"She has read many fairy tales and understands instinctively that those who are dragged places unwillingly must find their own way back."
'Slow River' by Nicola Griffith shares many of the concerns of cyberpunk. Set fifteen minutes in the future, it explores the intersection between technology and identity, as well as being deeply concerned with corporate ethics, or lack thereof. Reading it, I found myself thinking of the famous William Gibson quote, "The street finds its own use for things." Yet, whilst most of the original cyberpunk texts are noir-infused SF thrillers, 'Slow River' is a much more thoughtful, reflective book. It achieves its impact through character development and Griffith's eloquent, lyrical writing. The end result is a powerful, haunting novel, and its anger is all the more effective for being carefully revealed. It is also a deeply feminist novel, both in its themes of female characters searching for and ultimately achieving their own agency, and in the way its almost entirely female cast effortlessly spans a wide range of motivations, viewpoints and morality.
'Slow River' is very much about the quest for identity, so it's appropriate that the novel opens with the main character having hers stolen. Lore van der Oest is the daughter of a powerful family at the head of a global corporation, who is kidnapped just before her eighteenth birthday. She escapes, and finds herself naked on the streets of a city, injured and with her Personal Identity, DNA and Account insert removed. She is rescued by Spanner, a thief and con artist. The fact that her family didn't pay her ransom, coupled with the recent suicide of her sister after years of abuse at the hands of her mother, leads Lore to turn her back on her origins and try to make a new life with Spanner. The narrative is split into three threads told concurrently, reflecting Lore's fractured identity. One thread, told in the third person present tense, follows Lore throughout her early life, from five years old up until the kidnapping. The second thread, told in third person past tense, details Lore's life with Spanner. The final thread is told in first person past, and tells of Lore's attempt to start afresh with an honest job after splitting up with Spanner. The different voices in which these threads are written tells you something about how well structured the book is; the present tense of the early life sections give them an immediate yet child-like quality, while the switch to the first person for the chronologically last thread highlights Lore's attempt to take control over her own life. Yet the fact that the narrative threads run concurrently until the end of the book show that Lore has not yet achieved full control over her own identity until she confronts her past.
Another effect of telling all three parts of the story at the same time is that we get to see the corruption of Lore's spirit at the same time as we see how innocent she was and how hard she is working to redeem herself. As a member of the powerful van der Oest family, Lore's childhood is shaped by both the spectre of abuse and her parents' ambitions for her. During her relationship with Spanner, she is finally able to leave the influence of her family behind, but she winds up being subject to Spanner's much stronger personality. Spanner may be effortlessly charming, but she is ultimately a damaging influence on herself and anyone who comes into her range. She ekes out a living on the margins of a digital society, involved in various types of internet scams of varying unsavouriness. At first, Lore doesn't question who is being hurt by her and Spanner's actions, and is just glad after her abuse at the hands of her kidnappers to be on the other side of the equation:
"She knew that sometimes Spanner made money from other people's suffering, but she did not have to see that, and she had suffered, too. Everyone suffered. It was just a question of making sure she was using them, and not the other way around."
But ultimately she gets to the stage where she cannot live with what she and Spanner are doing, and realises that Spanner's outlook on life is flawed, and that she can only truly gain agency and heal from the wounds of her past by living a life that allows empathy for her fellow humans.
The book draws parallels between Spanner's prostitution and the van der Oest's business practices. The van der Oest's wealth comes from their jealously-guarded monopoly over the bioremediation biotechnology necessary for cleaning the drinking water and environment. Whilst this technology is a good thing that improves people's lives, gives them safe drinking water and fixes the mistakes of the industry-driven past, it is corrupted by the van der Oest's greed. The van der Oest get their way by wining and dining politicians, and when that doesn't work they have a black ops group happy to resort to kidnap and blackmail. Both Spanner and van der Oest operate happily in their own social strata, unaware and unconcerned by those that they harm. In the third narrative thread, Lore is forced to come face to face with the victims of one of her and Spanner's pornography scams and a man born without limbs as a result of an error in one of the van der Oest's bioremediation projects, both people who have had their lives scarred by Lore's complicity. The book's anger at complicity is a theme that recurs at the end when Lore confronts her father for failing to notice that his wife was abusing his children.
However, for all its anger, 'Slow River' ends on a hopeful note. The three narrative threads meet, Lore is able to reclaim her own identity but on her own terms, and begins a much more healthy relationship with Magyar, a colleague at the wastewater treatment plant where she has been working. After all her trauma, she is ultimately able to heal and move on with her life. It is a powerful and moving ending, all the moreso for being hard earned.