Maria's Reviews > Stations of the Tide

Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick
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's review
Sep 17, 2011

really liked it
Read in September, 2011

Swanwick is one those rare authors who - I believe - deserves more recognition than he gets. He is certainly not for everyone (yes, yes, I realize I'm balancing precariously on the very edge of eternal hipsterdoom here); Stations of the Tide lacks that solid straightforwardness which popular books usually possess. The pacing is uneven, and the story often stumbles and walks in circles, and sometimes I got the feeling that the author and I are equally confused as to where we are heading.

Frankly, Station of the Tide is not so much a walk through the woods (dangers untold and hardships unnumbered), but a voyage through the unknown and troubled waters. The ocean refuses to be mapped; ruthless and willful, it changes its liquid landscapes on a whim and with the sky constantly overcast every direction looks the same, so is it any wonder at all that you feel a little lost?

Indeed, among those few reviewers who actually bothered to write more than two lines about Station of the Tide, almost everyone compared it to Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I can't really approve or disapprove of this comparison for, being a typical russian barbarian, I've never read the latter, but I thought it's worth mentioning since my more educated friends might find it helpful.

My barbaric origins aside, I can make a few comparisons of my own.

Swanwick is not the first author to introduce me to drugs in science fiction - that rather doubtful honor belongs to PKD. For a very long time I firmly believed that writing about drugs was an undivided domain of beatniks. It was the unquestioned right of those who misspent their youth in 1960's. Of course, the sci-fi novels I read as a child couldn't avoid the topic completely, but in them drugs were always presented as an unwanted and shameful appendix of the bright new world, something that the near-perfect half-gods which humans had evolved into didn't need, didn't long for.

Swanwick is by no means a drugs-enthusiast that PKD was. In fact, the drugs in Stations of the Tide is a thing of the past, treated with contempt by scientifically advanced "offworlders" and reduced to shamanic brews and weird concoctions which magicians gulp down in order to gain power. Think Carlos Castaneda, or - if you must - Stanislav Grof (at his weirdest).

Then there is sex. Funny how, as an adult, I've come to expect books to "put out". Not that I would think any less of the authors who decided not to include sexual scenes in their novels, but ignoring the elephant in the room can only take you so far. With Station of the Tide, however, I imagine the story would not have suffered too great a loss if Swanwick had chosen to forego the "sexy" part completely. His writing style seems to work better for the fairy-tale innocence of his short fiction. Although, to be fair, I have to admit that the two sexual scenes Swanwick did wrote into the story are not atrociously bad. They are just awkward and corny (especially so if you consider that they are written from the point of view of a middle-aged man).

After reading all this, you may think that I didn't like the book. That's not true. Actually, this is exactly why I believe that Michael Swanwick is so great: I liked the book despite all these things; despite the awkward sex scenes and failed attempts at originality, despite confusing plot and weird pacing and some other things that made very little sense.

There is a lot to like about Stations of the Tide.

Somehow Michael Swanwick managed to pack a very real - living and breathing - world into the limited space of a relatively short novel. Swanwick's writing style is reminiscent of that one of Bradbury's -though not as refined, not quite as polished yet. What I like the most, however, is that Swanwick is both visceral and visual author. The visual part is responsible for the absolutely magnificent book covers as well as some breathtaking views inside the book, while the visceral part allows Swanwick to build an eerily realistic world based on a completely unrealistic premise.
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