Slow River (1995) is Nicola Griffith‘s second novel and the third one by her I’ve read. Like her debut Ammonite (1992), it attracted quite a bit of attention. The novel won a Nebula Award in 1996 and has made it into the Gollancz SF Masterworks series. I enjoyed both Hild (2013) and Ammonite an awful lot so this book ended up on the to-read stack right after finishing Ammonite. I didn’t know it when I got it, but Slow River has quite a bit of environmental science in it. If I had known earlier this might have been the more obvious starting point in Griffith’s oeuvre for me. I’m still not sure which of the three I like best; they are all very different novels, but I was very impressed by Slow River. It’s definitely a book I’d recommend.
Lore, daughter of the rich Van de Oest family, finds herself naked and seriously hurt on the streets of the city after being abducted. Besides the trauma of the abduction, there is something else bothering Lore. She doesn’t want to return to her family. In desperation she turns to the first person who happens to come by, a woman named Spanner. She takes Lore in and teaches her to live “on her wits,” as Spanner thinks of it. Lore recovers from her wounds and reinvents herself. Eventually she has to face the trauma of her troubled childhood, however, and Spanner is not the person who can help her with that.
The story is told out of chronological order. Griffith weaves three main strands, and three versions of Lore, into the story. The first tells of her childhood, from the time she was a little girl until the point of her escape. The second tells us of her life with Spanner. The third deals with her attempts to rebuild her own life independent of both Spanner and her family. Griffith gives each of these strands a distinct voice. The fragments of Lore’s childhood are told by a narrator in the present tense, her life with Spanner is a third person/past tense point of view, and the passages dealing with Lore’s independent life are written in the first person/past tense. Lore’s childhood is dealt with in separate chapters but the other two story lines are interwoven into chapters. The way the novel is structured really underlines the various phases in Lore’s life and her outlook on the world.
Griffith leaves quite a few details about Lore vague on purpose. It is suggested that she is Dutch, but the cosmopolitan lifestyle of the ultra-rich makes it hard to tell. For most of Slow River she stays in an unnamed city, which apparently is based on Hull. It is suggested that she speaks several languages but in the story she never uses any but English. In short, Griffith is sparse with details about Lore. We see the entire story though her eyes, and what Lore accepts as a given, the reader is not told about. The novel is very introspective. It is Lore’s development that is central to everything we read about in the book. In several places Griffith uses Lore’s ignorance or lack of understanding to turn the plot. Throughout the novel Griffith obviously is very aware of the limitations and possibilities of this way of storytelling.
The novel is set in a near future. No year is mentioned, but the time is sometime in the 21st century, for certain. Lore’s family has made a fortune by genetically altering bacteria to make them suitable for a range of bioremediation projects and waste disposal management tasks. They have patented both the genetic alterations and the unique mixture of nutrients the bacteria need to thrive. Not using both the nutrients and bacteria supplied by the Van de Oest company can have disastrous consequences both in the legal and environmental sense. By controlling the entire chain of products needed in remediation projects Van de Oest has made itself unavoidable. I think of this as the Monsanto way of doing business. It is highly profitable, very dangerous, and profoundly unethical. Although Lore questions some of the business practices of her family, the full range of problems with it remains a bit of a blind spot to her throughout the novel.
Lore has had the benefit of an extensive education and she knows a lot about the technical side of her family’s business. Griffith must have put in quite a bit of research to make it convincing, especially concerning the storyline of independent Lore — it’s filled with details of nasty chemicals, reactions, and details on the metabolism of bacteria. There was quite a bit I remembered from my own studies in environmental science. In Slow River knowledge of genetic engineering, monitoring effluent and systems design have advanced, of course, but the science behind it seems sound. Where we do seem to have made progress in the meantime is preventing these chemicals from actually getting into our water supply. What Lore sees as routine is, in our part of the world at least, more likely to be an incident at the moment. I’m nevertheless very impressed with the environmental science part of the novel. It’s science fiction with plenty of real science and technology.
The environmental science is not what the novel will be remembered for, however. At the core, it is a very feminist work. Almost all of the important characters are female. They range from nasty to decent but all of them are competent women in their way. The Van de Oest company is largely run by them, and Spanner’s Lore and independent Lore’s circle of friends and acquaintances is almost entirely made up of women. When I commented on it when my girlfriend asked if I liked the novel she replied: “Well, somebody has to make up for The Hobbit.” That seems to be the attitude the novel takes. Griffith doesn’t really stress the point but doesn’t leave any doubt about the competence of the female characters. It is simply a given. Tricia Sullivan observes in her introduction to the SF Masterworks edition that Griffith’s casual acceptance of women as competent, self-directed people remains relevant. It is indeed telling that almost 20 years after it was first published, this is still something that readers will almost instantly notice about the novel.
Slow River is one of those novels that left me unable to pick up another book for several days after I finished it. It is a very impressive work of science fiction. Lore’s trials are not easy on the reader. For most of the novel she is searching for herself, grasping to understand the relationships within her family and the complexity of their company. It would seem that she is more at ease with systems design than with the infinitely complex structures of human relationships. She learns, though. At the end of the novel a much more mature Lore emerges. Slow River is both technically and emotionally a very strong novel. I consider it a must-read.