Features that seem to have put other readers off of Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide were all to the good for me. The protagonist is nameless throughout, an interplanetary “bureaucrat” who reminded me more than a little of Michael Cisco’s “divinity student,” in that he is a cog in an opaque hierarchical machine, and his transformation–eventually quite radical–is the real aim of the narrative. Comparisons I’ve read to the work of Gene Wolfe also seem fair, although I was more reminded of The Fifth Head of Cerberus than I was of Wolfe’s New Sun opus. Metafictional anchors include Shakespeare’s Tempest.
Stations of the Tide juxtaposes sorcery (pharmaceutical, ritual, and meditative), high technology, and espionage/crime trickery, with lots of ambivalence about which is responsible at any given moment for the difficulties being presented. A key element of the high tech is “surrogacy” by which humans achieve telepresence through androids intended to simulate them as well as to sense the remote environments. This mechanism–which seems almost inevitable given the availability of the constituent technologies–tends to undermine characters’ individuality in provocative ways throughout the book. Also important is the Puzzle Palace, a shared virtual environment where the bureaucrat’s Division of Technology Transfer maintains its functional offices for interplanetary operations.
The setting is the planet Miranda orbiting the star Prospero, where humans have been resident for centuries in a settler-colonist capacity. Miranda undergoes catastrophic flooding of major land masses on a recurrent long-year period, and the story takes place just as such a “winter” is imminent, with whole continents being evacuated in anticipation of it. Much of the indigenous life has the ability to adapt to such changes, transforming with the great “tide.”
This book is one that demands careful reading and active interpretation; it’s not genre junk-food. It does repay the effort in vivid images and rich ideas.