In the helpful afterward to his hauntingly beautiful new novel, Neom, Lavie Tidhar describes his process of writing it as one of discovery. He wrote about a robot going to the flower market of the bustling city of Neom to buy a single rose. But why? He had to write another story to answer that question. Then the robot went into the desert looking for something – that led to a story to find out what he discovered there. And so Tidhar says he realized that he was writing a novel all along.
His process of writing Neom is quite like the stories of its characters – trying to answer questions about who they are, what they are doing, the purposes in life they have or lack. So many are trying to fill in what they feel is missing, and that helps give their stories a quality of subdued intensity, a sort of quietly urgent need that never feels like despair because there is hope in everything they do, a hope for a new or fuller, more purposeful life. This is an entrancing novel about those on the margins of a glittering future city.
Written in a straightforward but luminous style, Neom extends the universe of Central Station to follow the lives of a mix of marginalized people, including robots, a hermit, a former terrorartist and a talking Jackal, most of whom are searching for what is missing from their lives. That could be love, purpose, family – usually they don’t really know until they find that special thing. Their journeys overlap and intersect by chance, yet it is often those surprising encounters that help them find new direction. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t succeed, but their questing goes on through Tidhar’s mesmerizing and beautiful prose.
The titular Neom is a real place, or rather the dream of a future city in the mind of a certain Saudi prince. Right now there is an airport there but not much more. In this novel, part of what Tidhar thinks of as a future history of humans in the solar system, Neom has been in existence for quite some time. It is just across the Red Sea from the Sinai Peninsula and south of the Digitally Federated Judea Palestina where the great spaceport Central Station is located, that center of transport from all corners of the settled solar system.
Neom is a city for the young or for those who believe everything can be made new, where the pace of life can be fast as people are swept about in robotically controlled cars. Tourists flock to the seaside, and many residents live in expensive homes and apartments. But Tidhar is not interested in them. He draws out the lives of ordinary people who live quietly on the edges of the city, the poorer areas where people try to make do with what they have and look for fuller futures.
The characters we meet in Neom are a gentle lot who are looking for something to complete their lives. The chapters do not so much lead from one event to another in a linear story. Rather, we meet a series of characters, and each one becomes the focus for a while until someone new is met, and we then learn about them.
We meet Mariam de la Cruz, who is no longer young but just old enough to feel the “clock of senescence” ticking. She has several jobs to let her pay the fees of the care-home where her aged mother lives. Mariam lives in the poorer part of the city on the outskirts, a district called Nineveh. But she is alone and thinks it would be nice if she had someone in her life who might bring her flowers.
Then we go from Mariam in Neom to Saleh, a young boy on the Ghost Coast of the Sinai peninsula, who watches a caravanserai approach. He meets a young man named Elias and tells him a bit of his story – that he is alone, his family having been killed while exploring a terrorartist explosion. Terrorart, now out of fashion, consisted of staged real disasters but slowed through time dilation so that some were still going on. His father and other members of his family tried to extract salvage from such a time dilated explosion when an accident occurred and they all died, except Saleh.
So he is completely alone and trying to sell one object he secured from the terrorartist explosion. He hopes it will provide enough money for him to get a new start in life elsewhere. He and Elias become friends and Saleh joins the caravan. They meet a hermit in the desert, one of the sort called Websters. This one dislikes talking to people for long but helps Saleh identify the object he wants to sell. A group of talking Jackals live in the vicinity of the Webster, and one, named Anubis, tags along with Saleh. He follows the boy even after Saleh takes his leave of Elias and the caravan and sets out for Neom.
Then we find Mariam working in the flower market, another of her odd jobs, when a battered old robot comes looking to buy a single rose. This is a philosophically-minded robot who says his kind, which were once produced for war, haven’t been used for generations. They no longer have a purpose. Instead of following a religion, this one is on a quest to understand why robots like him still exist. They no longer serve humanity, so what is their purpose? “The world has rather passed us by.”
The old robot goes out into the desert and digs a ditch looking for something – he doesn’t know what. He finds the broken pieces of a unique golden robot. When this golden robot is later repaired and given an energy source, its heart, in the form of a tiny black hole encased in a small container, it starts to sing. That song turns out to be a call to all the other robots, unexploded walking bombs and other mechanical creatures left to rot in the desert after a succession of wars. They all hear the call and start to converge on Neom.
That is the plot, such as it is, and there is a spectacular climax that focuses the attention of all those we have met. But as strong and beautiful as that is, the main interest for me is always the fringe characters of Tidhar’s Central Station universe. They are the lonely, the cast-off, the others who are, nevertheless, resourceful, actively searching and hopeful. Neom is a treasure, and Tidhar says that there are so many more stories from this complicated world. Every new one is a compelling chapter in this future history that reflects so much about who we are and the basic things we yearn for.
I want to thank Tachyon and Net Galley for an advance review copy of Neom as the basis for this review, which reflects solely my own opinions.