The novel “Stations of the Tide” by Michael Swanwick was published for the first time between 1990 and 1991 in two parts in the magazine “Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine” and in 1991 as a book. It won the Nebula Award as best novel of the year.
The bureaucrat was sent to Miranda to capture Gregorian, a native who studied on other planets and brought banned technologies to Miranda, a world in quarantine. This on the eve of a series of strong climatic changes due to the planet’s particular astronomical configuration that will lead it to being almost completely submerged by its waters.
The bureaucrat’s investigation is complicated by a number of factors such as the unique culture that has developed on the planet Miranda. Gregorian is a magician who promises to transform the natives into creatures that can live in the ocean. To find him, one needs to understand him and the bureaucrat looks for his family and the people who studied magic with him, ending up in a relationship with a witch.
At the beginning of “Stations of the Tide” the reader is launched on the planet Miranda along with the bureaucrat. Michael Swanwick wastes no time to get into the plot of a novel that’s quite short for today’s standards and immediately shows its complexity of themes, inspirations to other works and characters who are often not what they seem.
Miranda is the first of the mentions of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, a work that already has references to previous myths. In “Stations of the Tide” there’s a man who brought banned technologies to his planet, a call to the Prometheus myth. These are just some elements that give a fantasy flavor to a science fiction novel.
In addition to the mythical element there’s also the magic one. On the planet Miranda magic is part of local culture and Gregorian is a magician but all this is not meant literally. From the first part of the novel you can see that magicians and witches are more like shamans and practice disciplines such as tantrism.
This kind of nuances in the characters is even more marked in the protagonist, who is known only as the bureaucrat, without his name or surname ever being revealed. It’s a label with a very marked connotation, yet from the very beginning his behavior is almost entirely opposed to that of a bureaucrat.
The bureaucrat’s attitude is seen from the beginning of his investigation when he begins a relationship with a local woman, a witch who was an apprentice along with Gregorian. When asked to account for that behavior, he explains that playing by the book nothing would get done.
That part of the novel is explicitly erotic and is among those that show the changes that may occur in the characters. This is one of the most important themes of “Stations of the Tide”, where the transformation of a planet reflects that of many characters. The planet is about to be almost completely submerged by its waters but this can lead to a rebirth more than to a death.
The transformations that take place in the novel are external in the planet and inner in the characters. The bureaucrat’s journey during his investigation is also inner with an introspection that brings him to explore the dark side of humanity as well in in particular of Gregorian, so much that “Stations of the Tide” was also compared to “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad. In some cases there’s a revelation of what a character hides more than a transformation.
All this creates a sophisticated and intriguing yet sometimes uneven novel, with the various parts somewhat disjointed. The result is that sometimes it’s like reading a series of separate stories rather than a novel. Perhaps the author needed to expand the novel to have greater harmony among its various parts and perhaps to fully develop all its elements.
In the end, “Stations of the Tide” is full of ideas in which there is some action but there are mostly introspection and reflections. In my opinion, it’s far from perfect but if you like novels based above all on ideas that go beyond trivial genre label, this is one to read and reread in order to capture its many nuances.