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Book Review: Tides by Scott Mackay

Genre: Science Fiction, Lost Civilization, High Seas Adventure
ISBN: 1591023343
ISBN-13: 9781591023340
Format: Hardcover, 340pp
Publisher: PYR
Pub. Date: November 2005

In Situation Ethics, Joseph Fletcher argued that moral principles can be cast aside in certain situations if agape love was best served. In essence, this is applied by many to say that the ends do justify the means. This is a philosophical concept often wrestled with in fantasy and science fiction literature. Science Fiction especially wonders at the effects of such ethics on a person, if the ends justifies the means in serving a greater good, especially if it means breaking the laws of the state or culture, or even a personal or religious morality.

Hab Miquay is just such a person in Tides by Scott Mackay. An explorer on the order of Columbus, Magellan, Cook, or Shackleton, Hab is a man trapped by a moral system that he feels is suffocating his world. All of his fellow men on the verdant but isolate continent of Paras live by the 28 Rules of the Formulary. The Formulary’s highest goal is honesty, and its rules ensure that all men are forced to be honest, even if they do so by prevarication, obfuscation, or other such methods. But never is a man allowed to lie, or at least to be caught at it. If he is, that man is forced to the penitentiary Island of Liars to live out his days scrabbling to survive on volcanic rock and ash.

When Hab learns that his continent may not be as isolated as was once thought, he is forced to confront the system of honesty head on. The collision nearly breaks him, but circumstances teach him something of subjugating one’s own morality for a greater good, when he meets a member of a species whose greatest virtue is falsehood.

A science fiction novel comparable in feel to George R. R. Martin and Lisa Tuttle’s Windhaven, Tides is a high seas adventure story. The tides are massive waves hundreds of feet high that keep the people of Paras locked onto their continent. Hab believes, through recent scientific discovery, that a metal rich (Paras is metal poor, although agriculturally rich) continent exists on the other side of their world. Forced by circumstance to resort to lying in order to fulfill his dream, Hab goes in search of this other continent. But what he finds is a sentient reptilian species scrabbling for survival on a tiny and barren continent called Ortok by its inhabitants. This species has perfected lying to an art, and here Hab learns the consequences of a lie while also learning its practical usefulness.

The story is about really about two competing cultures, one naively honest, the other brutally dishonest, that clash after Hab’s overwhelming desire for power over the tides, and his need to seek new things. It is also about the personal struggle of Hab, a he goes from an honest person, to one devious and sneaky, all in the name of a greater good. In the end, this novel is an argument for the ends justifying the means.

The novel is extremely well written, and I devoured its 350 pages in a single sitting. The novel is paced well and reminds me a lot of Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction survival stories. Although the action itself slows down, the events do not, and Hab is constantly reacting to a new set of stimuli. The reader will not be bored when reading this novel.

Although Jara, Hab’s love interest, is often described as beautiful and intelligent, the first is evident from the descriptions but the second is not. She has little dialogue and few actions that aren’t also performed by another character as well. In Tides Jara is nothing more than a foil for Hab. In order to create love interest in the story, as well as a positive personal motivation (i.e. Jara’s rescue from the Ortokians) instead of the negative one of revenge for the killing of his little brother. Love, in fiction, usually carries a character much farther as a motivation than revenge, except for a few notable exceptions like The Count of Monte Cristo. Jara has little to say and few actions in the story and while she is a needed character and element in the story, Mackay did a poor job in making her more than a pretty face.

As well, some readers might find the choppy nature of Mackay’s writing to be hard to follow. Here is a sample from the first paragraph of the seventh chapter. “Hab sat in the back of the wagon, a prisoner. No windows, not even a grate for ventilation in the roof. The only light came from an oil lamp. The air smelled of human sweat. The guard with the beard stared at him. The man’s eyes were blank. He showed no interest in anything.” (page 69) As you can read, Mackay likes to use short, clipped sentences. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and the reader will get used to it, especially later in Tides, when the style only heightens the feelings of panic, danger and suspense.

Tides was a great deal of fun to read. Mackay brilliantly weaves science fiction, a survival story, and high seas adventure together. And yet, at the same time, he addresses the themes of honesty and dishonesty, of pragmatism and the moral code, and the subtle war between them. Hab Miquay becomes a character who is as deeply human as all of us, and whose flaws are very much our own. He, like many of us, is forced to determine if the ends justify the means. If you pass this novel up, you will have missed what I think is one of the best novels of speculative fiction currently in print.

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