By Michael Swanwick
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
I read Joyce’s ‘Ulysses‘ in college, for a course on the epic novel. Much of the classroom time spent on “Ulysses’ was merely explication: what has happened, who is who, what do these words actually mean, to what does this refer? And I remember, very clearly, that at some point in these discussions my professor said something which I have come to regard as the single smartest thing that I heard in college on the subject of literature.
It was during a discussion of works of criticism about ‘Ulysses’ that my professor said, ‘Of course, most critics of ‘Ulysses’ spend their time just proving that they understand the book, rather than assessing its literary merits. As you might imagine, that isn’t the critically healthiest situation.”
What he meant, I think, is that if, as you read a book, you must exert constantly just to understand it, you will lack the attention necessary to assess it. If you’re barely treading water, you don’t waste energy admiring the beauty of the ocean.
I thought about this a lot as I read ‘Stations of the Tide‘ because, frankly, I spent much of this book struggling just to understand what on earth was going on, and so I don’t really know whether or not the book is any good.
‘Stations of the Tide‘ is about an outer world. Humanity’s elite now lives in space cities, from which they control the access of the outer worlds to “controlled” technologies, the technologies which have allowed the survival and spread of humankind after the demise of Earth.
The spread of these technologies is controlled by the bureaucrats of the Puzzle Palace, and illegal possession of controlled technologies is investigated by the Division of Technology Transfer. One of these bureaucrats, called only the Bureaucrat, has come down to the planet Miranda on just such an investigation.
Miranda is an unusual planet. Every two hundred years, the normally verdant Miranda is flooded by the Jubilee Tides – almost the entire surface of the planet will be underwater for a generation. Most of the native animals on Miranda have evolved two lifecycles for this reason: a terrestrial one, and an aquatic one. But humans are not native to Miranda, and they must either flee the coming floods, or drown.
Miranda is a backwater planet, the people kept technologically poor, and subject to the predations of magicians. The bureaucrat has come to interrogate one such magician, Gregorian, who has been accused of stealing a piece of controlled technology, and who is claiming to be able, with the stolen technology, to transform the humans of Miranda into semi-aquatic beings who may survive the Jubilee Tides. And so the Bureaucrat must find the magician, and the tides are coming.
‘Stations of the Tide‘ is a science fiction-fantasy-Southern Gothic–surrealist-mystery novel, and it’s either brilliant, or it’s a mess. Perhaps it is both. I honestly cannot say, but I didn’t like it.
I’m sure that this is my own failing, but I have never warmed to surrealism. I know that, in some obscure way, I am marking myself out as possessing a pedestrian mind, but I like knowing what’s happening in the books I’m reading. I have caught glimmers, over the years, of what surrealism might offer us: the chance to engage with the idea that knowable, linear “reality” is, in fact, an illusion, a construct of our minds, but in the safety of literature, or film.
But I still hate it: my plodding mind loves plot, likes to grind itself against mechanism of action, and cannot relax into the sophistication of non-linearity.
There is a decided surrealist tint to ‘Stations of the Tide‘. There are multiple dream and hallucination sequences, and the pervasive sense of unreality is heightened by the fact that consciousness can be beamed from body to body, even to machines called ‘surrogates’, and duplicated, which allows characters to have conversations with themselves, or with multiple versions of the same person without being able to tell them apart. Also confusing is the fact that one of the main characters is a briefcase.
Thus, I spent much of ‘Stations of the Tide‘ unsure of what, exactly, was happening, rereading paragraphs and pages in order to get a clearer glimpse of the action, usually in vain.
And as my English professor said so long ago, this is not the ideal position from which to make critical judgements. The truth is, the fact that I did not understand a book does not mean that the book is not good. A book may be excellent and still exceed my cognitive grasp, but, because it has exceeded me, I am not able to say whether it is good or not. So it is with ‘Stations of the Tide’: it is perhaps good, perhaps very good, but I am not the right person to ask.
I can only speak to whether or not I enjoyed it, and I think I can answer with more confidence here: I did not. It’s difficult to enjoy a book which isn’t making any sense to you: I think that prose that is incomprehensible is almost always boring, because it’s essentially gibberish. There is nothing to hold your attention, no coordinates of plot on which to anchor yourself, and so the reading essentially becomes an exercise of dragging your eyes over words. It isn’t especially fun.
In fairness, much which had been mysterious to me in ‘Stations of the Tide‘ was made clear in the end: the last two or so chapters are somewhat more lucid than the rest of the book and are purposefully explanatory, the sci-fi equivalent of that part of any Sherlock Holmes story where Holmes explains to poor Watson what has just happened. The clarity of hindsight allowed me to relax enough to see that ‘Stations of the Tide’ was, at least, highly original and often beautifully written. There is enormous skill and deliberate vision behind even the most obscure aspects of ‘Stations of the Tide’
Hence my inability to state with any confidence whether or not ‘Stations of the Tide‘ is a good book. At the end of the day, it doesn’t even really matter: I admired it but didn’t enjoy it. I’m glad I read it, but I can’t say with any certainly I understood it. It’s broad points, sure, but I’d be willing to bet complexities eluded me, and I have nothing brilliant to say about it.
When you don’t really understand a book, it can never belong to you. It can’t become the property of your heart, the way loved books do. In order to love a book, you must feel you can grasp it, in its entirety; without this ability to get your arms around it, it won’t ever be yours. On some level, you and the book will always be strangers. Just because someone is a stranger doesn’t make them a bad person – it just means you don’t know them.
So, ‘Stations of the Tide‘ and I are strangers. I admire it, from a distance, I think, but at a distance I remain.