Lavie Tidhar’s Neom is a delightful journey through a fantasy of outer space and a future Middle East. Tidhar’s world contains likable characters who work together (sometimes accidentally, sometimes begrudgingly) to tell a story full of adventure, mystery, hope, and love. Communities of biological beings, mechanical beings, beings that are both, and beings that are neither: they all experience the memories and consequences of a war from the distant past as they live in a changing present, excited about but fearful of the future. Tidhar writes science fiction with real-world parallels and comedic timing, if also a bit of a tendency toward hopeful romanticism.
Tidhar’s prose is varied and interesting: one moment, it recalls elegant Middle Eastern poetry, and the next, it prioritizes simple statements and dialogue. While his robots lack complex human emotions, some of them speak with the soul of a bard: “I felt it only once, but I never forgot it. Like a sweet and painful ecstasy from which it is impossible to part. I have been half whole all this time, and now I am myself again. Well, goodbye. I would shake your hands but they are rather small. Ma’a salama.”
Notable, too, is the author’s treatment of religion. He does not ridicule it, nor does he make it a relic of the past. (His allusion to Judaism in particular comes closer to the end of the story.) Science fiction likes to depict religion as an uncivilized human mistake, away from which mankind has evolved. Tidhar’s characters, on the other hand, discuss their faiths, celebrate them, and are proud of their histories. “Zoroaster lived thousands of years ago, yet his faith still lives in me and my line,” one character says. Although the machine-based lifeforms that experience religion do not refer to it as such, they behave as traditional disciples and believers, profoundly moving the human characters.
Neom is a wonderful read for any lover of science fiction. For someone who has not yet visited the world of Central Station—Tidhar’s novel from 2016 — it is easy to catch on to the colloquialisms and customs of the story universe. But after reading Neom, new Tidhar fans will surely want to go back for more.
Selena A Naumoff, Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver, holds a Master of Divinity and is a specialist in comparative religious studies. She is a reader and writer of young adult fantasy and enjoys the genres of mystery, science fiction, classic literature, and non-fiction.