The Big Idea: Lavie Tidhar
For Neom, my latest SF novel set in the wider world of my Central Station universe, all I had in mind was the image of a robot holding a rose. To find out what the robot was about I started writing, and the result (during the depths of the pandemic) was this short novel, which got me through that rather awful second lockdown.
The big idea here, though, isn’t mine. A few years ago I came across a strange Saudi plan to build a futuristic megalopolis on the shores of the Red Sea. Neo-Mostaqbal (New Future, in a mix of Latin and Arabic), or Neom for short, was backed by a short marketing video and nothing much else, though it came as considerable surprise to me to see it slowly taking shape in reality even as I write this. I have been visiting the Sinai and Egypt for many years, staring longingly across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia – now opening to the world in a limited way, but until recently firmly out of reach – and wondering about visiting.
Neom allowed me to write about places I knew, like the Sinai Peninsula or the town of El Quesir, and of things I only imagine – like those dark entities as large as planets who live in the Oort, or of the curious events that happened on Titan. In between was Neom, in my version a city already old, populated with the small lives of the people whose jobs it is to look after things – cleaners and flower sellers and mechanics, salvagers and shurta officers.
It was Robert Heinlein, I think, who coined the term “future history” to describe that common universe SF writers like to sometimes play with over years of short stories and novels that all share the same background. I have always loved them, from Cordwainer Smith’s majestic Instrumentality to Larry Niven’s Known Space, and long ago, almost by accident, I set to write my own. Every time I think I’ve run out of stories to tell, something new pops up and grabs my attention. The solar system is wide and mysterious and there is so much left for me unexplored. I get to visit the Druze ballooners of Titan and the train drivers of Mars and the strange ships like the Ibn Al-Farid out of Polyport or the Gel Blong Mota that does the Earth to Mars run…
And tying them all is Earth itself – more specifically, my little part of it, the Middle East, long unexplored in science fiction. I like to make the joke that Central Station, my 2016 novel, is the best SF novel set in Tel Aviv – with the caveat, of course, that since it’s the only SF novel set in Tel Aviv it is also by default the worst one. There are a thousand novels set in New York – a fine city by all accounts – but long ago I realised there was no point in me trying to compete with American writers to write about America when I could compete with no one and write about somewhere else.
So this is it. It was a lot of fun to go back to this world for a while, and even as I write this, new stories set in the wider world are appearing in Asimov’s, F&SF and Clarkesworld. I just have too much fun exploring. There are still the Neo-Neanderthals in the Jezreel Valley, the strange sentient trains on Mars, the junk collectors up in Earth orbit and the Boppers on Titan. The future history is the Great Game of science fiction – so who can possibly resist playing it? And, if you do want to check it out, Neom is out now and, ultimately, it just a story about a robot and a rose.
Sometimes, that’s all you need.