Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Review - Slow River

Slow River
by Nicola Griffith
1996 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Let me continue my trend of being hostile toward the Nebula winners by going over all the things I didn't like in Slow River: occasionally people greatly underestimate the resilience of a water system and how dilution will affect contaminants. It will not take a week for a fifty thousand gallon pond system to recover from a pint of vodka being poured into it and one sip of municipal water that has been contaminated with industrial run off will not damn you to a slow, painful death by cancer. In fairness, though, this is mentioned rarely and the portions of the book that do deal with waste water processing get at least the basics that I know right.

There was one other thing that was bothering me at the start of the novel that turned out to be a narrative device.

Everything else I loved. I know, I'm shocked too. After covering stuff like The Terminal Experiment, Red Mars, and Tehanu I despaired of encountering another decent book among the Nebula winners. Obviously something was fundamentally wrong with the SFWA; were they voting for people that the bulk of the authors didn't feel threatened by, being played by publishers looking to promote certain people, or perhaps having an evil joke on SF fans? Then I hit Slow River which might be the finest wastepunk story ever created ("wastepunk" being a term I just coined mainly to annoy Mike Sterling).

Lore was the daughter of one of the richest families in the world in a not-quite-grimey-enough-to-be-called-dystopian near future. She was kidnapped and when the ransom wasn't paid she fled her kidnappers killing one of them in the process. At the beginning of the novel she's bleeding to death in a London alley after the attack and is unwilling to return to her family since she suspects the ransom wasn't paid because she knew too much. She's found by Spanner, a technically skilled petty criminal, who nurses her back to health.

The book develops three stories in parallel. The first is Lore trying to rebuild a life after escaping a bad relationship with Spanner. She's working at a sewage treatment plant where it's obvious that corners are being cut and neither the public or employee's safty matters much. However Spanner isn't done with her as there is one last big heist to pull. There is also her relationship with Spanner who takes advantage of Lore's vulnerability to pull Lore deeper and deeper into the underworld. Finally there is Lore's life as she grows up in a family where hostilities are lurking just beneith the surface and a "monster" could come after little girls in the night.

Slow River is a perfect example of how to handle a novel told mainly in flash back well. The narrative arc despite being a good story isn't the important thing, it's the emotional arcs that matter. Griffith doesn't synchronize her arcs to hammer home a point, she lets the layers of conflict play off each other. Events intersect and illuminate but because they do not occur on consecutive pages the story moves more naturally.

That emotional arc wouldn't work without characters I could care about. There are almost three different Lores that you read about: the confused child trying to understand her family, the adolecent with a shattered world who is completely lost, and the adult trying to recover from the lowest moments of her life. By the end of the novel you can see how one transitions to the other and that journey is worth seeing. Spanner is clever and manipulative but also self-destructive; she uses people and throws them away but Lore might be breaking through her shell. Since their relationship forms the central framework of the novel they're the most defined. The minor characters tend to exist more to develop the story but I never felt that even the "villains" were reduced to complete charactures.

One aspect to the character development that threw me was that Griffith seems to dance around the concept that Lore and Spanner are lesbians for quite a while. There were hints dropped but it felt more like something from a book in the 1960's than something published in the 1990's. As it turned out Griffith gradually became more explicit in their relationship as it developed until eventually there's a brief scene that's hard to describe in any other term than "pornographic". It works in context of their development but it did throw me off as I was reading.

I also need to compliment Griffith on the science in the novel. All I know about waste water treatment is what I've read in different magazines but the chemistry and developments she postulates felt real to me. They were a natural extension in then state of the art handling of sewage and I can't think of a single other science fiction story that has even touched on this topic.

Slow River is on my short list of best novels to have won the Nebula. It's a rare SF writer who can built both an interesting character driven story and plot driven story and even rarer when they can fit them into the same book. Griffith has managed that and I cannot recommend this book highly enough.