Friday, January 22, 2016

Think Galactic- Stations of the Tide

For January's Think Galactic, we discussed Michael Swanwick's 1991 novel "Stations of the Tide".

The novel is set an indeterminate but considerable time in the future. Humans have colonized other solar systems, and our action mostly takes place in the Tidewater region of the planet Miranda, which is periodically flooded. Our protagonist, a nameless bureaucrat, has been sent from the advanced space-borne societies to track down Gregorian, a Mirandan who may have stolen some dangerous replicating technology.

On one level, it's a straightforward science-fictional riff on the noirish detective tale, flavored with some bureaucratic spook business. Despite its relative brevity, though (250ish pages), there's a surprising number of levels here, threads and allusions and alternate plot interpretations constantly seeping in.

So, as you can imagine, a nice discussion. Spoilers below!
This is one of those write-ups where I feel it necessary to lay my cards on the table: I really like this book a lot. It's on the most exclusive of my personal short-lists, and a frequent re-read.

That said! We started the group off by going around with some initial impressions:
  • Something I was thinking about a lot while reading it this time is the question of whether or not things are magic. The answer is always: "no, but..." We start in a presumably non-magical world, see something fantastic or wonderful, are told it was some kind of a trick, but the act of questioning that just makes us question what else we're assuming is "real".
  • We liked the broad-but-scattershot glimpses of this future, from the Mirandan criminal elements, witches, and sex workers, to the strange (and highly virtual?) inhabitants of "the Floating Worlds".
  • Praise for the chapter "Conversations in the Puzzle Palace", wherein the bureaucrat splits into five different agents who go off on separate tasks before re-absorbing each other.
  • Many comments about the plot, primarily that the book is not really about the plot, or that we repeatedly found ourselves confident we knew what kind of plot it was, only to have it go off in a different direction.
  • Praise for the worldbuilding and sense of depth here, again impressive especially because of the book's shortness. It makes wonderful use of "small details tossed off in a sentence", and dispenses huge, seemingly novel-worthy bits of bizarreness just to add a bit of texture and sense of space. Lots of ideas crammed in here.
  • We had critiques of the confusing nature of the narrative at points, and sometimes found the "toss the reader in without explanation" approach a bit much, particularly with regards to neologisms. Also, some of us felt that the characters were seriously underdeveloped, which made it hard to get through the book--and pointed out the non-interaction of the supposedly important opposition, even when they finally meet: Gregorian and the bureaucrat.
  • Also, it was noted that, despite it's early '90s publication, this had the feel of '70s New Wave.
  • We liked the surrogates! And they reminded us of the television-headed robots from "Saga" (which we discussed recently).
I again recommend Evan Dahm's
excellent work.
We wondered: why is there still television? But that is perhaps explained by the "artificially lowered" technology on Miranda. Spent some time sussing out the story of the trashy television show that is woven throughout in tiny glimpses, which seems kind of like if J.J. Abrams made a television serial cross between Moby Dick, the Little Mermaid, and "Waterworld". We wondered what bringing Ahab & his white whale into this story does--something about the quest for meaning, even if the quest or meaning are monstrous. And Swanwick also seems to be using the television show and other in-novel fictions to poke at the ridiculousness of SF/F--yet then has the bureaucrat do the very things he's convinced us are ludicrous at the very end.

And we talked about this as a detective novel, how there's this one level where it's supposed to be about the bureaucrat's hunt for Gregorian--sort of re-creating Gregorian's life--but on another level, and much like a lot of detective fiction, it's really all about the protagonist's ego. It's all about the bureaucrat and his experiences, and Gregorian barely shows up at all.

There's a lot of this level of allusion and reference in this book. Other works are referred to, and while "Stations" doesn't line up cleanly with any of them, it encourages the active reader to have the ghosts of those texts--and the sometimes highly-developed critical apparati and traditions surrounding them--hovering over Swanwick's text, as it were.

There were moments where we felt a "Heart of Darkness" vibe here, in the overall plot (dare I say, a riparian narrative) of questing beyond the bounds of reason, in the wild otherness that changes those who visit it, sometimes to monsters; in the way that, like Marlowe's tale, the meaning doesn't sit in the center but in sort of a fog about the whole tale. The airship captain's monologue early in the book very much put some of us in mind of Kurtz.

Possibly intended to be Gregorian?
Kind of like this cover, while wondering
what exactly it's supposed to depict.
We also (briefly) talked about the allusions to and resonances with Shakespeare's "Tempest". In this solar system, the sun is called Prospero, our plot takes place on the planet Miranda, and there are other references to "The Tempest" as well as others of his plays. This makes us think about Prospero, an exiled magic/technology user (the bureaucrat/the bureaucracy that sent him?), and the opposition of Caliban (crude, bestial, usurped by Prospero: the haunts? Gregorian & the native Mirandans?) and Ariel (otherworldly, near-omnipotent, capricious: the machines & AIs?)...and both Caliban and Ariel are slaves until freed. It doesn't hurt that "The Tempest" is a common touchstone for postcolonial discussion and critique.

Probably the most recurrent allusion here is the Judeo-Christian one. Gregorian is a Christ-analog: the virgin birth, reported miracles, confused trinity with his clonefather & God (and/or, possibly, the bureaucrat), promise of an afterlife & immortality, last supper/communion (literal cannibalism, this time), empty tomb. Confusing this analogy, the bureaucrat sort of relives a (much milder) form of Gregorian's life while tracking him. Also, Gregorian calls the bureaucrat "little brother", and while it's not followed up on a few of us have to wonder if that might be literal, and what to make of that.

And then there's the title and chapters, which mirror the 14 "Stations of the Cross" from the Catholic tradition. Skip down to the table comparison at the bottom of Michael Andre-Driussi's analysis for a Cross/Tide play-by-play. (He also points out this novel's strong resonance with Gene Wolfe's 1972 "The Fifth Head of Cerberus"; reading that made me an even more suspicious reader of "Stations".)

We don't know how to read all this Christian imagery, exactly, (also noting that the tides are jubilee tides, and that the lost capital city is Ararat), but that's okay! Contrasted with Lewis's heavy-handed Narnia allegories.

Never made the connection before, but now the
Korda/Gregorian question is reminding me of Gore Vidal's
character in "Gattaca". He's very much the loose thread
that deconstructs the surface message of the film.
Gregorian's hard to figure out, and we talked a bit about his motivation, particularly that part where he asks another character if Korda (Gregorian's "parent") would kill x number of people or not. So we debated whether Gregorian's monstrous turn is a successful (though literally atrocious) escape from Korda's control and his own nature (I hope my Sartrean friends will forgive my failure to cry "l'existence précède l'essence!" at this juncture), or whether he merely proved that Korda was capable of that kind of sociopathy all along.

And this led us into talking more about the bureaucrat, how we know almost nothing about him, he's kind of a blank/transparent character, but then he also surprises us at certain points--having a plan we don't know about, hints of his youthful romance, and the fact that he won at the rigged game of Suicide, which was compared to the Kobayashi Maru. Not to be confused with the other famous Maru, incidentally.

We talked a lot about a few of the more intriguing or confusing plot points, such as the history of the haunt's accidental eradication ("genocide by Facebook") and the Mirandan human population's subsequent "technology level lowering", and what exactly the Department of Technology Transfer is all about. The bureaucrat's utter lack of official power to do anything reminded us a bit of UN nuclear/weapons inspectors, kind of like "hey, are you doing a bad thing? Please don't do that." We spent a bit of time hashing out and re-enjoying the "Conversations in the Puzzle Palace" chapter, and tried to figure out exactly what was going on in the bureaucrat's drug-assisted memory-merging thingy with Gregorian at the end.

"What's the real story?" was sort of our slogan for this book. That back-and-forth I mentioned above makes a kind of dialectical progression of scepticism:
(1) Assume you're in a mundane/naturalistic world with certain properties.
(2) Experience something magical (or even non-magical but "fantastic" in the sense that it's unlikely but you'd like to believe it, like the continued survival of the haunts)
(3) Further experience, or an authority figure of some kind, explains (2) as a trick, illusion, or misunderstanding.
(4) Debunking (2) leads to one questioning how solid (1) is.
(5) OMG something magical (2) was real or possible all along, undermining (3).
And so on. In particular, throughout the entire novel we are told that 1.) the briefcase is prohibited from certain things while on Miranda, and that 2.) the kind of radical transformation promised by Gregorian is impossible even with the most advanced technology of the day. Throughout the entire novel, Mirandans don't believe the bureaucrat on these points, and we as readers come to feel privileged, that we know the truth (impossibility of these points), only to have that rug pulled out at the last station. Someone referred to this process as having the bureaucrat and the reader's "reality-testing abilities zeroed out", so it's difficult or impossible to figure out how likely a claim is. At the same time, because it's tied up with the plot, and we know there are antagonists actively trying to get us to believe the wrong thing, we're invested in recalibrating our reality gauges.

Good stuff.

Much more cyberpunk and space-going
science fictional.

Why does the bureaucrat set the briefcase free? This puzzle--which the text seems to try to pass off lightly--may be the key to a much more sinister reading of the whole novel: that our entire plot here is a just a single (though perhaps decisive) move in the struggle between Earth and the Prosperan system. On this reading, Earth's agent engineered all of this solely to get the bureaucrat to a mental and physical place where he could unbind an AI with replicator abilities. Swanwick's earlier novel "Vacuum Flowers" (1987), set in our solar system, may be the same fictional universe as "Stations" and expands on the horrific AI-takeover of Earth, which is merely hinted at here. We're not sure what to make of this reading, but we liked the bits with Earth's agents and the human overseer who breezes over the potentially evil-overlord potential of the AIs: "You wouldn't subsume us all into a hive-mind given the chance, would you? Of course not!" The AIs are silent on this claim, and we also note that the bureaucrat's memory of this entire passage are heavily edited, so we don't know exactly what went down with Earth. Given that a mere mortal like Gregorian did some fairly advanced "hacking" of another person (Doctor Orphelin), it seems reasonable that Earth might have hacked both Gregorian and the bureaucrat to some extent, or at any rate engineered events to Her will.

Which reminds me of one of my favorite passages in Gibson's "Neuromancer" (1984), when an agent of the Wintermute/Neuromancer AI tries to explain itself to our protagonist:
I try to plan, in your sense of the word, but that isn't my basic mode, really. I improvise. It's my greatest talent. I prefer situations to plans, you see... Really, I've had to deal with givens. I can sort a great deal of information, and sort it very quickly. It's taken a very long time to assemble the team you're a part of.
The Ol' Lawgiver.
We really like the briefcase, though! It's a fun character. We noted that its honest answer to "what would you like to do, just for yourself?" is the same, ultimately, as the bureaucrat's: just slip away, live its own life, find its own meanings. And we really liked that, once freed, the briefcase does not act all grateful to the bureaucrat, and points out that he is a pretty crappy lawgiver.

The theme of control is prominent in the book (teenage Gregorian's diary reads like a rough & magic-infused version of Nietzsche's "will to power" concept), and, despite the (possible, eventual, apocalyptic) after-effects of the briefcase's manumission, we found the concept of fully intelligent consciousness being enslaved a problematic one, so we can't full-heartedly condemn that liberation. Incidentally, this reminded me of our discussion of Kim Stanley Robinson's 2012 novel "2312", which also deals with the problem of "either rogue or enslaved" AI:
If you program a purpose into a computer program, does that constitute its will? Does it have free will, if a programmer programmed its purpose? Is that programming any different from the way we are programmed by our genes and brains? Is a programmed will a servile will? Is human will a servile will? And is not the servile will the home and source of all feelings of defilement, infection, transgression, and rage?
"The Luggage"
Love these Joe McLaren
, btw.
On a lighter note, in discussing the physical appearance of the briefcase, we were reminded of our favorite bit of sapient pearwood from Pratchett's Discworld.

However, to be even more of a downer, we also discussed the "nope he's a dead bird" reading, where the bureaucrat's transformation at the end is a trick on the reader.

We talked for a bit about the theme of control--characters and institutions of each other, of the machines, of Miranda. There's a lot of parental issues here, fathers & mothers trying to control their children with various levels of success & rebellion. We felt like Mother Gregorian & her daughters might be calling out to some other work, but we're not sure what--Dickens?

And we really liked Undine's relationship to her teacher Madame Campaspe as a rare counterexample, a child/parent or student/teacher relationship that seems genuine. We liked Undine generally, and her abilities and agency kind of "flip the trope"--it seems on the surface both absurd and detective-genre-appropriate that the most beautiful/talented woman would sleep with the bureaucrat. But, thinking of her not a broad who's fallen for this gumshoe, but rather as a witch who's ensorcelled him to her own ends, who has her own agency and plans, makes her a more interesting character, and also reinforces that sort of unconscious pomposity of the bureaucrat.

"We Bene Gesserit sift people to find
the humans. This one goes to eleven."
We liked the reaction from bureaucrat's native companions when they deduce he's a had a wild night from his new finger-tattoo. And, in her story relating Gregorian's training, we liked the "Dune" call-out with what's clearly a gom jabbar. We suggested that, if it hasn't been done already, someone needs to do some kind of Dune/Spinal Tap mashup.

Oddly enough, we didn't talk about the sexual dynamics at play here very much--lots of Freudian mommy/daddy issues, castration fears, and bits of queer/poly/mystic sexual traditions. The "Whitemarsh Cults", though not explored much, sound like they should be placed on our "cool counter-cultural utopia" shelf.

We did, however, note that both the bureaucrat and Korda are really transformed by sex on Miranda--the bureaucrat with Undine, Korda with a haunt. Korda's one sexual encounter really sets the course of his whole life (and this novel), and though the goal should be noble (saving a sentient species), it's also "the root of his corruption". We talked about both the bureaucrat and Korda as having "gone native" (again, thinking of Conrad) or have even been medised, to use Herodotus' term. Which Think Galactic did not hesitate to use, let it be known.

There's something weird and kind of compelling about why Korda went the cloning route--this deep inability to trust anyone other than himself. Coupled with Mintouchian's comments on storytelling and theater as a (for him, futile) attempt to escape solipsism, I'm tempted to read this as ultimately about totality vs. alterity. But then, I am always so tempted. We got a kick out of the agenting/surrogating, at any rate, and the way that Swanwick uses grammar-level decisions to emphasize the weirdness and humor of that: "one by one, the bureaucrat stepped through", "Phillipe was alone with himself", etc.

(The agenting aspects make me want to re-read stuff like Egan's "Permutation City" or Stross's "Accelerando", incidentally.)

John Allison's Crowley is a personal favorite.
We made a half-hearted attempt to suss out some of the magical/spiritual references here, noting some resonances with Crowley in Gregorian. "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law" etc. Also we suspect that their are some fruitful Gnostic or Manichean readings of this, but we don't know enough to guess.

We talked for a bit about the technology/magic dichotomy: Mirandan "magic" actually a different tradition of technology, as highlighted in Gregorian & Korda's argument on changing habits. And we liked that the "backwards, less-advanced" Mirandans are constantly tricking the bureaucrats and other offworlders, subverting their supposed advantage, although they can't ultimately escape the control the space-borne powers impose. We really like the way that the technological, magical, and the haunt's biological abilities all converge on the idea of radical change and transformation.

Talking about the difference between technological and evolved abilities led us on a brief tangent, which included an episode of me entering a whiny fugue-state due to the concept of punctuated equilibrium. It did put me in mind of Bear's "Darwin's Radio, however, which uses that as a core science-fictional concept.

A wonderful discussion! And in conclusion:

"I really don't like my job and I...can turn into a fish."

I again would like to extend my thanks to the other Think Galactic folks for rescheduling this meeting on my behalf. But! It turns out that Wednesdays work significantly better for many of our members, so we are actually going to be shifting our meeting dates to the 2nd Wednesdays, rather than 2nd Thursdays.

(Incidentally, I note with a thrill of both horror and anticipation, this resolves another Chicagoland SF/F book club calendar conflict, so I may have to drop in on the Forest Park Speculative Fiction group sometime.)

More updates! It turns out that two of our picks for this cycle--"Luna: New Moon" and "The Traitor Baru Cormorant"--are not yet available in paperback, nor super library-accessible, so we're going to hold off on those for now. February's book will be "Liar", the calendar reflects other changes, and we'll pick two replacements at the next meeting.

For February's meeting we've also selected Xoco Bistro as our optional pre-club dinner spot.

We're moving closer to a Think-Galactic-hosted Wiscon party, look for more updates on that.

And, last but not least, the first Megatext book-club is scheduled, at Open Books, and we're going to be talking about China Miéville. Looking forward to it, spread the word!

No comments:

Post a Comment