, casting & special effects both, so it’s going cost a bunch, also there are some themes they might not want to show the masses at this stage, perhaps that is some factor why, surprisingly, they haven't tried a film yet... big bucks to be made though if they do it well! How will you cram, what, 1500 pages of well-crafted prose into 90 minutes of Hollywood glitz? We all remember what happened to e.g. "Dune" when they tried that.
Even if we ignore ancient stories that could be categorised as SF (e.g. guy goes voyaging for golden fleece, gains it by sweet-talking girl for advice on how to avoid the guardian monster, marries her and has children, ditches her and sacrifices their children to escape, wife becomes justifiably homicidal and wreaks vengeance from a dragon-drawn chariot...) and go straight for the academically agreed "first ever" science fiction story - Frankenstein, or a Modern Prometheus - it's generally been about the characters. For every 9 books of the Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus (did someone think Asimov?) variety there's a “Venus Plus X”. And here we are, decades later, still making the "but then 90% of everything is crap" protestations, and still fighting the critical ignorance that insists that SF is all about rocket ships and ray guns. Of course a lot of it is. For the same reason that you recognise the names Jackie Collins and Dan Brown - because schlock sells. I'm just pointing out myself that "new wave" was a term used to describe the type of SF going way back to the 60s and that nothing really has changed since - there still remain new SF books worth investing the time taken to read and those that make you wish you hadn't. There are still those that examine "the human condition", some that contrast by examining "the non-human condition" and those that ignore both to concentrate on the technical issues. And in each of those groups, the same old 90/10 ratio of crap to gems. The same as every other branch of any other art. SF has long been about the human condition, I dare-say since it was ever a 'thing' and before, men have written about what it is to be a man/woman. I would say most things SF presently use it just to fill plot holes - star trek had its “treknobabble”, but it also explored humanity, something modern SF shows seem to barely acknowledge. Heck, even Terminator 2 plucked a few notes in that regard, besides being a brilliant action film. Yeah, come to think of it plenty of 90s SF films had a bit of the old existentialism going on, “Dark City”, “Contact”, “Matrix” (first one, just about) - I have a terrible memory and can't recall any more off the top of my head because I’m getting senile due to old age… I've watched “Arrival”, and the bulk of the film’s juicy stuff came from the book, i.e., a language expressing thoughts/meaning all-at-once, and the relationship with time being a very interesting theme. We're fast approaching the singularity though; population, productivity, consumption, identity; so who knows how we'll handle the future. Man was not born to be idle, and there's a lot of idleness approaching, and idle hands are the devils workshop. These questions, they're age old, really, aren't they. SF with outer space settings is a fraction of that genre. Much SF takes place in the future here on earth. That’s why Tidhar’s novel came as total surprise in this day and age of contemporary SF. This is my first Tidhar, but I suspect that all of his novels may have existentialist themes to them. I'm not exactly sure what the true premise of this book is, except that it's no longer difficult to imagine some of the fiction in SF and that the struggles of book’s characters now seem oddly familiar to me. Every single story in this book’s tapestry has a subtle human angle: The greatest dangers for Jews and Arabs in this novel are not each other, but “strigoi” humans with vampire-like power; at the Central Station, ethnicity, religion, race, technology, and virtual reality rub elbows; descriptions of fantastical aspects of the future seem like references to completely commonplace occurrences...sublime writing. SF with believable characters with complex emotional lives driving the plot. Wow, if only someone had thought of this before of course; there is a lot SF that has unrealistic characters driven by the needs of the plot, but that describes all fiction. The all-over-the-place plot will not be to anyone’s tastes, even to the SF hardcore fan. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that Tidhar refers to so many classics in SF, yet he chose a structure for his work that not many of those writers would have considered. It's a work in constant dialogue with the genre but not afraid to go off the beaten path. As such it is not a book for everyone, but if one likes a book that is a bit weird even by SF standards, “Central Station” might be your thing. Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
SF = Speculative Fiction.