In a final, desperate bid for survival, Frances Lorien Van de Oest, heiress to a vast fortune, escapes from her kidnappers and finds herself thrust, naked and bleeding, onto the cold dark streets of an unknown city. There, she is picked up by a charismatic thief named Spanner and reborn as Lore, someone for whom identity has become a fractured, shifting, untrustworthy thing.
Slow River unfolds gradually. The opening narrative, told by Lore in the first person, is set three years after the kidnap, and a few months after her breakup with Spanner. The second narrative tells the story of life with Spanner, beginning immediately after Lore escapes from the kidnappers. The third follows her upbringing, at two year intervals, from the age of five until she is abducted. This triple narrative structure creates a powerful sense of momentum. Lore’s stories move forward in parallel towards a point of convergence, both in terms of time and self.
Having torn herself away from Spanner, the Lore of the novel’s present is attempting to rebuild her life by becoming someone else. And this time, she hopes to make it permanent. She acquires a personal identity implant (PIDA) belonging to a dead woman named Sal Bird, gets a low-level job at Hedon Road wastewater treatment plant, and asks Spanner for help with falsifying new records. But the job doesn’t pay much and Spanner’s help doesn’t come cheap. It seems that Lore will have to undertake one last dangerous act of cyber-crime before she’s free to become Sal Bird. In the meantime, she needs to keep her head down and avoid attention, but her stern supervisor, Cherry Magyar, is getting suspicious and Lore begins to suspect that there’s something very wrong at Hedon Road.
The Lore who lives with Spanner is in hiding, traumatised by the kidnap, terrified that she may have killed someone during her escape and tormented by questions about her family. Why did her sister die by suicide? Why didn’t her family pay the ransom demand? Is there a monstrous secret behind the Van de Oest façade? Without any other means to support herself, Lore agrees to earn her keep by working for the Spanner. At first her new friend claims to deal in largely victimless cyber-crimes, but as they become lovers, Lore begins to lose what little remains of her sense of self in drugs, sex and ever more risky activities.
The story of Lore’s childhood and upbringing is one of extreme wealth and privilege, epitomised by Ratnapida, her family’s paradisiacal private island. The Van de Oests have made their money in bioremediation, developing and patenting systems that use microbes to purify even the most polluted water safely and efficiently. The youngest, and perhaps most favoured child, Lore has an older brother and sister, Tok and Stella, and a much older half-sister, Greta, child of her mother’s first marriage. She grows up protected, insulated, from the reality and suffering of most people’s lives, but even great wealth cannot protect her from everything.
It is at the Hedon Road wastewater plant, where she has gone in hope of a new start that Lore is brought back into intimate contact with her past. Here, without the dubious protections offered by either her family or Spanner, she begins to develop her own moral centre. She is able to form authentic connections with others – connections not based on dependence or exploitation – and gains a new understanding of her past. There are many powerfully evoked places in Slow River (Spanner’s stultifying rooms with her terminal in the corner, the luscious gardens of Ratnapida, Lore’s chilly apartment with its roof garden), but it’s Hedon Road that stays with me most vividly. As Tricia Sullivan notes in the introduction to the SF Masterworks edition: “Lore’s workplace is drawn in such exquisite detail down to the last safety procedure and microbial specification that paradoxically, the sewage plant scenes contain some of the loveliest writing in the novel” (ix). The plant and its people feel absolutely real.
Slow River explores existential questions of identity, power, freedom and responsibility while delving into the politics of science and technology. What is it that makes us who we are? Is it our history? Is it our actions? Is it what we choose to become? Lore’s family, the Van de Oests have created a monopoly: their money comes from patenting the food which their microbes need to thrive. Any attempts to cut corners can result in environmental disaster. At Hedon Road Lore is brought into direct contact, not only with the benefits of this technology, but also the dangers of its commodification. Slow River parallels the criminality of the super-rich, who are protected from the consequences of their actions, with the criminality of poor and desperate people, like Spanner, who cannot escape consequences.
It is also a novel about women. Men do feature — Lore’s father, her elderly neighbour Tom, bullying manager Hepple and her withdrawn co-worker, Paolo, are all well-drawn. But it is the women who drive the story forward and they are represented as capable of everything, from acts of heroism to the most appalling evil. As Tricia Sullivan observes, “the novel overturns the usual foregrounding of male heteronormativity in a way that feels matter-of-fact. By default, Griffith’s women have diverse agendas, interests and agencies … There is nothing remarkable about this, the novel seems to say. It is perfectly ordinary” (ix). From cynical Spanner, who lives without hope or trust, to stern, honest Magyar, to Lore’s mother, cold, ambitious Katerine, and her sisters, elusive Greta, and fragile Stella. The most admirable and the most troubling characters are women. Lesbian sexuality is also taken for granted in the novel, represented without discussion or justification, as a fact of life.
Slow River is a thoughtful, serious and brilliant work of speculative fiction which won the Nebula and Lambda awards. I loved Nicola Griffith’s first novel, Ammonite (1993) and expected something special from Slow River. I saved it until I knew I’d have uninterrupted time to myself and then read it all the way through in the course of two train journeys. It left me thinking about the extent to which we must create our own selves, the impossibility of escaping the past without understanding it and the importance of being open to change. To live an authentic life, Slow River seems to insist, you must leave behind that which owns you and you must not allow yourself to be used by others. Lore is owned and used, first by her family, and then by Spanner. She can only heal and become a person by leaving them both and taking responsibility for her own life. This means giving up certain comforts and facing up to pain, but it is also the beginning of authenticity, wholeness, genuine relationships, and perhaps even reconciliation.