Let’s get this right out of the way. Slow River is not a science fiction novel. It’s categorize and pigeon-holed as such, but at best it’s speculative fiction, a category much broader than science fiction specifically. But even that’s a stretch. The only trappings that might categorize it as speculative or science fiction is the “net” and “slates.” The former is exactly what you think it is (and has existed for decades), the latter is basically a computer (which has existed even longer). Despite this, Slow River won a Nebula award in 1997 beating out Neal Stephenson’s amazing The Diamond Age . . . true science fiction novel!
Does this mean Slow River is a bad book? Not exactly. But if you’re reading it on some completionist quest (as I am) to eventually hit all the Hugo & Nebula winners, or read a “classic” science fiction novel, you’ll be somewhat disappointed. If you’re offended by depictions of homosexuality (specifically lesbianism), I suggest just moving on. If you’re looking for a wholly depressing book populated with elements of abuse, depravity, and abandonment then this book is for you.
Frances Lorien van de Oest (Lore) is the daughter of a wealthy family involved in waste water bioremediation. They became disgustingly rich by inventing genetically special “bugs” that clean water of all kinds of contaminants. In order to keep these special bugs alive, and to create a monopoly, the company feeds them genetically specialize food. Without the food the bugs die. Sounds a bit like Monsanto, eh? Anyway, that’s beside the point. The point is, Lore is rich, entitled, and young, making her the target of kidnapping attempts.
In her late teens she is indeed kidnapped, and ransom demanded. She’s drugged, videotaped, degraded, and held for weeks before she manages to escape naked and injured. On a dark, cold street she’s taken in and befriended by Spanner, a street smart woman who only looks out for herself. Lore is stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one hand she thinks she murdered one of her captors during her escape, fearing the police and repercussion. On the other hand she can’t return to her family due to disturbing issues that the reader eventually discovers through the novel. And in between she has to rely on a woman who may not have her best interests at heart.
“She awoke in an alley to the splash of rain. She was naked, a foot-long gash in her back was still bleeding, and her identity implant was gone. Lore van de Oest had been the daughter of one of the world’s most powerful families . . . and now she was nobody, and she had to hide.
Then out of the rain walked Spanner, predator and thief, who took her in, cared for her wound, and taught her how to reinvent herself again and again. Lore had a choice: She could stay in the shadows, stay with Spanner . . . and risk losing herself forever. Or she could leave Spanner and find herself again by becoming someone else: stealing the identity implant of a dead woman, taking over her life, and creating a new future.”
Lore and Spanner’s lives eventually spiral out of control as they try to make ends meet on the tough streets of a large, unnamed city (not explicitly said, but it sounds like London to me). Their downward spiral leads them to lives of theft, pornography, prostitution, and other explicit and sordid activities. It’s some pretty depressing shit to be honest. Not exactly my cup of tea.
The narrative of Slow River bounces between first person (the present) and third person (the past) as we learn the tale of Lore’s dysfunctional family, life on the street, and eventual job working at a sewage plant. Wait . . . what? That’s right. Much of Slow River takes place inside the walls of a SEWAGE PLANT! While within the confines of said plant, and the unfortunate confines of Griffith’s narrative therein, we’re treated to such riveting topics as: nitrogen absorption, alkanes, effluent, flow rates, tetrachloroethylene, poop, genetic bugs, pee, snails, etc, etc. Unfortunately this is where the novel breaks down, alternating between an interesting, tragic and sometimes disturbing life story, into a tedious treatise on how to remove poop from water. Okay, I suppose this nonsense could be categorized as “science,” but it has little to do with the plot. Slow River could have just as easily been placed in any contemporary setting, and Lore could have come from a family made rich by selling widgets instead of bioremediation products.
Nicola Griffith certainly has a flair for clean and easily readable prose, with the ability to develop interesting, flawed, and troubled characters. But for the most part the two main characters, Lore and Spanner, are unlikable . . . especially Spanner. I sympathized with Lore’s plight, but in the end she just wasn’t likable, playing too much the role of victim and causing some of her own trauma once she escaped her kidnappers.
Time check! Nope, Slow River is still not science fiction. Time to wrap this up.
Okay. Am I glad I read it? Yes, but only because I can check off another Nebula award winner. But can I recommend Slow River to fellow science fiction fans? If you’ve read this far you should have an idea whether you will like it or not. If you’re an avid science fiction reader and you want to read this because you’ve been mislead that Slow River is some sort of cyberpunkish, science fiction classic: NO, I cannot recommend it. It’s average in every way, bogged down in it’s own storytelling effluence.
Words © 2015-2020, Neal Ulen. All rights reserved.
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