Sometimes a spaceship is just a spaceship: Lavie Tidhar interviewed by Konrad Walewski

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 was interviewed by critic and editor Konrad Walewski.

Andrew Wallace engages the metadata…

lavieLavie Tidhar’s 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. However, it’s an approach that can backfire. Another twentieth-century genre that appeals to Lavie is noir detective fiction, and he recalls a synopsis he wrote using the idea of a gumshoe searching for his niece, only for the story’s editor to point out that Lavie had forgotten to include the fate of the girl at any point in the story.

The noir angle could be the reason Lavie has been linked with cyberpunk, although he considers the association inaccurate, describing ‘Neuromancer’ as ‘Chandler with computers’. He 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, hi-tech 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.

a manUnlike 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.

osamaIn the BSFA interview, Lavie explained how he seeks to avoid the traditional plot/action-heavy narratives so familiar in Western science fiction. He says that with ‘Central Station’ he wanted 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 workers and drug dealers, while the bus passengers themselves are often from disadvantaged groups like refugees from Africa and economic migrants.

Lavie spent many years living on the South Pacific islands, whose dialect informs that 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 it clear in the novel that he didn’t invent the language.

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’ blends ideas of language and hierarchy explored elsewhere in Lavie’s fiction.

In his conversation with Konrad, Lavie explained how he wants to write about author HP Lovecraft, whose mythos depicts elder gods whose indifference to us lower beings is as terrifying as their power. Meanwhile, Lavie’s current work in progress examines a character who has much in common with the creator of Scientology, 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. Although Lavie is fascinated by this intersection of science fiction and religion, he jokes he couldn’t found his own cult because he’s too lazy.



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