Neom by Lavie Tidhar
In Neom, Lavie Tidhar, returns to the universe of Central Station, his wonderful collection of linked short stories, though not to Central Station itself, which is only name-checked a few times. Instead, the setting is the titular city, an extrapolation into the far, far future of a city that today exists mostly as plans and dreams in Saudi Arabia (though you can fly into Neom Airport). Neom is a city “that valued nothing old, and chased the future,” a city that is “ever new, brash, a place for making new things and selling new things.” A city for the rich.
But Tidhar is not interested in either the rich or the shiny new. Instead, the focus here is on a diverse group of Neom’s less fortunate inhabitants (or recent entries), including Mariam, holder of multiple low-paying jobs; Nasir, an old friend (and maybe a future more than friend) who now works as a city policeman; Mukhtan, one of Mariam’s employers and a dealer in ancient tech and rare artifacts; Saleh, a Bedouin orphan who hopes to see what lies beyond the desert and beyond Earth itself; Saleh’s companion, Anubis, a talking jackal augmented for an old war; and a very old humanoid robot who acts as a catalyst to change all their lives, as well as the foundation of the city itself.
Neom isn’t quite a series of linked stories as Central Station was, but it reads quite similarly, with the chapters reading almost like mini-stories and with the characters often arriving serially rather than all together, and with some of their scenes involving them relating the story that led them to this particular time and place, adding to the sense of an independent short story. That isn’t to say a linear narrative doesn’t exist; it does. But really the pleasure in Neom lies more in its characterization, mood, faceted structure, and rich world-creation than its forward plot motion.
But to start with that motion, it involves first getting the characters together via various chance meetings: Saleh meets Anubis after taking up temporarily with a trading caravan, the robot meets Mariam at one of her jobs (the flower market) than at another one (Muktah’s place), Nasir meets the robot when it goes into the desert to dig up a fabled artifact (a Golden Man, thought by many to be mere legend), and so on.
The Golden Man is in some way connected to the “terrorartists”, an movement from long ago that specialized in mass murder: “the terrorartists seeded destruction like gardeners planting trees … When you plant an olive tree you don’t do it for yourself but for your descendants. They did the same with death … For terror and awe went together, and people still came to gawk at Sandoval’s ‘Earthrise’ or the time-frozen destruction of Rohini’s Jakarta bomb on Java.” Saleh too is connected to the terrorartists; his entire family killed excavating in a still-active “installation … the whole place suspended in a sort of still-ongoing explosion, but if you wear a null suit you can navigate through the temporality maze.” Saleh was the only one to survive, and he came out with the time-dilation bomb, which he hopes to sell in Neom so he can make his way off Earth. Eventually all these meetings and connections to the past (including ancient wars) culminate in a climax I won’t spoil here.
The terrorartist movement is a prime example of Tidhar’s lush imagination and also for how he applies that imagination to his world-building. Rather than spend a lot of pages detailing each and every element of his world: the flora, the fauna, the economy, the transportation systems, etc., he simply drops in brief asides — a word here, a sentence there, a paragraph (rarely) there. And so we get drop-in moments on the terror-artists, on Mars colonies, pirates in the outer system, hugely powerful Ais, incomprehensible creatures (aliens? Constructs?) in the Oort cloud, various types of robots, various wars, and more., In his brevity and concision, he reminds me of Ursula K. LeGuin, someone I’ve long said did more with less than any other author I know (a skill I’ve often wished more writers had or employed). Tidhar shows a similar ability to create an entirety from as little detail as possible, a concretion of seemingly disparate facts that adds up to a fully realized world. As an added bonus, a lot of these quick details contain in-jokes for genre fans, referencing works by Bradbury, Asimov, C.L. Moore, Dick, and others (and I’m sure some I didn’t recognize).
As for the characters, each of them is searching for something to fill an absence (often unnamed, unknown) in their lives, though no matter what it might be in their heads it’s often simply a sense of connection to another. At the end of chapter one, Mariam thinks, “it would be nice to have someone bring her flowers,” and the mention of Neom “filled Saleh with a longing he could not articulate.” The robot tells Mariam he and fellow robots have “not so much a belief as a quest … We do not know why we exist. Now that we no longer serve humanity, who do we serve? How do we live?” and the talking jackal, when asked by Sahel why he joined him on his way to Neom, can’t say why, only that he “grew tired with the desert.” Some sense their own longing, some sense it in others, as when one character warns Saleh “You can’t run away … Even in space you’d still just be yourself,” while Mariam thinks “the robot seemed lonely to her,” and later, when Sahel and Anubis arrive, she thinks both look “lost.”
Along with this theme of longing, Tidhar also explores the long-term consequences of war and trauma, as when Mukhtan, cataloging the robot’s body parts, asks “lost your leg in the war?” and the robot replies, “I lost a lot of things in the war.” More generally, the world is filled with remnants of past conflicts, wandering the cities, roaming the desert, swimming the oceans. War, in this universe, never fades away, even if they were so long ago the humans no longer remember their names.
Similarly, what happens with Sahel’s family — trapped in the time-dilation of the terrorart — is a wonderful metaphor for grief and trauma. He describes to another character how “The explosion, Dahab, everything? It’s still going on. My father, my uncle, they’re still inside it. An endless death still happening.” And isn’t this how death works, in whatever form it comes when it does come for our loved ones? An endless grief that ripples outward like the explosive bubble and that may diminish over time but never fully disappears?
Whether or not these victims of war and trauma and grief find a way to heal, whether or not those seeking basic human connection (including non-humans, raising the question of just how one defines “human”) find what they long for, I’ll leave for you to find out by reading this book. Because, and so far I think I can say this about every Tidhar story I’ve picked up, you should read this book, even if it doesn’t have quite the impact of his best work (and choosing amongst his books for that title would be difficult) and even it is a bit light on plot perhaps for some. But honestly, before reading this, I was at the point where if I could auto-purchase Tidhar book like I auto-pay my bills so that they’re shipped automatically to me as they’re published, I’d sign up for that service, and Neom would have been a welcome arrival in that system.