Sometimes a writer can get a little too carried away with the symbolism they pack into a novel, reaching a point where the reader can almost cherrypick whatever meaning they want from it. 'Stations of the Tide' is open to any interpretation a critic might want to bring to it, and very few of them will be incorrect. This might be the most original Nebula Winner I've read in a long time, and it might also be the worst pastiche of other novels and SF cliches I've ever read, and it might be both at the same time.
The novel follows the basic structure of 'Heart of Darkness' by Joseph Conrad, leading some people to claim it a SF retelling of the classic story. I didn't catch that in my first reading, and I think Swanwick was aiming for something else. Also the planet of 'Miranda' and the 'Prospero' system are obvious allusions to 'The Tempest' There's also a small group of people who claim that the reference of the word 'Stations' in the title and the fourteen chapters of the book make it a Christ metaphor. I don't know if one of these are correct, and I really can't see all three of them being true at the same time. Maybe that's what the author was going for, piling symbolism on top of symbolism on top of symbolism, but if the reader has to work that hard to squeeze some meaning out of a novel I'm just going to move on and keep looking.
As far as references to other works of SF I did see the 'pain box' out of 'Dune,' the dying planet out of 'Dying of the Light' and countless other references to SF works, if I had a stronger background in fantasy novels I might have caught a few more nods to that genre as well. Swanwick seems to have taken Clarke's old quote that, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" to heart and written a novel to prove himself right. This novel straddles a fine line between fantasy and SF that you don't see very often, one of the components that makes this work so original. It's a credit to the novel that the magic of Miranda and the Agents of the Crystal Palace can exist in the same novel, but Swanwick makes it work.
Many SF novels make predictions about the future, and very few of them are accurate. One of the reasons for this is that those SF novels are written first to make a point about the present in which they were written, not about the actual future approaching. The second is that the actual future we are entering is far far stranger than anything we can imagine and if we were to read a true account of what it will be like if human beings ever take to the stars we will probably have so little in common with those people that the story has no impact. I can imagine a future that truly is like Swanwick's idea, if only because it is that odd, and that difficult to relate to.
Swanwick writes in a style that forces the reader to do some work, far more than the average SF book. We have an unreliable, unsympathetic, openly lying narrator. Swanwick changes scenery and viewpoints with little explanation, creating a disorientating effect on the reader. The Beauracrat spends almost the last half of the novel in a drug induced stupor, further comlicating matters. The author forces the reader to question exactly what reality is inside this world, and gives us very little solid material to grab on to.
The eighth chapter of the novel is perhaps the best example of this, and one I had to fully reread just to grasp what was going on. The bureaucrat splits himself into five agents, each sent to accomplish a different task inside the Puzzle Palace (which may or may not be a real place). As each of these agents accomplish their task they are reabsorbed by the Bureaucrat, or another agent, at which point the narrative retells what the absorbed agent accomplished. After the third agent was absorbed during the narrative of the second and the story went to it's third tier I basically gave up on the chapter and started over. This bit of literary showmanship can get on one's nerve, but if it bothered you too much you wouldn't have made it this far into Stations in the first place. At least this bit of agent re-absorption is somewhat linear and not open to interpretation like the end of the novel.
Because the ending of the book provides us with the opportunity to take several different interpretations, and if you want to see a few of the different ones refer back to that link above. We have to ask ourselves the question of whether or not to trust the character of the bureaucrat now that he has proved himself a liar. He began the novel saying that just the sort of transformation he takes before jumping into the ocean was impossible, so he was lying either then or now. Also the fact that he ends the novel in just the sort of situation in which we first see Gregorian should raise a few eyebrows. We have to ask ourselves whether the Bureaucrat has now become Gregorian, or is being controlled by Gregorian (my first interpretation which I am beginning to dismiss now). Was Gregorian a fraud the entire time, manipulating reality as he did only through parlor tricks and bribery? Was the Bureaucrat the real wizard all the while, only unwilling or unable to use his powers?
Like I said at the start, this novel is so packed full of symbolism that there's just no correct interpretation, or if there is it's just not worth the time to find out what it is. Every reader is going to walk away with something different. I like to think that the character of Gregorian engineered the entire thing, knowing only a Bureaucrat had the power to accomplish what he wanted, namely setting the machines free to repopulate Miranda and taking the dive off the cliff and arising transformed. Gregorian engineered his own death knowing the Bureaucrat would take his place, he is already on his way with the three tattoos on his wrist and the love of a witch. But, there's no definitive proof for how the novel turns out, and if someone tried to convince me that the Bureaucrat was a crazy person who jumped to his death, or was an agent the entire time, I probably wouldn't have very much ammunition with which to argue.
Stations was published in a time when SF was striving for greater recognition among literary critics, and often reads like it was aimed directly at college professors. This can earn a novel a commendation like "great" or "important" but it will very rarely turn a book into something that is fun to read. 'Stations of the Tide' can be interesting from a critical standpoint, but he never attains that second level where the book can be fully enjoyed for it's own sake. Compare it, for example, to the work of Gene Wolfe, another literary SF author. Wolfe seems to strike that balance where both critical readers and the common reader who picks the book off the shelf might both be able to enjoy the work.
Swanwick missed that sweet spot, but I still enjoyed this book immensely. This book is exactly the sort of reason I set out to read all the books on both the Hugo and Nebula lists. This isn't the sort of book that one runs into at random, it's seldom talked about or mentioned. I know that personally, I never would have encountered it if I hadn't actively been looking for it. It's just the sort of classic I hope to find every time I order a book I've never heard of.
Stations won the Nebula for '92 and picked up a Hugo nomination in the same year. It was Bujold's 'Barrayer' that took home the Hugo that year however. And whatever it may sound like I agree with both these selections. Stations is definitaly the sort of book that other authors within the genre should put up for an award, the critical success, and 'Barrayer' is the sort that should win any popularity contest.
In the end, if I hadn't set myself the goal of reading and reviewing every one of these books, I never would have written a word about stations. This book is complex and difficult to talk about and it would be much easier if I could just put a check mark next to it's name, think about it alone, and move along.