Stations of the Tide
by Michael Swanwick
1991 Nebula Winner for Best Novel
In a set of almost hallucinogenic sequences a bureaucrat from a space station that would give M. C. Escher a headache journeys to a planet kept at a primitive level. He is pursuing a man who has stolen forbidden technology but lacks the power to do anything about it when the confrontation occurs. The world is flooding as a "new tide" is sweeping in so the bureaucrat (who is never given any other name) only has a week or two to find this man. Oh, and the man is a magician and the world has a network of witches and wizards who use traditional tricks to make it appear they have power but the man being pursued may have actual power as he is promising to transform people so they may live in the sea when the waters come.
This is a novel out of time. It would fit in perfectly with the new wave authors at their trippiest since it includes all of their favorite themes. There's a drug trip, several sequences that might as well be drug trips, classical mysticism, a story structure that makes rambling old men look linear, and a fair dose of heavy handed symbolism. It's a dense allegorical monster. I might as well be reading The Einstein Intersection again.
In fact once I typed that sentence it occurred to me what an apt comparison it was. The two books are very closely related is style and they share many of the same strengths and weaknesses. The vignettes in Stations of the Tide often have a comfortable, familiar feeling thanks to their ties to mythology while Swanwick manages to put his own spin on things though Swanwick's use of mythology is more symbolic than direct as it is in Delany's Einstein Intersection. The flip side of that is the novel is chaotic with only the loosest of thread linking chapters.
Those individual chapters are superbly written and in particular I found the imagery in the novel striking. It's a world that's having a bittersweet ending and dealing with that transition. The waters are coming in and they celebrate that before departing to the high ground while regretting abandoning what they had before. The mysticism in the book is wonderfully portrayed as Swanwick marks it as strange abilities at first and then deflates the mystics by telling you how its done. Those explanations, however, depend on the reader deciding between a rational world and a mystical one.
The characters are perfectly drawn and I cannot think of a single one that did not fascinate me. The bureaucrat's journey into the world and examination of himself is a powerful story in itself. And then there are the fakirs or fakers depending on how you choose to view them who are living by their own rules and as a result make very interesting antagonists for someone who is defined by rules.
But that lack of a coherent story grates on me. The novel drifts from topic to topic with only the barest of connections between them. Each chapter can be summed up as "The bureaucrat goes someplace new, encounters something strange and wonderful, and then heads off for something else." There is a mystery that develops but it feels almost secondary to to this structure. Things just seem to happen by author fiat rather than some internal purpose within the novel.
And that makes this one is a tough call for me. There was a lot I liked in Stations of the Tide but the stuff I didn't grated on me pretty strongly. I'd say that if you enjoy any of the New Wave period of science fiction then Stations of the Tide is a must read. If you need a strong narrative structure in your books then this is definitely not for you. If you fall somewhere inbetween... well give it a try there is a quite a bit in it worth checking out.