Stations of the Tide by Swanwick, Michael, 1991

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When I first picked up Michael Swanwick's Stations of the Tide I figured that I was in for a SF story that was rooted in religion, since the title of the book is so similar to the Roman Catholic rite called the Stations of the Cross, which commemorates Jesus Christ's last few hours on Earth. After having read the book twice, the best that I can say now is that I don't think that is what it was about. Swanwick's style is usually deeply layered, nuanced and dense, and this book is no exception. But it is a pretty enjoyable read, it sticks with you after you're finished, and it gives you plenty to think about.

Stations of the Tide is basically a crime story. The Gregorian, the suspect, has stolen certain "proscribed technology" from a confederation-type government that exists only in cyberspace and which rules over a large number of inhabited planets. The Bureaucrat has been dispatched to find the Gregorian, bring him to justice, and to recover the technology. The Bureaucrat has an AI assistant called "briefcase," which is an actual satchel that can pretty much transform itself into anything it desires. The Bureaucrat and his team have pursued the Gregorian to a backwater planet called Miranda whose enormous oceans are about to inundate all the land in one of its frequent and predictable storm swells. The Gregorian's plan is to use the technology to transform the population of Miranda so that the people can live and breathe underwater, though he also wants power over Miranda to use as a base to amass more political might. Miranda itself is in the process of recovering from a war lost with Earth over the use of high technology, so the government sees the need to stop the Gregorian as immediate and dire.

Swanwick has made a world where technology and magic are indistinguishable from one another. The serf-like populace doesn't seem to care about the difference either. Because the Gregorian promises them much needed relief, they gradually side with him against the government. But the Bureaucrat's contact with this world, the Gregorian and the Briefcase has begun to awaken something inside of him as well. He is prohibited from using force or from revealing what his job really is, and in the beginning of the story he is quite weak willed and confused. His opponent, the Gregorian, is playing a very elaborate game and uses technological tricks that literally seem like magic, and sends opponents to him that feel like they are right out of mythology to keep him reeling in over stimulation and to put him off the scent.

The Bureaucrat's job, of course, is the impossible task of closing Pandora's box, but Swanwick did a pretty admirable job of bringing the story to resolution. I wont tell you how he does it, and I should add that the "proscribed technology" is really so much more than what I mentioned above. What really makes the story interesting is that the Bureaucrat is fighting to keep whatever threat of transformation the proscribed technology brings while he is on the cusp of transforming himself. I suppose that this story may even be allegorical about the fear of change. Figuring out what it truly is, and what the proscribed technology is and is capable of, is a big part of the reader's adventure here. Swanwick revels here in hiding the ball from the reader. But despite Swanwick's novel and visionary use of themes, I did not care too much for the plot. The Bureaucrat was annoyingly weak and stupid for most of the book, and the chase just went on too long for me to say that I enjoyed it all. But I loved the setting. Miranda, which was preparing for its long-seasonal inundation, and the "Network," or the Bureaucrat's office, which existed only virtually, and which kept their eye on periphery worlds for unauthorized uses of tech were very well done.

This book is the spiritual sequel to Swanwick's two earlier works, Vacuum Flowers, and Griffin's Egg. Those two works were about some big change for humanity looming on the horizon. This book is concerned with what happens after that change has occurred. The society that dominates Miranda is recognizable still. Its basically a fishing culture that lives in an enormous ocean. But because of an ultra high technology that has developed society has transformed itself into something slightly new. On Miranda, where educations are not high but sophistication is, most people accept magic and superstition as a way of life as easily as they accept high tech. The setting is also interesting. The citizens of Miranda have accepted that their infrastructure is going to be wiped out periodically, so they definitely spend their lives toiling. Despite the technological evolution that exists in this era, setting the action on Miranda reminds the reader of contemporary conditions on Earth. That may be the one aspect of the book that is not complicated by Swanwick's ideals.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)


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