Lavie Tidhar’s new sci-fi novel Neom (paperback, Kindle, audiobook) is set in the same fictional universe as his 2016 novel Central Station and a number of his short stories. Though as he explains in the following email interview, when it comes to enjoying — and understanding — Neom, Central Station is not required reading.
Photo Credit: Kevin Nixon / SFX Magazine
For those who didn’t read it, what is Central Station about, and when and where does it take place?
Central Station is a science fiction novel where I wanted to write something different to the type of American science fiction that I grew up on. So it’s mostly slice-of-life rather than following the action-adventure mode of most American sci-fi, and it’s about a large, messy extended family as opposed to the lone hero of a lot of science fiction. It’s the sort of novel that has weddings and a funeral and no one has to save the world. And it’s set in a future Middle East. I’ll be honest, I didn’t think anyone would read it. As it turned out I couldn’t have been more wrong; it won a bunch of prizes and was published widely in translation. I even got to launch the Chinese edition in Beijing and Shenzhen just before the pandemic. I like to think of it as “a science fiction novel where nothing happens,” but of course, a lot actually happens, just not in the way people necessarily expect from a sci-fi novel.
And then for those who have read it, and thus can ignore me writing SPOILER WARNING in all-caps, what is Neom about, and how does it connect to Central Station, both narratively and chronologically?
Neom is about a robot who comes to the city of Neom one day to buy a rose; about a woman, Mariam, who works multiple jobs and gets entangled with the robot’s past; a boy, Saleh, who travels through the desert to Neom; and about a terrorartist, Nasu, who comes back from the stars to wreak havoc of the city of her youth…
It’s set in the same universe as Central Station, but that’s pretty much it. Geographically it’s not that far from it. Neom is on the shores of the Red Sea, on the Arabian Peninsula. Most of the sci-fi stories I’ve written over a long period of time are all set in the same “future history,” so there’s a lot of material out there.
As I understand it, Central Station originally started as a series of short stories, which you then reconfigured into a novel….
It’s not exactly correct, though I think it’s the prevailing impression people have. Central Station was purposely constructed to be an old-fashioned mosaic novel, in the sense that it would be made up of stand-alone episodes that could be published independently in magazines and anthologies first. It’s a form that used to be very popular in science fiction — think of Clifford D. Simak’s City as one example — and I wanted to replicate that feeling of it. So, yes, it was made up of short stories, but they were always a part of the greater whole.
And did Neom start out the same way?
Neom started a lot more loosely. I think of it as my lockdown novel. It was the second lockdown we had, I started writing with only the mental image of a robot and a rose, wrote a first chapter where the robot shows up to buy a flower, then walks into the desert… And then I wondered what it was doing in the desert so wrote another chapter to find out… And so on until the novel ended. So in this case it started as something I thought would just be a little short story, but it turned into a book instead.
Neom sounds like it’s a pure sci-fi story. Is that how you’d describe it?
Sure, Neom and Central Station are both pure science fiction books — my only ones, really. All my other stuff is quite different, and I actually have my first mainstream novel, Maror, which came out in the U.K. this past August, and it’s a giant book and doesn’t have anything fantastical in it at all. I mostly write science fiction in short form, though it would be kind of nice to try another novel…
Speaking of your other books, are there any writers or stories that had an influence on Neom but not on anything else you’ve written, and especially not Central Station?
Well, Neom itself was the inspiration — the real-world but utterly fantastical futuristic city concept in Saudi Arabia. You can look it up. I thought this would be an interesting world to explore.
The other inspiration for it took a lot longer, which was my visits to the Sinai and Egyptian side of the Red Sea over the years. So writing about the city of El Quesir comes from going there much like Saleh does in the novel, and so on. And the Ghost Coast was very much influenced by a visit I made to the Sinai about ten or twelve years ago, when that entire stretch of coast between Taba and Dahab seemed abandoned, caught in a sort of half-completed maze of kitsch architecture and Bedouin tents but without a soul in sight. It was also fascinating watching it over the years — the way the Israelis came and went, then the Russians came and went. Now I’m told the Israelis are coming back. So a lot of that influence is purely in Neom.
What about non-literary influences; was Neom influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Not really, but I do think TV today is so much a novelistic form, and I actually do appreciate that serial / episodic structure enormously, and it’s something I’m using increasingly in my (sometimes very long) novels.
On the flipside of that, sci-fi stories like Neom are sometimes translated into movies, TV shows, or games. Do you think Neom could work as a movie, show, or game?
I actually got into game-making during the pandemic — I made a handful of games, including one based on my novel The Escapement which you can play in your browser or on a mobile phone. (https://candyarcade.itch.io/escapement) I’m hoping to release a couple of new games this year, if time allows.
Can Neom work as a movie / game / etc.? Sure, but that’s not really something I have any influence over. There were a couple of attempts to adapt some of my stuff to TV, but like in most cases of this sort it didn’t go much further than a pilot script. But I’ve recently finished an animated short web series I made with my friend Nir Yaniv, which is very loosely set in the same universe. It’s a sci-fi buddy comedy about a coffee pot and a toaster on Mars. We’ll see what happens with it.
You said earlier that the only connection between Central Station and Neom is that they’re set in the same fictional universe. So, obviously, someone doesn’t need to read Central Station before they read Neom. But if someone has read Central Station, is there anything they’ll get from Neom they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise?
Sure, like with any future history — Larry Niven’s Known Space, say, or Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality universe — everything is interconnected. Not just with the two novels, but with the 40 or so short stories all set in that same future and published here, there, and everywhere. So any throwaway remark could lead to a whole new story. But you can read Neom first and Central Station second and get exactly the same effect.
So, is there anything else you think people should know about Neom?
Well, it has a great cover! And there’s a map! People seem to like maps. At least my publishers do — they make me do a map for every book. Which honestly feels like it takes longer than the actual writing.
Finally, if someone enjoys Neom, they’ll obviously read Central Station if they haven’t already. But once they’ve done that, what pure sci-fi novel by someone else would you suggest they read next?
I’m excited for Lavanya Lakshminarayan’s The Ten-Percent Thief in 2023. It’s a sci-fi mosaic novel set in a future Bangalore. I read it in the original Indian edition and it’s terrific.