I finished reading STATIONS OF THE TIDE last week; I would have written about it sooner, but it's taken me this long to process and digest my thoughts about the book into something approaching a coherent whole.
The book's plot feels like nothing so much as an SF take on Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS. Like that book, its protagonist is a nameless functionary (he is called simply "the bureaucrat" through the entire length of the novel) sent to a backwards hellhole (here, a decaying colony world) in search of a dangerous renegade. The world, called Miranda, has an erratic orbit that causes its ice caps to melt every couple of centuries and drown every inch of dry land; the native life has evolved to thrive under these conditions, but the human settlers have not. As the inept and corrupt local government tries to evacuate the populace in the last few weeks before the flood, the renegade - a man called Gregorian, who claims to be a wizard or magus - gains a following by offering to remake the Mirandans into amphibious creatures capable of surviving the deluge, for a price. The offworld authorities aren't sure if Gregorian is a simple fraud, murdering his followers for money, or if he's employing forbidden offworld technology; either way, he must be dealt with.
The book is difficult to get into at first, and part of this is because Swanwick respects our intelligence enough to throw us into the deep end right from the beginning. As with Mamet's movie Spartan, rather than giving us exposition, he expects us to follow along and patiently assemble the facts of the story by picking them up in context. Once we get over not having everything spoonfed to us, the sense of discovery as the text progresses is intoxicating. The prose is finely-honed and cutting, getting to the truth of a scene in a few skillfully-chosen words. These two factors combine to keep the book brief but dense - it clocks in at less than 250 pages but feels as packed with character, ideas, and incident as a book twice its size.
Swanwick is a disciple of Gene Wolfe, and this is most evident in the way the book's plot takes (or at least seems to take) a backseat to the meandering travelogue of the world on display. And that's fine, because Miranda is a fascinating place: kept forcibly low-tech by the offworld authorities for reasons that are not immediately made clear, it is a planet of swamps and rotting manor houses and superstitious villagers, where travel is effected not by spaceship or hovercraft but by zeppelin, motorboat, or foot. The local religion is a strange blend of voodoo/tribal ritual with Aleister Crowley/Grant Morrison/Alan Moore-style sex-and-drug "magick", and secret brotherhoods of witches and shamans are more feared and more obeyed by the locals than the ineffectual planetary government - but as the planet's watery end approaches, the locals increasingly ignore all authority and give themselves over to either lawless violence or frenzied, nihilistic partying. The resulting atmosphere could best be described as Sci-fi Southern Gothic, like William Faulkner remixed by William Gibson. The bureaucrat doggedly slogs through this milieu, encountering smugglers of alien artifacts, looters, shamans, a family straight out of a V.C. Andrews novel, and possibly a shapechanging alien.
Despite its charms and fascinations, the novel isn't fully emotionally engaging for a lot of its length, and much of this has to do with the rather unsympathetic nature of the main character. The bureaucrat seems to be everything his title would imply: a colorless, charmless, unimaginative automaton, meticulous in the performance of his job and utterly inattentive to everything else. Even his talking briefcase has more personality than him, and his detached blandness makes the starkest possible contrast to the fascinating and intricate world he moves through. Nobody cares about the bureaucrat's mission but the bureaucrat, and despite his dutiful, passionless persistence he seems ever more unequal to his task: the local authorities will not cooperate with him, everyone he talks to lies to him and stonewalls him simply out of spite, he is armed with apparently no knowledge of the world or its customs and culture, and Gregorian's followers are fanatical, ruthless, and seemingly know his every move even before he does.
But this is science fiction, and science fiction is about overturning expectations. Nothing in this book is what it seems; not the central conflict, not the bureaucrat, and least of all the plot, which is about as "meandering" as a Swiss watch. The chief pleasure of the novel, aside from Swanwick's prose, lies in seeing a million utterly disparate threads skillfully drawn together before our eyes and woven into something much greater than the sum of its parts, something not only intellectually engaging but emotionally powerful: we know the bureaucrat at the end, and against all odds we care for him, and his fate moves us. So many SF novels peter out in the final act, but the last fifty pages of STATIONS OF THE TIDE are among the most intensely satisfying I've ever read. We leave the book with a feeling of profound contentment and toe-tapping joy, as if we've satiated a need so deep-seated that we were heretofore unaware of its existence. It's one of the best reading experiences I've had in a long, long time; it's one of those books that burns to be shared with everyone you know.