Friday, May 29, 2015

Review of Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick

Science fiction yet to settle on the name of post-cyberpunk fiction (at least as far as I know), I have heard it called both the Singularity Age and the Accelerated Age.  While I am inclined to call it the Anything Goes Age (like post-60s jazz), it nevertheless is possible to point to a larger than average number of post/trans-human texts in the 90s and early 21st century.  The tech boom of the 90s bolstering the belief that scientific developments would take humankind to uncharted territory, likewise came a boom in texts sporting humanity at complete odds with its animal origins, technology the link to something beyond explicable only in fantastical terms.  One of the earliest novels fully identifiable with this movement is Michael Swanwick’s surreally obtuse, colorfully mythopoeic, and fantastically science fictional Stations of the Tide (1991).

Written in Swanwick’s lexically dynamic hand, Stations of the Tide is the story of an unnamed Bureaucrat and the urgent investigation he’s tasked with.  The planet he lives on, Miranda, is subject to major tidal flooding every 200 years, and with the tide due to arrive in a week’s time on what’s called Jubilee Day, it’s imperative that he locate and apprehend the man Gregorian to avert disaster beforehand.  The populace under tight control, the government believes Gregorian has come into possession of proscribed technology—technology capable of hampering humanity’s efforts at achieving higher ground for the flood.  With the clock ticking, the Bureaucrat heads out to find his man, three-legged helper briefcase beside him (yes, three legged helper briefcase).  Trouble is, in such a technically saturated world it’s troublesome telling reality from virtual reality, hallucination from fact, and ultimately, truth from lies.  Where will he be when the tide bells ring?

Stations of the Tide, like most of Swanwick’s oeuvre, is an outpouring of imagination.  At times seeming indulgent (a few sections in the middle could be elided without eliminating anything of significance), the reader is shuffled between hallucinations, surreality, voodoo-esque scenes, and virtual reality, with random pit stops in reality to anchor the narrative (it would otherwise float away).  Tantric sex sessions with a witch, a meeting with an AI inside a computer tree, shamanism, shape-shifters, occult remembrances of a wizard duel, mysterious signs and omens, surrogate sentiences—all move in and out of the reader’s view, turning the reality underpinning the narrative slippery as mud. 

But Swanwick is in full control.  Offering great re-read value, what at first glance appears a paintgun blast of ideas, at last coheres into something more.  Humanity’s evolution the target, the final scenes have significant impact.

I thus see Stations of the Tide as occupying one of the rungs in Swanwick’s ladder of oeuvre.  One foot in reality, the other in fantastyka, it forms a step, the next of which is the full-on magic realist/surreal fantastyka of The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and The Dragons of Babel, which in turn are followed by the sheer absurdity of the Surplus and Dagger stories (collected in Dancing with Bears).  Swanwick playing with myth, virtual reality, drug visions, sexual exhaustion, Stations of the Tide retains one concrete tether to reality for as dreamlike as the experience can often be.

My biggest gripe with Stations of the Tide is the narrative mode.  Certainly far from your grandfather’s detective noir, “criminal investigation” is nevertheless the engine moving the story.  Trouble is, it’s only superficial.  The Bureaucrat finds himself the agent of other’s causes more often than being the agent driving the investigation.  Things happening to him rather than by him, the ending smacks of “the proceedings have has all been a grand stage show just for you”.  Swanwick never convincingly explaining why the Bureaucrat has been singled out, what about the other residents of Miranda, I ask?  Are they not also involved and affected by Jubilee Day?  Cold government official certainly the appropriate choice for lead, I can’t help wondering if a mode other than criminal investigation would have better suited the plot, however. Letting Gregorian or one of his agents take lead, for example, would have given the narrative more drive and still allowed Swanwick to present all the fantastical sides of Miranda, how they affect the Bureaucrat, and ultimately, inform his worldview.  But as Swanwick accomplishes his main goal, the gripe is minor.

In the end, Stations of the Tide is a highly imaginative mashup of Southern Gothic, Jack Vance, and post-humanism.  Ultimately commentary on the state of human evolution and technology that blurs the lines of reality, the surface storyline is the tracking down of a mystery man on a colorfully alien world (Jack Vance) via a detective inquiry that continually escalates into the voodoo bizarre (Southern Gothic), arriving at a point that is not your garden variety human (post-humanism).  Certainly on the ethereal, fantastical end of the science fiction spectrum than the technical or operatic, the reader is off-balance throughout the narrative, unsure what to believe until the final fifth of the novel.  A post-cyberpunk text, Swanwick was reaching beyond the near and now, to see what heights of wonder he could achieve while maintaining a human story.  Much like the fiction of Brian Aldiss, James Patrick Kelly or Charles Stross, his success at achieving this goal will depend on the reader.


  1. Science fiction yet to settle on the name of post-cyberpunk fiction (at least as far as I know)

    Isn't it just called postcyberpunk? :-) As postmodern begat modern, it makes sense to me.

    Great review -- this one has been on my list for a while, and you make it sound very appealing. Good timing with Megan's review, too.

    1. I don't know if the term post-cyberpunk entirely fits the science fiction post-80s. We don't have post-Golden Age, post-New Wave, post-Silver Age, or post-anything from the other major waves of genre. As such, calling it post-cyberpunk seems a little restrictive, as if what came after were dismantling the cyberpunk notion rather than striking out in a new direction. While I like the definition you linked to, and there are a lot of truths in it, I'm not sure it fully captures the sense of science fiction that began mid 90s, peaked, and has sort of petered out since. I think there is more to it than just reaction to cyberpunk. The New Wave, for example, while being a reaction to the Silver Age, was more a reaction to larger cultural and societal events and changes. When I look at the work of Charles Stross, I see fleeting elements of cyberpunk, but I see a stronger desire to disassociate his work from the nitty gritty of hear and now and till fresh soil in the far future. His works feel more fantasy than science fiction, something which I think the Accelerated Age, Singularity texts, Posthumanism, and other names capture better than post-cyberpunk. Or, from another perspective, can you imagine calling Joanna Russ' The Female Man post-Silver Age and believe it's a more descriptive term than New Wave?

      By the way, modernism and post-modernism are the two major cultural/artistic/critical movements of the past century, which science fiction can likewise be parsed into. The transition from the Silver Age to New Wave is generally considered the dividing line, which means cyberpunk and whatever has come after are all still post-modern. What with all the -isms floating around today (something mirrored in science fiction, by the way), however, many think we are living in post-post-modernism. It's also been called metamodernism, a term which seems to me to suit the wide, wide variety of social and cultural interests we see now appearing in sf...

  2. Yes, very good timing. I am definitely still curious about Swanwick's bibliography despite my lackluster experience with BONES OF THE EARTH. Your gripes about the narrative structure sound familiar considering BONES also has a structure that prevents it from ascending the superficial. Or if it did, I missed it because the plot was so awfully blase and disappointing.

    On to JACK FAUST!... one day... :-)

    1. As I mentioned in my comment on Bones, I'm a little surprised the novel doesn't have an extra layer or two. But then again, as Les Claypool said, 'They can't all be zingers...'

    2. Speaking of zingers, have you published your thoughts on Vacuum flowers?