Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
In some place, this book was very interesting, and in some places...it wasn't. In particular, one of the things I find interesting about science fiction is the universe-building -- are we reading about a near-future Earth setting, or a universe where interstellar travel is commonplace? While it became quickly clear that this was not set on Earth, the setting was only slowly and not very fully disclosed. I'm OK with describing things up front, and I'm OK with slowly peeling back the curtain -- as long as the author does so fairly thoroughly. But I was pretty far through this book before I knew whether the protagonist was from the same solar system as the planet the action took place on.
I say "the protagonist" -- he is referred to as "The Bureaucrat" and not named. He is sent to the planet to investigate the use of proscribed technology. It's an interesting premise -- in particular, set right before the once-a-century tides that are going to sweep away all of the buildings in the area after the people are evacuated. It's a neat premise, but I didn't love the execution. The author spends more time with tantric sex and mysticism than with the more science-fictiony aspects of the tale.
Science fiction authors have a choice -- they can write "future history" and tell the story of major events in the future. Or, they can provide a "slice of life" in the future. For example, they can write a detective novel, spy thriller or even a romance novel with the future as a setting. In order to do that well, however, the setting has to be present in the tale to a much greater extent than is true in this book.
I think the author created a fascinating setting, and I think the investigation plot contained a lot of potential. But I disliked the eventual wandering off into mysticism.
I am beginning to doubt the selection process for the Nebula awards. Granted, I did not read any of the other 1991 nominees -- maybe it was a thin year. In some cases, I suspect the author's popularity is too influential, but I have no explanation of why this book, which I found unexceptional, won the award. (Other than that my tastes simply differ from the voters'.)
So now I've read the Best Novel winners from 1991-2010, and 32 of the 47 winners. I had already bought two more of the winners, which may be the only reason I make any more progress in the near future. I have such limited time to read books these days, I have actually accumulated a list of new books I haven't had time to read. So using the Nebula list to find new books is less crucial, and I'm actually finding some of them disappointing compared to books I might otherwise choose.
Stations of the Tide is the fourth Nebula novel I've read this year. I figure if I average two to four per year, I can wrap up this project in another 5-10 years. I am actually more interested in reading next year's nominees, to expand my engagement with current science fiction. I tried that for the 2009 nominees, and I ended up reading the eventual winner. Maybe I'll have time next year to read all of the nominees before the award is announced and have an informed opinion about the choice. But probably not.