Stations of the Tide
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
This novel was originally serialized, maybe in a slightly edited form, in the mid-December 1990-January '91 issues of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. It won the Nebula Award and was nominated for several others, including a Hugo. It is still in print, as well as on Kindle, and I assume other e-formats too. The link to amazon in the Overview column is to an out-of-print mass-market paperback, but all other editions are mentioned on that page. The image to the right is my copy, a trade paperback edition from 1997. I've had it for many years but just read it for the first time. I can't recall if I bought it after I created this site in 2000, but I know for sure it was long before I decided to review all the Hugo and Nebula winners. Before this, I had read several of Swanwick's short stories, many of which won or were nominated for awards, but this is his only novel I've read, or even own. The current paperback printing is over-priced in my opinion. Let my comments here help you decide if the book is worth a read, and let your budget dictate what format you buy. I don't recommend an e-book, since those are harder to back-track when necessary, and there were multiple times I needed to do that because of abrupt changes of scene or character interaction that were confusing.
I've only read three of the other ten novels nominated that year for a Nebula or Hugo, with little memory of two of them, so I can't say if Stations was deserving of the win. I did enjoy it, although I already feel a need to re-read it because of those confusing elements. It is set on the planet Miranda in the Prospero system, and it has at least two moons, also named from Shakespeare's The Tempest, Caliban and Ariel. It is mainly a water world, with just one continent I believe, so there are just three areas to speak of, Ocean, the Tidewater and the Piedmont. The latter is home to the most permanent settlements and government offices. Due to its orbit around Prospero and the moons' orbits around Miranda, every hundred years or so there is a great tidal shift that buries Tidewater. As the story begins, it is just weeks away from that event, and a bureaucrat from the Department of Technology Transfer is directed to find a person named Gregorian, who may have stolen sensitive information or tech and using it to foment dissent among the denizens of Tidewater. It is traditional for Tidewater to be evacuated each time the tide shifts, but Gregorian is supposedly a wizard who claims to be able to transform humans into amphibian form so that they can remain in Tidewater and live in or under Ocean. It is written in third person, although everything is from the bureaucrat's perspective, but we never learn his name, or if it is used anywhere in the book I missed it.
Both interstellar and interplanetary travel is expensive and time consuming, so most government action is conducted through surrogation, the transmitting and receiving of data utilizing robotic constructs. Those are easily distinguished as such, with the human party's visage appearing on a monitor. There is also a form of surrogate that can only be used by one person, and they are designed to look exactly like that person. One of the things I was confused about was wondering if each time the bureaucrat saw or spoke to someone he assumed was human, could that have actually been one of the duplicate surrogates instead? The bureaucrat is physically on Miranda, but there are times he uses surrogates to investigate in other places, and one of those is known as the Puzzle Palace. I gathered this was a space station that housed the majority of governmental services, but using its transmission and surrogation facilities one could experience any number of other worlds and interact with other surrogates or humans. This is where there were several abrupt shifts in perspective, as the bureaucrat connects with his various surrogates. There are also times when the reporting of events is suspect due to him being dosed with drugs, along with Gregorian possibly using illusory magic to confuse him (and me).
There are several mysteries to the story, with just one being answered as far as my understanding goes. Gregorian's father is thought to have been an off-worlder but he has never been able to identify him since his mother wouldn't. That one is answered at least, and it wasn't a surprise to me. However, two or three other things were not settled to my satisfaction. Was Gregorian really a magician who could do what he said he could? The only "proof" of that was a series of television commercials he produced showing him transforming people, but those could be easily faked through electronic means rather than magic. There are several mentions of animals or fish, which I assumed were indigenous to Miranda, but also mentions of sentient indigenes believed to be extinct. Gregorian claims they are not, and a few may be in the story disguised as humans, or maybe not. It could be just more of Gregorian's deception. Finally, in the end, after Tidewater is flooded, did Gregorian die from drowning, or did he escape (or maybe was released by the bureaucrat)?. Another reading is in order, but no telling when that might happen.
Swanwick's prose is lucid and literary without being too dense, although at times I sensed he might have been trying to emulate Gene Wolfe, with some of the settings and events reminiscent of The Fifth Head of Cerberus. That is meant as a compliment, and not an accusation that Swanwick was copying Wolfe in any way. His characterizations and dialog are definitely different, and he included some graphically described sex scenes that I would never expect to see in a Wolfe story. My only complaints are the previously mentioned confusions. It's a short book by today's standards, so he may have intended for it to remain vague. Otherwise, he could have expanded the novel or written a sequel, but that never happened and there is no indication he ever intended to. Perhaps my concentration wandered and I missed some clues, hence the feeling I need to read it again one day. In spite of those reservations, it gets my recommendation. YMMV.
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