Friday, April 15, 2011

Book Review: Stations of the Tide

Michael Swanwick
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ – – – –

I started out excited to read this book because of the setting. It takes place on a planet called Miranda which has a very long annual cycle lasting several of our years. There is one large dry-land continent (“Continent”) on Miranda and one ocean (“Ocean”) surrounding it. During half of the year, the polar ice caps melt and the tides come in and Ocean rises to cover half of Continent. Any creature living on the land who is not prepared for the annual tides gets swept into Ocean and drowns.

The indigenous animals of Miranda, collectively called the “haunts” by the colonizing humans, have evolved to be able to take either land or water form, as necessary. Miranda’s native mice, for example, change into sort of swimming mini-otters when the tides come in.

Unfortunately, although the setting is cool, the plot is confusing and ill-defined, and the characters are either annoying or just plain boring. I don’t know how William Gibson and Kim Stanley Robinson could have given it the stunning reviews they did.

Basically, the story is about a bureaucrat (“the bureaucrat”) from the governing worlds many light years away. A mysterious Mirandan wizard named Gregorian is rumored to be in possession of proscribed technology, and the bureaucrat is sent to find him and get him to give it back. Along the way the bureaucrat has life-threatening adventures, learns Gregorian’s true identity, experiments with mind-altering drugs, and has pretty kinky, very explicit sex with a witch. It all takes place on the coast in the last days before the tide is scheduled to come rushing in, adding a certain urgency to his task.

My major problem with the book is that Swanwick has a Vernor Vinge-like habit of continually bringing in new ideas and plot lines and technology, and then never carrying them through. From the Mirandan’s somehow restrictive census bracelets to the feverdancers that affect your brain when you’re on drugs to the weird TV drama that everyone is always watching, many of the early details you think hold promise and are going to be explored further are just left vague and hanging. And some elements essential to the ending are brought up for the first time in the last five pages.

In addition, many of the ideas are painfully derivative of better earlier work by other people. For example, one of the characters has to go through a test of strength and character that involves sticking their hand in a pain-box in a scene that could have been copied directly from Dune. Even the dual nature of Miranda’s haunts seems similar to, but not as well developed as, the local fauna and flora in Speaker for the Dead.

Note: I did appreciate the overt homage in which the massive, multi-towered granite government buildings the bureaucrat works in are called “the Mountains of Madness” by the employees.

Swanwick sprinkles references to The Tempest throughout the book, undoubtedly inspired by the ocean forces that hover in the background, threatening inundation at any moment. Celestial bodies are all named for characters in Shakespeare's play – the sun is Prospero, one moon is Caliban and the other is Ariel, and then of course there is the planet Miranda itself.

None of the references are carried through with any meaning, though. He throws them out but feels no need to incorporate any deeper parallels to The Tempest into the story. That would have been quite possible; after all, one of the main characters is a powerful magician, and it takes place on what is essentially an island whose inhabitants feel constrained by their colonial government (although they are also kind of colonizers themselves).

I have to admit, though, I never really liked The Tempest either. I don’t like Shakespeare’s plays about fairies and romances nearly as much as the ones about despotic rulers.

Our lives may be such stuff as dreams are made on, but this book definitely is not.

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