An ecological SF novel
By Nicola Griffith
1995’s Slow River was Griffith’s second science fiction novel. It was also (at least as of this date) her final SF novel. Where Ammonite used an interstellar setting, Slow River is down to Earth, so down that it is positively subterranean in spots. Garnering both the Lambda and the Nebula, it is one of very few near-future hard SF novels that is focused on bio-remediation (this is to the best of my knowledge; feel free to comment).
Lore van de Oest wakes up bloody and naked in an alley, left for dead by her kidnappers after weeks in captivity. For complex reasons, not least her belief that she killed one of her kidnappers and might face murder charges , Lore decides not to flee back to the dubious protection of her fantastically wealthy family. Instead, aided by the morally compromised Spanner, she builds a series of new identities, rejecting the one her family decreed for her.
Where Spanner embraces the criminal life with bitter glee, Lore wants something less obviously self-destructive. Luckily for her, the van de Oests, lords of monetized bio-remediation, don’t deliberately raise dilettantes and Lore, now using the name Sal Bird, has a skill set that is enough to earn her a place at the Hedon Road wastewater treatment plant.
“Sal Bird” cannot admit to Lore’s full range of knowledge, so the new job is a very junior one. Lore discovers during that Hedon Road, on whose services thousands of lives depend, is badly run in sadly familiar ways. Hepple, the empty suit who runs the facility, has a boundless self-confidence in no way backed up by knowledge and his quest to cut overhead is turning Hedon Road into a ticking time bomb. With just the right combination of environmental factors and employee ignorance, it will detonate.
Lore isn’t the only competent worker at Hedon Road; her supervisor Magyar knows enough, from a ground level perspective, to understand how dangerous Hepple’s “innovations” are. Lore has personal insight into how the innovative rentier class thinks and she can see what Magyar cannot: while Hepple’s cost cutting would be bad enough on its own, it has also put the plant and the whole community it supplies into the cross-hairs of plutocrats like the van de Oests, the entitled rich who will not hesitate to put thousands at risk to protect their income streams.
Trivia first: given that this was written in 1995, Griffith seems to have a pretty good idea about how computers and e‑commerce could develop. I am going to put Lore’s expectation that people of my generation would be peculiarly vulnerable to future shock down to youthful naïveté. Allow me to offer a grognard’s words of comfort to kids who think it won’t eventually happen to them:
“Poor Grendel’s had an accident,” I whisper. “So may you all.”
Hedon Road’s failure modes — poor training, unmotivated workers, short-sighted corner cutting — are believable and depressing. It would be nice to think people would find some new ways to screw-up in the next few decades but I have to admit that you could probably come back in ten thousand years and humans would still be cheerfully sawing away on the branch they were seated on in the name of profit. Griffith has a pretty clear idea of how profits are privatized while costs are dumped onto the public, although anyone who experienced privatization in the 1980s and 1990s should be very familiar with that tune.
I thought about maybe making the slug “an ecological SF novel that is not a demonstration of science fiction’s willful ignorance about the bio-sciences” but reconsidered. Griffith has done some homework here and it shows.
I play up the benefits of Lore’s perspective as a van de Oest above but her upbringing gives a particular perspective, not omniscience. There are some very important truths Lore cannot find on her own; even after descending into Spanner’s willfully unsavoury world, there’s an insoluble core of rich person inside her, something Spanner can easily see but Lore cannot and there are aspects of Lore’s own past she cannot quite grasp without the assistance of Magyar, who has a different set of blind spots from Lore.
In a natural evolution from Ammonite’s take on a society populated entirely by women would really be like, Slow River rejects orientation as characterization, positive or negative. Knowing that a particular character is gay pretty much only tells you they like to have sex with persons of the same sex; otherwise it has as little predictive value as knowing someone’s religion.
Actually, Slow River rejects pretty much all “broad category” as characterization: knowing someone is rich doesn’t necessarily tell you how monstrous they are, knowing someone is a mid-level functionary doesn’t automatically mark them as an obstructive time-server and so on; like bio-remediation, there aren’t any shortcuts in writing, not ones that will not sabotage the work, and Griffith knows that. This novel is an example of how to do it correctly.
Slow River is available from a number of sources.
I wasn’t commission to reread all of Griffith’s novels but that’s the direction I am heading. Next up, The Blue Place.
1: To be honest, this seemed pretty silly to me. Rich people don’t commit murder unless they kill other rich people and in this case she was definitely acting in self-defense. Lore has better reasons to hide, ones she wouldn’t willingly share, but “I think I may have committed murder” doesn’t seem like a credible reason for her to pick to share with strangers.