Stations of the Tide, by Michael Swanwick

sations of the tide coverStations of the Tide (1991) is full of symbolism and allegory dressed up as a cyberpunk detective story. Sections in the middle of the novel are disjointed and elusive, but  the surface plot is quite easy to comprehend: the bureaucrat (he is never named) is sent to a planet, Miranda, to investigate whether a self-proclaimed wizard, Gregorian, has smuggled contraband technology onto the planet.

The planet Miranda has three moons and an eccentric orbit about its sun: every two-hundred years there is an  instantaneous polar ice melt that causes the world to become almost entirely aquatic; this event is referred to as the jubilee tides, which, as the novel begins, is imminent.

Without giving too much away…

Transformation and death are recurring themes, epitomized by the  ability of Miranda’s indigenous species to instictively transform from land-based to aquatic creatures; many die in the jubilee tides, but enough survive to ensure species continuity.

There are many Biblical references in the novel. Some examples: The Jubilee Tides echo the Jubilee year in the Book of Leviticus (remission of sins, and an ‘impact’ on the ownership of land); the Jubilee Tides also symbolize the cleansing of the Biblical flood; and, Stations of the Tide mirrors Stations of the Cross (there are fourteen Stations of the Cross & fourteen chapters in the book).

Shakespeare’s The Tempest is alluded to (the Prospero system, the planet Miranda…) and there are similarities to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. And one of the characters is a sentient briefcase.

Before human colonialism there was an indigenous intelligent species, the haunts, on Miranda; although the haunts are presumed to be extinct, many colonists believe they still exist, hiding where they cannot be discovered, perhaps even masquerading as humans. The haunts, alike other species on Miranda, were capable of transforming their bodies quickly. The haunts, and the rumours about them, are reminiscent of the shape-shifters in Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus. 

The novel has disjointed sections, especially the middle portions, but the novel, as a whole, somehow holds together. Michael Swanwick writes quite eloquently at times, particularly in his descriptions of the scenery and buildings on Miranda; however, although I enjoyed the ending, it felt a bit contrived, a deus ex machina.

I enjoyed the book (several levels above the average science fiction novel), but I felt there was something missing; after the labyrinth of the middle sections, I was expecting a more mind-expanding culmination.

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