On one hand, I love science fiction that examines how new technology can completely disrupt society. Few people, two centuries ago, could envision the way we live today, so many of us spending our time punching buttons on the side of a flat box so that words show up on a screen a few centimetres away. Technological advancement is driven by and drives changes in society. On the other hand, it’s always nice to see books that dial back the disruption to focus on what doesn’t change. In the case of Slow River, Nicola Griffith asserts that wireless payment and other near-future advancements will hail neither a post-scarcity utopia nor a totalitarian dystopia in which children fight to the death (aww). Instead, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and those caught in between continue to do what it takes to survive.
Slow River has an interesting dual structure. Throughout each chapter, Griffith alternates between a third-person Lore, set a few years to months in the past, and a present-day, first-person Lore. The former story follows Lore as she recovers from an horrific kidnapping. Heiress to one of the wealthiest families in the world, Lore is a child of privilege. She was raised with the best education and experiences that money can buy. After learning, or thinking she has learned, certain secrets about her family, Lore decides she cannot return after she escapes from her abductors. She goes underground instead, meeting Spanner, a small-time criminal and hacker who takes pity on her. The latter story focuses on Lore’s attempts to get a “normal” life after leaving Spanner and striking out on her own. Armed with a false identity chip and her own knowledge of water purification processes, Lore gets a job at the local plant, only to find herself in the deep end. Occasionally, Griffith adds a third perspective: Lore as a child, growing up and navigating the waters of adolescence.
The title says it all: this is not a book that takes things lightly, nor does it move at a breezy pace. Griffith lingers over events, tracing and re-tracing them throughout the book. She is particularly keen on taste and smell, senses too often neglected at the expense of the more easily imagined sight, sound, and even touch. The result is writing raw and energetic yet also relaxed, almost effortless. It almost has the quality of a stage play rather than a novel. Beyond the small core cast, Griffith doesn’t both making the supporting characters feel very real. But this works, because ultimately Slow River is a character-driven piece, Lore’s journey from self-exile to some kind of understanding, if not acceptance, of her past and her identity.
I won’t go into too much detail and spoil anything, but it’s apparent from very close to the beginning that someone close to Lore sexually abuses her as a child. There is a scene involving a “monster” and putting a lock on her bedroom door. Lore’s sister Stella, the wandering child of the family, commits suicide just prior to Lore’s kidnapping. So on one level, Lore should have it all: riches, power, an interesting career as one of the heads of a company specializing in biological solutions to purification problems. Yet her family is riven by mistrust, by mutual dislike, by the dark secrets and the monsters that no one is willing to speak of aloud. Lore’s kidnapping and escape are also traumatic enough that, by the time she emerges onto the streets shivering and injured, she has no desire to face her family and try to work things out.
Griffith plays with ideas that Lore is both a victim as well as a perpetrator. As a victim, she has suffered at the hands of those who wronged her. Then, however, she falls in with Spanner, who claims that her petty slate theft is “victimless crime”, even though it soon becomes apparent it is anything but. The Lore who recovers under Spanner’s watch is a much more jaded, more cynical Lore than the one who came before. There’s a very memorable scene where Lore dyes her hair for the first time. She has grey hair, a sign of her wealth. (It goes like this: pigmentless hair leaves people prone to skin cancer, so the hair is a sign that Lore’s family can afford the medical nanotechnology required to prevent such an ailment.) This would be a dead giveaway in someone Lore’s age, so she must dye it. Spanner rejects her first choice, brown, because it looks too good on her. She is still too perfect, not broken enough to mix and mingle with the rest of this seedy world. Lore has to go with red, brutally alter her physical appearance in a way that affects her psychologically. From then on, she is broken, and it feels like she has much less agency.
In effect, there are two Lores in this book. Past!Lore goes along with Spanner’s schemes, caught up in the latter’s wake, craving her love and attention and, for once, relieved not to have any responsibility. Present!Lore is desperate to sort out her life, to start acting like someone normal, to forget how being with Spanner made her feel powerless and guilty. I love this parallel story and the arc Griffith forges with it. The end result is a powerful and moving book. Though set nominally in the future and featuring certain technologies we don’t quite have, Slow River is science-fiction in setting only. It eminently represents the best use of science fiction as a psychological tool for interrogating the ways we create and interpret our own and others’ identities. It’s not a book that many people might casually pick up—all the more the loss for them.