First things first: I have to face my shame and admit that I’ve never read any of Lavie Tidhar’s works before. You know when your friends recommend an author, and it gets thrown onto your mountainous mental pile of things I really need to read and then gets buried just as quickly? Well, thanks to Strange Horizons, Tidhar is finally being excavated from my own pile with this review of his latest work, Neom. Due in no small part to an intriguing blurb and a cover enhanced by some beautiful artwork, I was keen to step into Neom’s dark reality. Set in the same universe as his award-winning 2017 novel, Central Station, Neom promised robots, urban sprawl, and deadly works of art.
I’ll start with my strongest sentiment: I have never seen worldbuilding that’s as evocative, imaginative, and extensive as that in Neom. Anywhere, in any genre. Tidhar’s universe is crammed with detail, much of it only elaborated upon in my own mind, during the many times I put the book down to gaze into space. So much about this world is only hinted at, yet still it feels as though it’s built on solid foundations: like the fact that the long-running Israel-Palestine conflict is eventually resolved by a technological form of government that reflects the territories’ patchwork nature, or the elusive references to the “boppers” on Titan, whose form is only revealed by the reader’s own mind.
Worldbuilding-wise, the dots are all there, and it’s often up to you to connect them. This may sound like a cop-out, and it would be were the dots not so thoughtfully conceived and artfully placed. And Tidhar’s reality expands ever-outwards, from the techno-capitalist city of Neom itself, to the ruins and underwater cities of wider West Asia, to the inner solar system, outer system, and the strange giant beings of beyond. Neom gives a true sense of scale to its universe, and the characters feel tiny within its ginormous setting. The author even manages to give a sense of whole cultures with just a few short words or sentences—such as the bizarre legends of the outer settlements—and as a speculative writer myself it’s something I find particularly inspiring.
Yet it’s the desert’s sheer presence which truly shines. Set on the Arabian Peninsula, the bulk of the landscapes we’re shown are arid and ancient: “The desert had crawled back over the gap. Sand reclaimed the wound.” This, too, is a good example of why I absolutely loved the novel’s use of language, which is both straightforward and elegant while maintaining a rapid pace. Exposition is given simply while still leaving an outsize impact. Those descriptions of the desert, for example, always paint it as a living entity far more ancient than any of its inhabitants:
It was old, and in its vastness you could hear and see more, and though it seemed empty it was nothing but. Homo Sapiens had migrated across it from Africa to Europe and gods were born on the peninsula, traders crossed the sands for endless centuries, carrying perfumes and spices and other rare and precious things. Messiahs raised new religions that changed the world. And as Arabia came to the world, the world came to Arabia.
Then there’s the eponymous city itself. Neom is a hyper-capitalist entity, one dominated by swarms of cars and staggering wealth inequality—one of the novel’s protagonists, Mariam, works multiple jobs, simply to survive the conurbation’s fundamentally individualist society. While the wealthy luxuriate in airy apartments on tree-lined boulevards, the poor are consigned to a rented existence on the margins, destined simply to serve their economic betters. Yet there’s no strident social condemnation here; the city’s glittering injustices are presented in a matter-of-fact way that enhances the story’s realism.
The novel’s reality also contains a tangible sense of myth and legend. Not only is the world large, it’s also dangerous and loaded with mystery. The landscape is full of monsters, with deserts and oceans filled with wild, deadly machines that stalk the wilderness looking for hapless victims. Leviathans lurk just beyond the coastline. Talking jackals with heightened intelligence roam unpopulated areas. My favourite among these monsters are the “data vampires.” In Neom’s universe, humans have an electronic device grafted onto their spinal columns, one which records their consciousness and preserves their memories, something almost akin to a digital soul:
Digital memory intertwined with gooey biological matter. The human brain stopped at death but the data in the node lingered. It gave out a smell all its own.
Data vampires feed from this information, spending their days seeking to rob humans of their digital core—which is essentially everything they are—and they’re particularly common on cheap, long-haul trips through space. It’s a scenario mentioned only in passing, yet one full of existential dread. Once again, these creatures are grounded in technology, as are the novel’s equivalent of ghosts: digitally-encoded sentient beings who roam “the Conversation,” a distant descendant of the internet. Though the novel is primarily a work of science fiction, together these beings add welcome elements of fantasy and horror, while demonstrating Tidhar’s dark and twisted imagination.
Of all this dark worldbuilding, though, the aspect that struck me most strongly were the “terrorartists”—a phenomenon that also happens to be central to the novel’s plot. Terrorartists are individuals who use “pain and death as their paint, people as their brushes, and the experience itself [as] their canvas.” One work of terrorart is an unending explosion, in which the victims of the blast are imprisoned in time, the moment of their death stretched over eons. Due to its spectacular and oddly beautiful brutality, terrorart is an object of grim fascination in this future:
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.
We get a closer look at this “time-frozen destruction” when we hear of how one protagonist’s family perished while scavenging the scene of one of these attacks—with a scenario which is almost impossible to comprehend in its grimness: “He thought of his father, still dying in that temporal bomb in Dahab.” It’s the sort of deliciously grotesque scenario that’s comparable to the early days of Black Mirror, and it adds to the novel’s potential stakes and consequences.
That’s not to say all of the worldbuilding, well, works. With so many speculative elements hurled into the air, it’s not surprising that some of them don’t land so well. It’s extremely minor and referenced only a few times in passing, but the hinted resurrection of the Soviet Union on Mars’s surface stretches credulity, and is too reminiscent of the stoic and stringent Mars of James S. A. Corey’s imaginative series, The Expanse, without adding anything to the novel itself. Thankfully these worldbuilding misses are few and far between, but they can be jarring—and on those occasions when I put the book down to gaze into space, it was simply to wonder what the author was thinking.
But not for too long—and they are made up for by Neom’s inclusive social politics and representation. It wouldn’t be one of my reviews if I didn’t talk about gender and LGBTQ+ themes, and I’m happy to say that queer relationships are here the norm from the outset, as Mariam works for a friendly gay couple, the quasi-independent city being the exception from normal Saudi homophobia. This is something that’s continually in the background, as the city’s residents form partnerships free from gender restrictions. This inclusion is taken even further, in that Mariam’s fellow protagonist Saleh is strongly indicated to be queer, forming an intimate and apparently sexual friendship with his passing friend, Elias. Their bond is told beautifully and with great subtlety, letting us know that queerness is a somewhat unremarkable feature in a world that has so many other problems.
Queerness isn’t only confined to the human world, either. Neom’s robots seem to have little by way of gender, and their relationships with one another seem—to this human’s eyes, at least—more than a little queer, particularly as they tend to use gender-neutral pronouns all their own (“it”). And in general, the novel’s relationship to its robots is thoughtful and imaginative. The author makes no assumptions that the different forms of life—organic, robot, and purely digital—share anything in how they process the world or themselves. Their common grounds remain an eternally open question, and one the novel comes back to more than a few times. Though the robots are largely sympathetic, their strange blue-and-orange morality remains fascinating throughout. In this way, Tidhar takes an old theme—that of robot sentience and submission—and manages to make it feel fresh.
So far I’ve mostly focused on Tidhar’s universe and its artificial lifeforms. If I haven’t talked about the plot much, that’s because … well, the plot isn’t exactly Neom’s strong point. And here’s where the negative part of this review really begins. Because despite the broad and detailed worldbuilding, there’s simply too little space to elaborate on much of it, and only a fraction has any bearing on the novel’s events. As a result, we’re presented with a series of fascinating thought experiments, but far less by way of a compelling story. What’s more, those plot elements which are included would at first seem to be extremely dramatic and potentially devastating, but—and I’m being careful not to present spoilers here—they just kind of fizzle out. For a novel which presents so many twisted scenarios, there’s little in the way of real-time disaster or peril.
In addition, though it’s an approach to plotting that could be argued to be in keeping with the tradition of epic tales, the story’s coincidences prove distracting—often reminding me that I’m reading a work of fiction rather than drawn into a real and richly-detailed world. Neom’s characters are always right where they need to be, when they need to be there. For example, Mariam meets a robot in her job as a flower seller—gifting him a rose—and then immediately afterwards her love interest encounters the same robot out in the desert. Not much later Mariam meets the robot again while working at another of her jobs, this time in an antiques market. And then it happens again. None of this by any means spoils the tale being told, but it does feel jarring and artificial, particularly as such coincidences actively impact the plot itself.
Overall, this is a hard book to summarize. Certainly Neom is stuffed with gut-churning scenarios, compelling worldbuilding, and dark surprises. There’s so much packed into its relatively few pages that I found myself thinking about it over and over since finishing it—and for fans of good worldbuilding, that’s high praise. Tidhar has thought about every aspect of his universe, and he’s truly mastered it. There’s even a glossary at the end, and I’m always drawn to a good glossary.
Yet while the novel’s monsters, alternate worlds, and horrifying terrorart scenarios certainly point to high stakes and devastating consequences, we never get to watch them play out. We don’t actually get to see a data vampire eviscerate the core of someone, we don’t witness one of the ocean’s leviathans attack a cruise ship full of civilians, and we miss out on directly witnessing a work of terrorart. The novel absolutely sparks the imagination with dark and inventive scenarios, but it never actually confronts us with any of it directly. And that’s a ginormous shame.
For better and for worse, Neom truly is written for die-hard fans of the speculative genre—while those looking for a strong plot and high stakes may find themselves disappointed. Ultimately it’s the larger-than-life worldbuilding which serves as the novel’s main attraction, and it’s well worth a visit to this beautiful, spectacular, terrifying future. From mythical beings based in technology to the varied societies and systems which make up the vast solar system, Tidhar’s ideas will stick with you for weeks after turning that final page. But if it’s an action-packed page turner you’re after, you’ll find the novel is already over before it’s really begun.