Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
If you’ve read or are familiar with Saga, the gorgeous comic series that re-imagines the science fiction epic with a generous helping of fantasy, you won’t be completely at sea with Station of the Tide by Michael Swanwick. Swanwick had been on my to-read list for a while, mainly due to associations with other authors I enjoy, but I had embargoed his work due to my attempt to finish out this year only beginning works of fiction by minority writers. Not long into this commitment though, I found myself in Chicago with time on my hands, nothing to read, and a paperback edition staring up at me from a bookstore shelf with a price of only a few dollars.
I was weak.
It had been on my radar for a while as a fairly recent cult classic among science fiction enthusiasts. The Gene Wolfe list-serv I follow has buzzed about his work occasionally in the past, and I was reminded recently he was someone I needed to check out when one of his essays appeared in the recently-reviewed issue of Feast of Laughter.
I was not disappointed. Stations of the Tide is surreal, gorgeous, and stand-alone. It’s also dream-like, a bit chauvinistic, and at times opaque. Like Saga it’s a tale that artfully blends elements of fantasy with science on a large interplanetary backdrop. There are lots of science fiction elements dropped causally in the background as aspects and support of the plot, but you never get the feeling– as you sometimes do in hard scifi– that the plot is simply an excuse to highlight or features some new piece of speculative technology.
The story is set on Miranda, an alien world fully colonized by humans but upon which (a la Gene Wolfe’s Fifth Head of Cerberus) indigenous inhabitants are rumored to survive. Once every two centuries, the climate of the planet shifts and huge jubilee tides rise to cover the lowlands. The plot takes place primarily in these backwoods Tidewaters, as the protagonist– never named, always simply called the bureaucrat– hunts for a fugitive among towns being abandoned and evacuated in anticipation of the coming, cataclysmic floodwaters.
The power of the book is not in the characters. None of them seem real, except perhaps the bureaucrat’s local partner, Chu, and the story’s villain, Gregorian, a Mirandan accused of stealing forbidden technology but believed on the planet to be a powerful wizard. The rest are caricatures: the administrative superiors the bureaucrat is working for, the woman he falls in love with, and of course– as perhaps intentional and illustrated by his name– the bureaucrat himself. If he’s meant to be a faceless everyman the (presumably male) reader can put himself into the place of relatively easily, this succeeds.
No, the real strength of the novel is the setting and the story-telling itself, which consists of vignette-like chapters in which the bureaucrat moves through this surreal, dream-like (and yet vivid) setting in the wake of Gregorian. And here I think is where the novel illustrates something important about story-telling (important and encouraging to me at least): it’s a powerful example of how to provide a sense of wonder through the “show, don’t tell” maxim used effectively. More than that though, it illustrates an author absolutely comfortable in the world he creates. The history of Miranda is never completely spelled out. It’s simply the world we find ourselves in; it forms a background organically and naturally glimpsed (sometimes frustratingly incompletely) as the story progresses. Same with the technology: no one ever sits us down and tediously explains how surrogates work or the internal functioning of the bureaucrat’s suitcase. The snippets of explanation we do get, mainly between the bureaucrat and his local partner, seem natural because the control of off-planet technology is central to the story and the political tensions on the planet. This is also true of the flora and fauna of the planet itself. Again, these are details mentioned casually in the background: the orchid-crabs, the barnacle flies, the behemoths. Most of them are never actually described in detail, yet you’re given enough to build an image of this world. It’s a strange, alien bayou, with cities being abandoned before the rising waters with a carnival-like Mardi Gras feeling.
Television is an important thematic element throughout. There’s always a television on somewhere in the background, and throughout the novel we’re given glimpses of a serial playing out along the lines of the grotesque pirate adventure that is threaded through Watchmen. It also reminds again of Saga, the ever-present and shifting images on the screen-face of Prince Robot.
Something should also be said about the tantric sex scenes, though I’m not sure what. They’re there and pretty vivid, but what’s vaguely disturbing about their inclusion is that they seem to do little but play into stereotypes that science fiction– even good science fiction like this– is a playground for men and their fantasies, both sexual and technological. The character of Undine, the bureaucrat’s love interest, has the sole purpose of teaching the bureaucrat a couple neat sex tricks and providing an emotional motivation for what is otherwise a straightforward sense of duty (though ultimately these two motivations come to a play briefly in a scene of conflict that for a moment gives the bureaucrat pathos). Yet she doesn’t do this by being any sort of actual character besides a really, really good lover who just happens to take a fancy to the main character.
If Undine represents standard male science fiction sexual fantasies, the bureaucrat’s briefcase represents technological fantasy. The briefcase is a character itself, something like a smartphone might be in several hundred years. It can manufacture anything, integrate into any computer system, and get around on its own. And it’s the perfect servant, always obedient and quick to save the day. Indeed, it becomes one of the most endearing characters because of its faithfulness and resourcefulness. Which makes the final scene with it all the more poignant. I think Swanwick knew what he was doing here, and it’s an ironic commentary on man’s love affair with the technology he creates and controls.
If you’re willing to overlook the awkward deployment of eroticism, Stations tells a powerful, compelling, and enjoyable tale. The plot is meandering, and at times I had trouble figuring out why the characters were going to certain locations or keeping track of characters who disappeared and reappeared throughout the novel. Scenes come and go, only vaguely held together by the pursuit of Gregorian. Some of the reveals at the end seemed forced, and a few were unsurprising. We realize early in the novel that Gregorian is deceptive and the bureaucrat naive. We know to expect a few tricks. But the trick the bureaucrat himself pulls at the novel’s very end took me by surprise, and I’m eager to read it again to tie many pieces together but especially for clues to see if I should have caught the final twist coming.
That’s why it’s a great book. You can’t toss it aside and forget it. It’s going to sit on my shelf, and in another year or two I’ll read it again and figure out how many tangles I can unravel now that I know that whole story. Yet I didn’t leave the first reading disappointed or confused. It’s like a good puzzle. There’s some satisfaction, but I’ll return to it not because I feel l need to in order to fully “get it” but because it’s going to be even better exploring the second time. Maybe it’s less like a puzzle and more like a rambling house. That balance– satisfaction with a single read but awareness that there’s more to return to– is difficult to achieve and I think a mark of a new classic.