Thursday, June 23, 2011

Review: Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick

Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick
Published: William Morrow & Co. ,1991
Awards Won: Nebula Award
Awards Nominated: Campbell Memorial Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award, Hugo Award

The Book:

“The Jubilee Tides will drown the continents of the planet Miranda beneath the weight of her own oceans. But as the once-in-two-centuries cataclysm approaches, an even greater catastrophe threatens this dark and dangerous planet of tale-spinners, conjurers, and shapechangers.

A man from the Bureau of Proscribed Technologies has been sent to investigate. For Gregorian has come, a genius renegade scientist and charismatic bush wizard. With magic and forbidden technology, he plans to remake the rotting, dying world in his own evil image—and to force whom or whatever remains on its diminishing surface toward a terrifying and astonishing confrontation with death and transcendence.” 

I’ve read some of Michael Swanwick’s work before, so I decided to pick up Stations of the Tide when I saw it at a used book sale a while ago.  I ended up mired in a bunch of very long novels this month (most of which I have yet to finish), and I was looking for a short novel to break things up.  It seemed like the perfect time to try out Stations of the Tide. 

My Thoughts:

Stations of the Tide feels as though it is as much a puzzle as it is a story. Michael Swanwick hands his readers all the pieces, and expects them to be able to assemble it into a whole. A number of scenes seem at first to be irrelevant, but they become very important in retrospect.  Similarly, many seemingly minor details and hints are thrown in smoothly, and their importance only becomes clear much later on.  I think that I would need to re-read Stations of the Tide in order to fully appreciate it, since I’m sure there are countless little details I missed the first time through.  It seems to be a book that demands multiple readings.

From the description, I expected the novel to be a mystery and an adventure story, with the bureaucrat chasing Gregorian and his contraband through the drowning planet of Miranda.  While this is the general plot, the way the story unfolded was nothing like I expected.  Whatever Gregorian took is completely unknown, save that it is probably some technology forbidden after the technological disaster of Earth. Furthermore, even if the bureaucrat finds Gregorian, he does not have the authority to do anything but ask Gregorian nicely to return the stolen goods.  Despite these setbacks, the bureaucrat has a methodical, dogged determination to carry out his task.  On Miranda, a deeply occultist world that blurs the line between magic and science, he muddles through a series of experiences that are sometimes dreamlike and sometimes painfully real.  In a way, it reminded me of the film “Waking Life”, as the bureaucrat seemed to drift purposefully, with very little transition, from one person’s story or situation to the next.

The apparent rambling nature of the book, in addition to the abrupt scene changes, made it a little difficult to get into for me.  It didn’t help that most of the characters seemed to be deliberately designed to be unlikeable.  The unnamed bureaucrat protagonist was an unreliable narrator (thanks to some drugs, memory modifications, etc.), and he seemed to have very little personality.  He was mostly focused on pursuing his job to its completion, though he ran into a lot of interesting complications along the way.  Most of the other characters only showed up for a handful of scenes each.  With no characters to care deeply about, the novel seemed to rely heavily on hooking the reader intellectually instead of emotionally.

In the intellectual vein, Stations of the Tide carried a lot of allusions to other work.  The superficial references to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, were obvious (The Prospero system, the planet Miranda, etc.).  Through the plot and themes, it also seems to echo a bit of Heart of Darkness. Also, there are a number of references to religion.  I assumed that the Jubilee tide is a meant to be seen as a reference to the Jubilee year dictated in Leviticus.  Also, the “Stations of the Tide” seems to echo the “Stations of the Cross”. I’ve actually seen a webpage where someone listed each station and its counterpart in the novel.  Outside of explicit references, there is a general theme of transformation through death that runs through the novel, which calls to mind the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.  When the Jubilee tides come, the wildlife of Miranda transitions to its aquatic form, and Gregorian offers, genuinely or not, to be able to transform humans into aquatic creatures as well.  I think Stations of the Tide offers a lot of material for discussion.

My Rating: 3.5/5

Stations of the Tide was a very interesting novel, though it takes a fair amount of effort on the reader’s part to appreciate it.  I feel like I should read it again to catch all of the details that seemed superfluous, and to see more clearly how all of the events of the novel tie together.  It was very difficult to get into, with an unreliable, unsympathetic narrator, abrupt, disorienting scene changes and very little in the way of explanation to the reader. The novel alludes to various notable works or religious ideas, and I enjoyed seeing how these were incorporated in the story.  Between the references and the unresolved mysteries of the story, there’s plenty to keep one’s mind occupied.  Despite its short length, I would definitely not call this a light read.  It’s a book to pick up if you have time to read carefully and to work out the implications of each scene in reference to the rest.

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