Book Review: Slow River, by Nicola Griffith

Slow River won the Nebula Award, the Spectrum Award, and the Lambda Literary Award. There’s a good reason for this: It’s a really good book. I was feeling the science fiction call recently so I picked up a stack of things at the library because they looked interesting, and this is one of the things I read. I should note that this review is mildly spoilerish and if you haven’t read the book you might want to wait; I don’t get into too much detail, but there are a few things you might prefer to find out about as they unfold in the book, rather than from me before you’ve had a chance to read for yourself.

Science fiction (like young adult fiction) is often maligned by snobs. There’s an attitude that science fiction is lesser, and “breakout” works of science fiction are loved in spite of the fact that they are science fiction, rather than just being recognized for what they are, which is good books. Yeah, there’s a lot of schlock in science fiction. But have you really looked at the general fiction shelves lately? Or mystery? Or romance? Every genre has a lot of schlock in it. Every genre also has some books which are outstanding.

And science fiction is a genre with a lot of room for exploration. Envisioning the future is exciting and interesting and authors can use it to do really interesting things. For example, science fiction is often far more socially progressive than other genres. Because when you’re building the future, you can do things like having openly gay and lesbian characters. People of colour in senior positions. A world without bigotry and hatred and prejudice, or in which these things take different forms. In a way, science fiction provides people with opportunities which are just plain not available to others.

This book envisions a not so distant or peculiar future; it’s a world where personal identity chips are used for everything, where people carry “slates” which could be considered akin to smartphones or tablet computers, and where people struggle with all the same things they do in this world, like finding places to live. Griffith didn’t go overboard with the science and technology, she just kind of kicked things up to the next step to see what might happen. Most of the developments in this book are logical extensions of the world we live in.

Our lead character, Lore, is the daughter of a wealthy family which accrued its wealth through bioengineering, specifically designing organisms for water treatment. Her family got rich from sewage and cleaning up messes even as it created its own toxic and messy environment. Lore is kidnapped, and when she is released she chooses not to go back to her family, to make her own way in the world. Eventually, she winds up working in a water treatment facility, and eventually reconciling with her family.

Lore is lesbian, as are most of the characters we meet. This was one of the things I really enjoyed about this book, because it upended the straight paradigm. In fact, as a general rule, it was safer to assume that characters were lesbian than it would have been to assume that they were straight. Women also occupied senior positions in this book, including positions in the underworld as hackers and obtainers of things which are not legal.

The book includes a series of timelines picked up at various points in Lore’s life, and they weave through each other. We learn about her privileged childhood while we also see her working in the water treatment plant and observe her relationship with Spanner, the woman who finds her immediately after her kidnapping and gives her shelter while also introducing her to alternative ways of making a living. Eventually all of these lives fall apart and the story winds to a close with a changed Lore confronting her father with truths about her family, challenging him on why he never took action as horrible things were happening.

One interesting thing about all three parallels is how similar they were, in some ways. All had undercurrents below the surface, some of which were quite dark, all had people of nebulous moral identity, all involved making messes and cleaning them up, albeit in different forms. The more things change, the more they stay the same, one character says, and the same is true of Lore’s own life. She cannot run from her family and she cannot run from the abuse which occurred both in her family and in her kidnapping. All she can do is try to puzzle out what happened and search for meaning.

Water, movement, and contamination are recurring themes in Slow River. So is choice. We are reminded that Lore has choices and took them in different directions, that being born into a life of wealth and privilege provided her with options even when she thought she didn’t have any. By contrast, characters of lower classes she meets and interacts with are forced to do things. As characters learn who she really is, their responses to¬† her inevitably change. It’s one thing to be sharing experiences with people from a similar background and another to find out that someone you interacted with comes from a world of endless choices and options, is choosing to slum, to do what you do. Some characters actually become rather hostile about how Lore pretends to fit into the underworld while she rejects her family.

I deeply love some of the ambiguities in these book, and the way in which some of the characters challenge each other and the views of the reader. Slow River is an interesting and thought-provoking read.