Exclusive Interview: “Stations Of The Tide” Author Michael Swanwick


To hear writer Michael Swanwick talk about his fantasy-flavored science fiction novel Stations Of The Tide, you’d think he wrote it last week and then rushed it into bookstores.

But Stations Of The Tide actually came out in 1990, when it was first serialized in Asimov’s Science Fiction, and then released in hardcover a year later.

It’s because of its continued relevance — and its contunuing popularity — that Tor have decided to release a new version of Stations Of The Tide as part of their “Tor Essentials” series (paperback, Kindle, audiobook).

In the following email interview, Swanwick talks about what originally inspired and influenced this novel, as well as how it fit into his oeuvre.

Michael Swanwick Stations Of The Tide

For people who’ve never read it, what is Stations Of The Tide about, and what kind of a world is it set in?

Wow. That’s a tougher question than you know.

On the most obvious level, it’s about a nameless bureaucrat who has been sent to the planet Miranda to recover some very dangerous technology that’s been stolen by a black magician.

But underneath…I like to tell people that it’s about sex, magic, and television as technologies that take place chiefly inside your brain.

On Miranda, every two hundred years the icecaps melt, the Jubilee Tide comes thundering in, and ocean covers the tidewater regions of its continents for the next century before withdrawing again. The local flora and fauna have evolved under these conditions and so shift between land and sea morphs when this happens. Birds become fish and trees alter to allow them to thrive underwater. But humans, who can’t adapt, have to retreat to the piedmont regions of their continents. So everything is changing, everything is in a state of flux.

Where did you originally get the idea for Stations Of The Tide?

I’m almost ashamed to admit that I stole the idea of periodic tides flooding the tidewater from a story in Analog. It had an image I liked, of a jewel-green fly hatching out of a barnacle shell and that entranced me. Years later, when I started to write the book, I tried very hard to find the story so I could include its author in the acknowledgements page, and failed.

At the time, I had been doing a lot of deep reading into mysticism and thinking about the nature of change, so a time of transformations gave me the opportunity to get a lot of material down on paper.

It sounds like Stations Of The Tide is a mix of science fiction and fantasy, but is not a space fantasy like Dune or Star Wars. How do you describe this story?

It’s fantasy-flavored science fiction. Every chapter contains a work of magic, ranging from sleight of hand to tantric sex. But they’re all things that are demonstrably provable in our universe.

You could also say that it’s a literary work that happens to be science fiction. But that description tends to scare off some readers because it makes the book sound like hard work. In fact, I worked very hard to make it as entertaining and easy to read as possible.

When the original hardcover version came out in 1991, Stations Of The Tide was your third published novel, and you’ve released six more since, as well as multiple short story collections. Are there any writers, or stories, that you think had a big influence on Tide, but not on anything you’ve written before or since?

At this distance, I can think of two, though I’m sure there were more.

The first and most obvious was Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and specifically his novel, One Hundred Years Of Solitude. He created such a lush, rich, convincing world in it. One that was full of wonders.

The other was Jamaica Kincaid, and in particular her short fiction collection At The Bottom Of The River, for much the same reason as Garcia Marquez. There are a couple of passages in Stations Of The Tide that are pastiches of her prose. I met her once and gave her a copy of Stations with those pages bookmarked, but begged her not to look at them while I was present. It would have broken my heart if she’d disliked them.

The original cover


What about non-literary influences; was Stations Of The Tide influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?

Nothing specific leaps to mind, though the old black-and-white comics like Creepy or Eerie had a lasting effect on all my choice of imagery.

But there is a lot of television running in the background. Science fiction set in the far future seems always to imagine a world without television — and never a word about why it’s no longer there. Throughout the novel there are televisions on in the background. At night, in the woods, people sit around a television rather than a campfire. The one show they’re most often watching is a soap opera or telenovela titled (though I don’t mention this in the text) Chains Of The Sea. I did my best to make the little scraps of it that the reader encounters sound trashy but engaging. The sort of thing you’re ashamed to watch but wouldn’t miss for the world.

Now, the reason we’re doing this interview is that Tor are issuing a new version of Stations Of The Tide as part of their Tor Essentials series. This version includes a new introduction by John Clute, author of The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction And Fantasy. Whose decision was it to include an intro, and who chose Mr. Clute to write it?

That would have been my editor, Jen Gunnels. I can only speculate as to why she chose John to write the introduction. Clute is probably the preeminent science fiction critic of our times, and one who takes the subject very seriously. He particularly likes complex works that reward rereading. So it may be that Jen wanted to send a message that this was a book of a certain stature. But that’s only my guess.

Earlier I asked if Stations Of The Tide had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Stations Of The Tide could work as a movie, show, or game?

Television, of course, because it’s in part about television in the sense that it’s a series of lies we tell ourselves about the world we live in. A miniseries, I think. So much of the plot involves setting up expectations of what’s going to happen and then confounding those expectations with something better and more satisfying. That requires a certain investment in time on the part of the reader or viewer.

And if someone wanted to adapt Stations Of The Tide into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as the main characters?

This is a game I’ve never been able to play. I apologize for that. I could say that I based the bureaucrat on Gene Wolfe before he retired as an engineer and grew that intimidating mustache. He was the most harmless-looking man in the world back then — yet, inside, he was Gene Wolfe, intimidatingly intelligent, no one you’d want to go up against. So I might say that anyone who could play Gene could play the bureaucrat.

But I guess that’s just kicking the can down the road.

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Stations Of The Tide?

When I was a teenager, more than a decade before my first sale, I came up with the closest thing I’ve ever had to a literary philosophy. I decided that I wanted to write books that were High Art but as easy to read as pulp fiction. That way, it would appeal to all sorts of readers. Stations Of The Tide is probably the closest I’ve come to that ideal.

It may sound pretentious but, hey, I was sixteen years old. If you’re not pretentious then, you never will be.

Michael Swanwick Stations Of The Tide

Finally, for some people, this edition of Stations Of The Tide will be the first thing they’ve read of yours. Do you think Tide is a good representation of you as a writer?

When I wrote Stations Of The Tide, I put everything I had into it. I didn’t hold anything back to use later. So in that sense, it’s representative of all my work. It’s as good as I could possibly make it. Other than that, though, nothing is representative of my writing.

Given that, if someone reads this new version of Stations Of The Tide, and liked it, which of your other books would you suggest they read next, and why that book?

If you like fantasy, I’d recommend The Iron Dragon’s Daughter. It’s about a little girl who’s been stolen by the elves and put to work in a factory building war-dragons. Early on, she steals a dragon and escapes — and then her troubles really begin. It’s also the first of a trilogy of stand-alone books set in that same world. So if you like it, there are two more; and if you don’t, you can skip them with a clean conscience.

If you like short fiction, I’d recommend any of my collections. “Not So Much” Said The Cat would be a good choice. There are a lot of short fiction fans out there who think that my stories are better than my novels. I think I’m equally good at both lengths. So maybe you should get both books and decide for yourself.


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