Generally speaking I don’t expect to be dazzled by twenty-year-old science fiction novels, especially near-future ones. Nicola Griffith’s Slow River (1995), however, is dazzling even today, and not just as a prescient stab at its future, our present (in essence, if not in detail). It’s also a remarkable feat of writing craft logistics, weaving multiple timelines, tenses, and narrative modes into a surprisingly coherent, and ultimately beautiful, tapestry. This one has definitely held up well over the years.
It’s the story of a young woman named Lore, the child of a rich and powerful family, who undertakes to reconstruct her very identity in the wake of a traumatic experience. The nonlinear narrative provides the beginning, middle, and end of Lore’s journey on three separate, interconnected tracks, and it’s a feat of escalating reveals. In the past, we learn of Lore’s childhood on a remote Pacific island, innocent victim of a deviously dysfunctional family which has built unimaginable wealth on the strength of its scientific patents, which involve water remediation. In the present, Lore is alone in the world, severed from her past and crafting a new life while trying to get out from under the influence of a manipulative, streetwise criminal named Spanner. And in between, there’s the shocking event that ultimately unlocks the novels’ mysteries: Lore was kidnapped, held for ransom by an unknown party, escaped, and never returned to her old life. But who kidnapped her? Why didn’t her family move heaven and earth to rescue her? And why has she chosen to live a lie, in a new, lower-class life? As the story unfolds — as the stories unfold, rather — the puzzle pieces gradually fall into place, and Lore comes into her own.
I loved this book. Griffith’s prose is mesmerizingly rendered, and her plot is a marvel. Even as she shifts tense and viewpoint and ricochets back and forth through time, the narrative remains coherent; the tracks, informing and influencing each other, peel away at the novel’s sturdily conceived central mystery. Lore is a layered, sympathetic, accesible, interesting protagonist, and the novel surrounds her with memorable supporting characters, many as layered and full of mystery as Lore herself. Meanwhile, the novel’s near-term future backdrop holds up remarkably well. The nomenclature may be slightly off, but the feel is right; you could almost layer the novel over our present. The way it wrestles with topics — data management, systemic corporate corruption, privacy, environmental problems, class and gender issues, and so forth — makes the book feel perfectly current and relevant in many ways. It’s a remarkable achievement that deserves to be remembered.