Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 460
Michael Swanwick’s Nebula-winning Stations of the Tide is a many-layered, complex, and imaginative future detective story. Along with Swanwick’s other works, including In the Drift (1984), Vacuum Flowers (1987), The Griffin’s Egg (1991), and The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993), this novel explores how humanity survives and forms a continuing culture...
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- Critical Essays
Michael Swanwick’s Nebula-winning Stations of the Tide is a many-layered, complex, and imaginative future detective story. Along with Swanwick’s other works, including In the Drift (1984), Vacuum Flowers (1987), The Griffin’s Egg (1991), and The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993), this novel explores how humanity survives and forms a continuing culture under difficult circumstances. In Stations of the Tide, the Mirandans survive the Jubilee Tides by evacuating to higher ground and starting over; the bureaucrat survives by using advanced technology and shape-changing.
Swanwick began writing during the 1980’s, the era of cyberpunk in science fiction. The constructed reality Puzzle Palace, the technologically sophisticated briefcase, and the generated surrogates reflect awareness of computer possibilities. This novel takes on added dimensions and rises above a mere computer romp through the use of illusion and allusion. In Stations of the Tide, the unnamed bureaucrat must work through the magic and the illusions he encounters to find reality and arrive at the truth about Gregorian and himself.
Swanwick’s many literary allusions in the novel enrich the reading experience. The name of the planet, Miranda, and its solar system, Prospero, come from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611), similarly concerned with illusion, reality, and the ways to distinguish between them. Shakespeare’s play is also a story about a sea disaster, change, and a reestablished order. Swanwick also uses biblical allusions. Ararat, the city of Gregorian’s birth and death, as well as the location of the bureaucrat’s rebirth in the flood of the Jubilee Tides, was the mountain upon which Noah’s ark landed and civilization began again. Gregorian’s virgin birth and the title, reminiscent of the Stations of the Cross, allude to Gregorian as a Christ figure, particularly in regard to resurrection and rebirth.
Another ongoing interest in Swanwick’s work is the problem of retaining identity under new and difficult situations. In Stations of the Tide, the notion of self is fractured by the surrogates and the Puzzle Palace. Even the bureaucrat’s physical self changes at the end, to that of a watergoing being. It is fitting, then, that the bureaucrat remains unnamed throughout the novel, for identity in Swanwick’s imagined far future is neither rigid nor fixed. Swanwick sees identity as necessarily flexible; those who survive are those who are willing to change.
Stations of the Tide is a sophisticated literary work of science fiction exploring possible ways humans might adapt to varying environments. The people of Miranda are fascinating, and the hunt for Gregorian is compelling. Swanwick’s conclusion is an optimistic one. Not only the impact of the cumulative allusions but also the bureaucrat’s actions point to the possibility of rebirth. Technology offers hope through its use in adapting to the new environment on Miranda.