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This is a pretty choppy passage, but, like rough waters, it makes the calms so much sweeter. At first, it's like trying to read a book with pages missing. Episodes are concluded, but the action jumps from one location to the next with alarming inconsistency. There is also a substantial lack of information presented about an unearth-like world and its complex society. You wish for a geography lesson or abridged sociology textbook shortly after leaving port on this voyage.
The hired guide is not very accommodating, either. Known simply as the bureaucrat, he brings to memory the reporter in Citizen Kane . Faceless, he gathers impressions of Kane by digging out the backstories from acquaintances, lovers, friends and enemies. Swanwick employs a similar technique as the bureaucrat hunts down Gregorian, a “bush wizard” (Avon PB, ISBN 0380715244, 1 st printing 1992, p.15) accused of possessing unrivaled preternatural powers and illegal, off-world technology. Interviews lead to digressions, but the bureaucrat is more protagonist than stenographer. How he reacts is integral to the plot's comprehension and continuance. It is hard to toss off the seasickness of being on deck in stormy seas, wondering who and where the captain lurks.
And Miranda is certainly a tempest of a planet. Every two hundred years, the polar ice cap melts and creates a tsunami of mythological proportions, flooding the Tidewater and drowning everything except the higher ground of the Piedmont . There are also immense metamorphical changes, as “much of the animal life here is dimorphic, which means simply that it has two distinct forms” (Ibid, p.17). Because of an incident known as The Trauma, powers from the Puzzle Palace, the off-world capital for the all-powerful System, have regressed technology by one hundred years. Any essential use of high-tech enhancement in areas like communication or data storage is primitive and clumsy because of this suppression. But there is television, which is ironical, since The Trauma occurred because of an addiction to broadcasted experience, similar to today's reality TV programs. There is also extensive use of surrogates, or robotic simulacrums that allow users to be in more than one place at any given time.
To further stir the verisimilitudinous stew, magic is abundant in the backwaters, causing “relationships between things [to] shift and change constantly; there is no such thing as objective truth” (Ibid, p.47). The question of whether it is supernatural magic or conjurer's magic becomes instrumental to the novel's navigation. Gregorian lures clients with ads of bodily transformations on TV; Undine, the bureaucrat's tantric sex goddess, alludes to spending her witching initiation as a ghost; Dr. Orphelian, retching up a third eye from the cavern of his mouth, babbles about spiritualism and how Gregorian in the form of The Crow ruined his destiny forever. Everything becomes a myriad of other possibilities, clues to deeper meanings, false personas, betrayals, and tainted, lost or bad information. A legendary city is vanished then found, a fascinating character murdered, then re-emerged then disappeared, while political power struggles mysteriously slip like eels throughout the novel. Viewpoints of supposed authenticity keep the gangplanks shifty as well. The House of Retention, the bureaucrat's Library of Congress, turns out to be “a senile information system” (Ibid, p.165). Outside, people are met in the streets whose job it is to simply spread rumors. One character declares that “a magician does not send messages . . . he orchestrates reality” (Ibid, p.119), whereas the shopkeeper of the Bottle Shop, apothecary of the esoteric sciences, argues that magic is merely “impossible science” (Ibid, p.130). Undine thinks “you do not learn such things from a human: The person partakes of divinity, becomes as one with the godhead” (Ibid, p.85), while Mintouchian, a sleight-of-hand practitioner, masters secret powers “to prove to myself that other people exist” (Ibid, p.100). It is easy to agree with Lieutenant-Liaison Chu, who is also not as she seems, when she says, “this makes no sense at all” (Ibid, p.189).
But to swim with the fishes, you're gonna have to drink some brine.
When the novel finally hits its depth, the sublime mystery is revealed in the Haunts. The aboriginal species, they are the sirens throughout this maze-like archipelago. Some think they became extinct over 100 years ago, others say they live hidden within the population. Their existence becomes the Jolly Roger to Miranda's slave crew keelhauled with past guilt by monomaniacal, off-world Ahabs. Ultimately, it is the ship's log on how a civilization sinks from strength and self-determination to weakness and dependence through the dissemination, controlled or otherwise, of mis-information, propaganda, and false prophets, real or imagined.
By journey's end, Gregorian truly looks “more minotaur than man” (Ibid, p.25), but by now, appearances are wisely recognized as ghost ships on the horizon. And the bureaucrat? Well, he finally earns a face when he discovers that freedom from a stagnant, duty-bound authority is metamorphosis indeed, and just a swan dive away.