Lavie Tidhar’s Neom is a stunning return to his world of Central Station, intertwining the fates of humans and robots at a futuristic city on the edge of the Red Sea.
There has been a town at the place called Tabuk for hundreds of years, possibly thousands. In the future of Lavie Tidhar’s novel, that town has grown and become a mecca for technology and industry, a city of the future, not far away from the dangers of the desert, and the glamour and connections of Central Station. A place bult on capital and money, a place built on the idea that anything can be fixed, improved, made better. A place with the promise of a new world that can be just as real as the world that went before, if not more so. A sprawling metropolis, glittering near the Red Sea.
This is Neom. This book is the city’s story.
No, that’s not right.
Meet The Golden Man. The Golden Man is a robot. You can’t quite meet The Golden Man yet because the Golden Man is broken; dead, in fact. But with the right person to repair him, and with the right power source, the Golden Man might be called forth again. Events, fate, might conspire to bring the people with the right talents, and the right tech to bring together a robot who might command other robots – all the other robots sleeping, buried, lost in the wilderness of desert and the bottom of the Red Sea. A lot of robots, left over from many wars. What might happen when the Golden Man awakes?
This book is that robot’s story.
No, that’s not right either.
Trying to describe the novel in terms of a single story, or a single character not only isn’t accurate, but it defeats the beauty and the power of the story that Tidhar is telling here. Neom is an overlapping set of narratives that hand off with each other, with characters that meet, bifurcate, meet again and all roads eventually end at the aforementioned city. Characters both human, robot, young, ancient, human and relatable, and the otherness of the non-human robots. Wait, no. that’s not right, either. Some of the humans and what they have done are extremely alien.
Take the terrorartists, with their weapons that created art, deadly art in the midst of spreading terror and destruction. Understanding the motives, much less the actual technology that they use, is an exercise in trying to understand the Other. Take the Robotnik nest of Dahab. One or two wars ago it was a haven for robots. In the fourth war, it suffered a terrorartist attack, and the entire city is suspended and held in an explosion frozen in time, continually going on and on. One of our main characters, a young boy named Saleh, lost his father and uncle in an expedition into the city looking for artifacts and goods to plunder and sell. And it is the object that he carries with him from that tragic expedition gone wrong that could decide the fate of Neom, and beyond.
All the book works like this. The Terrorartist who comes to Neom, Nasu. Elias, the caravaneer. The giant mecha named Esau. Mukhtar, owner of the Bazaar of Rare and Exotic Machines, who always makes tea for his customers and guests, human and robot alike. And others. All of their stories intersect and intertwine and we get to spend time with them, like having a coffee in a cafe with a friend who always has something interesting to say in the next sentence. Stories woven together until they come to a conclusion. I’ve heard the idea of “braided narrative” and that is the technique that Tidhar employs here, using his city of the future as the backdrop for (almost) all of it.
And let’s talk about the future that Tidhar describes. It’s an Earth of a future indeterminate. Tidhar is not a writer who fusses with dates and extremely detailed visions. It’s a Middle Eastern future, a multicultural future, a future where history has happened between then and now, but some things remain and are always the same. The hints of the future history are tantalizing in his worldbuilding. Every corner of Neom has something new, like a robotic four armed preacher entreating passerby to seek salvation in the zero-point field. The mysterious Yiwu lottery. Martian Soap Operas.
But what does this book remind me of, besides other work by Tidhar (and not just Central Station)? It’s a vision of the future that makes me think of George Alec Effinger, and Lyda Morehouse, and Tim Maughan, among others. In the afterword, Tidhar calls out the Instrumentality of Mankind by Cordwainer Smith and I can see that influence at work, too. The fragmentary, small pieces of future worldbuilding, like the ones I mentioned here. Tidhar’s worldbuilding is not walls of text explaining the First War, or every Terrorartist attack, or a map of Neom, but it is fragments, glimpses that are written with such verve and power that they expand exponentially, bringing a world, a history to life. Tidhar’s fiction makes you think, it pokes, it prods you, and in the end it makes you, through all of the speculation, and the futurism, it makes you feel for the characters, especially when those characters really don’t look like you or think like you.
No, that’s not right. This is a book of hearts and of the heart, be it human or robot, and that is something that is universal, be it ourselves or in “the other.” The “other” in Tidhar’s work is us, and we are the other. We are all us, and in Neom, we feel for that other, in the personage of the robots, in the human characters, and we take them, and their stories, into us.
Now that, that is right.
(Tachyon Publications, 2022)