Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick

July 1, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

Stations of the Tide is a very good book and was extremely close to being a five-star book for me. So close, that nothing about the book beyond the time I read it need be altered for me to give it five stars, I think. This is not the old remark about authors best read when you’re 13, far from it. This is a very literary science fiction book. It’s just that the material that elevates it from a very good four star book into a lasting five star favorite is, shall we say, strangely familiar. Or to use a more explicit cliche, I really liked Stations of Tide, but I liked it even better when it was called Fifth Head of Cerberus.

I don’t want to get into an argument about just how much, if anything, is new under the sun, but I feel like my complaint here is actually pretty uncontroversial. Swanwick has acknowledged the debt he has to Wolfe in general and Fifth Head in particular, in interviews, so I think he would understand my position. Don’t get me wrong…it’s not that Stations of the Tide is a complete rip job, far from it. However, the 10% of the novel that comes from Wolfe’s masterpiece supplies about 50-75% of what I really liked.

That still leaves plenty more to like. Swanwick is an excellent writer but beyond that, he is extremely inventive. That must sound strange when I’ve just been railing about him lifting themes and ideas, but the stuff he doesn’t lift (or at any rate that I couldn’t source) is still very good. While the novel does not equal the level Wolfe spends most of his time at, it comes very close, not by excelling in other areas the way other books I rate five stars do, but by playing Wolfe’s game: carefully drawn characters struggling to understand the nature of the reality that underlies the at times surreal landscape around them. My only other complaint is that I found the world so fascinating I wish there was more, but this is really more of a compliment. I definitely recommend Stations of the Tide for anyone with the slightest predilection for literary science fiction. Just read Fifth Head of Cerberus first if you haven’t already.

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