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Raymond's Reviews #190

%T Stations of the Tide
%A Machael Swanwick
%I Avon
%D March 1992
%O paperback, US$4.50
%P 252
%G ISBN 0-380-71524

The peculiar strengths and values of the SF seldom coexist very well with what the 20th-century's academic establishment is pleased to call "literary merit". Most attempts to combine the two are spectacularly stupid farragoes that highlight all the worst vices of the litcrit crowd and utterly fail as SF; John Kessel's Good News From Outer Space (RR#71) and Richard Grant's Through The Heart (RR#180) are particularly odious recent examples.

It doesn't have to be that way. Michel Swanwick is one of the members of a notional organization of writers calling itself the Pre-Joycean Fellowship, dedicated to the notion that literary value needn't imply inaccessibility and bombast. The name is intended to recall the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and expresses their belief that the rot really set in when academics made an icon out of James Joyce.

Stations of The Tide demonstrates that Swanwick has the ability to back up his convictions. This is a spectacularly good SF novel which plays all the approved literary games with a sure and controlled hand --- a certain Nebula contender and maybe Hugo material as well. There's more resonance and idea content in the 252 pages of this book than in most Hugo-winning meganovels; indeed, one comparison it begs for is with Dan Simmons's Hyperion, and much as I liked the latter, the economy with which Stations is written may make it the better book.

The world Miranda is about to undergo the Great Tides, the pivot of a 250-year climactic cycle. The tides will drown much of its land area and trigger major transformations of the planet's peculiar ecology. Miranda's society, held at an artificially low technology level by controls from the spaceborne habitats that surround it, is also in turmoil as the tidal areas prepare for evacuation and celebrate one last mad carnival before the deluge.

The viewpoint character is a bureaucrat from the office responsible for technology control. At the beginning of the book, he is Eliot's gray man, so faceless that he lacks even a name. He descends to the planet in search of a renegade biotechnologist/magus named Gregorian, who claims to be able to transform humans so they can live as swimmers in Miranda's engulfing seas. Gregorian may or may not have been passed some dangerous technology by the agent of Terra, the cybernetic hive-mind described in Swanwick's previous Vacuum Flowers.

From the moment he first encounters Miranda's riot of sensual experience, the bureaucrat is doomed --- and half-knows it. Gregorian is a master of puppets, and his most deadly allies are the secrets of the bureaucrat's own psyche and his past in the gleaming, ambiguous corridors of the orbital Puzzle Palace. The bureaucrat's quest becomes an initiatory journey in which every certainty he ever possessed is stripped away.

It's difficult to more than hint at the richness of Swanwick's tapestry. The intricacies of Mirandan magic; the mysterious artifacts of the extinct(?) Mirandan indigenes called `haunts'; the lights and music of the pre-flood festivals; all are bound into the plot (we even get a manual of practical Tantra). By the time of the bureaucrat's final confrontation with Gregorian in the lost city of Ararat, he is no longer what he was. Miranda and Gregorian's machinations have remade him as completely as Miranda's tides are transforming the planet. The ending is utterly surprising --- and utterly logical.

Treat yourself to this novel. It's wonderful.

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Fri Mar 13 12:36:40 EST 1992

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>