It’s the Jubilee Year on the planet Miranda. Every 200 years the planet floods and humans must leave until Miranda’s continents are reborn. Miranda used to be the home of an indigenous species of shapeshifters who, during Jubilee, would return to their aquatic forms until the waters receded, but it seems that humans have killed them off.
Gregorian, who lives on Miranda but was educated off-planet by a rich and distant father, now styles himself a magician and is telling the citizens of Miranda that he can transform them into sea creatures so they can stay on the planet. He has stolen a piece of proscribed technology from Earth and our protagonist, who we know only as “the bureaucrat,” has been sent to find out what Gregorian has up his sleeve. The bureaucrat must track down Gregorian before the Jubilee tides flood the planet. During his quest he learns about the exotic planet’s history, meets several strange residents, does a lot of hallucinating, has a lot of sex, worries about his job back home, and gets hooked on a local soap opera. The middle of the book bogs down in a haze of drugs and sex which feels slightly self-indulgent, but Swanwick manages to make it fit the plot. In the end, it’s not just Miranda that changes.
Stations of the Tide, which has been compared to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is often surreal and confusing, but this seems to fit the dark exotic planet. The setting was my favorite part of the story — Miranda is both beautiful and frightening. I especially loved the Grandfather Tree which has many trunks descending from its huge branches and houses a café and a shipwreck.
Then there’s the technology: the bureaucrat has a walking talking briefcase and can split his consciousness into surrogate electronic forms that can run errands for him. He’s very surprised to find that the Mirandans had even higher forms of technology until they were made illegal by the bureaucrat’s agency. The Mirandans resent this.
Some readers are likely to be put off by the nameless bureaucrat because he’s somewhat flat and emotionless for much of the novel, but Oliver Wyman, the narrator of Audible Frontier’s version, made him feel like a real person rather than a nameless entity. I liked Wyman’s interpretation of the bureaucrat’s epigrammatic business-like style. His aloofness made it all the more moving when he rarely but suddenly was overwhelmed with emotion.
This is the second novel by Michael Swanwick that I’ve tried. I didn’t at all like the first one, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, but I liked Stations of the Tide even though it had some of the same issues. Both novels are original and inventive with exotic settings but the plot of Stations of the Tide was at least comprehensible most of the time. It reminded me most of Robert Silverberg’s fantasy, especially his novel Downward to the Earth.
Stations of the Tide was originally published in two parts in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1990 but was published as a book in 1991. It won the Nebula Award for best novel that year and was also nominated for the Hugo Award, the Campbell Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Try Stations of the Tide if you like lushly exotic alien settings and don’t mind feeling like you’ve taken the same hallucinogens that the protagonist took.