Award winning science fiction and fantasy author Lavie Tidhar returns to the world of his breakthrough novel Central Station (2016) in Neom. Some readers may be aware that Neom is a Saudi Arabian concept for a futuristic, sustainable city to be built in the desert on the shore of the Red Sea. At the moment it is not much more than a glitzy website and an airstrip, but Tidhar projects the ideas hundreds of years into his already imagined and rich future and uses the city as the basis for this novel.
The plot of Neom is built around a diverse cast of characters. Mariam is a cleaner in the city of Neom, she lives in a poorer part of town and does a range of odd jobs around the city. Nasir is a childhood friend of Mariam, now part of the Neom police force, who finds himself investigating strange occurrences out in the desert. And Saleh is the last survivor of a tribe of scavengers who has found a rare and possibly dangerous artefact and is than taken in by Bedouins before finding his way to Neom. In and around these characters is an ancient humanoid robot who first appears in the flower market buying a rose from Mariam. The robot is on a mission, a mission that will draw in the others and a mysterious former terrorartist and possibly spell the end of the city.
Being Tidhar, the setting and plot of Neom draws on, pays homage to and plays with a range of science fiction and pop culture standards. Asimov, Herbert, Clarke, Dick, Rucker and a range of others all get referenced either directly or subtly. But tale also tackles issues of religion and belief and the nature of intelligence. All within a framework of a richly imagined universe which Tidhar has built out and expanded far beyond the world explored in Central Station. So much so that Neom comes with a glossary which fills in some of the detail that sits behind some of the casual references.
Neom appears in a year that has also seen the release of Maror, Tidhar’s excoriating alternative history of modern Israel, Neom shows that he has not lost his ability to be insightful and playful. Built on memorable characters in a deeply imagined solar system, contemplative and full of both terror and wonder, Neom is another must-read for science fiction fans.