Michael Swanwick – Stations of the Tide (1990)

stations-of-the-tide

  • Genre: Science fiction
  • Pages: 252
  • My rating: 8.5/10

What a strange, cool novel. These days it would be the first book of a trilogy. But in the 1990s it just arrived on the scene, serialized in two parts and then published as a short, strange, mind-bending book, set in a totally realized science fictional world. Stations of the Tide tells the story of a man known only to us as “the bureaucrat”. He arrives at the planet Miranda, where more advanced technology is strictly controlled and mostly prohibited. The bureaucrat is chasing after a locally legendary man named Gregorian who had spirited away some prohibited technology.

Nothing is what it seems on the planet Miranda. The book feels like a Terry Gilliam movie, full of strange characters and slightly comedic and disturbing events. The bureaucrat keeps making the wrong assumptions while talking to the locals, leading to strange twists in the story and a deeper sense of mystery and not-belonging. The dialogues are full of insinuations and hints to all sorts of stuff. So, throughout the book we are asked to pay close attention to everything that happens and to be ready for anything. A bit like a Gene Wolfe story, in particular it has much in common with Wolfe’s novel The Fifth Head of Cerberus.

Feeling unhinged and confused is part of the reader experience; consciously designed so by Swanwick. He keeps throwing us into strange situations and then an explanation may follow later. The plot may feel scattered, and the scenes are like pictures that are slightly out of focus.

Part of the feeling of being unmoored comes from the setting. The whole continent where the bureaucrat is searching for Gregorian is in the process of being abandoned by everyone, because a once-every-2-centuries flood will transform the whole land. The clock is ticking. The bureaucrat is like a colonial agent who is searching the jungles for an enigmatic man, while his search is like a Heart of Darkness-esque travelogue into the mysteries of this planet. Only, he has a briefcase which he can talk to because it has an AI inside and he uses the backrooms of sweaty cafes to connect mentally to a “surrogate” robot body at the other side of the planet.

In the middle, the book totally freaks out. There are hallucinations, computer simulations, post-singularity technology that could’ve been written by Hannu Rajaniemi. If you weren’t confused before, you will be now. But I get the sense that there is a reason for everything. There is a reason, for example, why the Bureaucrat is never mentioned by name.

The greatest obstacle to really embracing this book, and maybe the reason that this book has stayed a bit obscure, is that the ambiguity is never really resolved into a neat storyline. Throughout the story, Swanwick pits technology against mysticism. At first I thought that he favored the romance of the occult over hard tech, but the story twists in ways so that the whole theme of the books stays unclear. There is too much going on and the connections between it all stay unclear. What saves the book in my eyes is Swanwick’s way with words.

Michael Swanwick is one of those writers who, whenever he releases a new work, the fantasy and science fiction community feels flummoxed by what they are reading and think: “Well… gee…eh, I’m not sure what to think about that.” His online ratings are not high because people tend to either love or quite dislike his stories. Stations of the Tide came at the right moment for me. It is one of those books that deserve rereads to get the full impact. Luckily, the scenes are all so striking and odd and Swanwick’s writing style flows so beautifully that rereading would be a pleasure.

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