The world of Griffith’s Slow River reminded me a lot of some of the work of Paulo Bacigalupi. Its world is not entirely unlike ours, but corporations are more powerful, exploitation of the Third World has continued unabated, pollution is rampant, fossil fuels are rare, individual freedoms are circumscribed, and there’s an overall sense of decay. We see all of this in Windup Girl, although the focus on a water treatment plant also made me think of Bacigalupi’s great story, “Pump Six.” Slow River obviously predates these works by more than a decade, so I wonder if it was an influence on Bacigalupi.
Despite this very interesting take on the future, Griffith’s real focus here is on character. The novel unfolds in three different timelines, which all tell the story of a young woman named Lore. We get a brief biography that chronicles her youth in the very wealthy, but very troubled, van de Oest family, which has a monopoly on genomes crucial to the polluted, post-fossil fuel world economy. The central story tells of her separation from this family and her relationship with Spanner, who has many issues of her own; she's a small-time criminal and an an addict. In the first-person-narrated “present” storyline, Lore works undercover in a water treatment plant and experiences firsthand the plight of the working class. Griffith skillfully interweaves these stories so that they comment on and inform each other, and they give us a full picture of Lore, including some pretty dramatic low-points.
The writing is strong, and Lore is a very compelling character. The novel also has a lot to say about power dynamics – Lore is often manipulated and controlled by her parents, her siblings, and Spanner. A pair of kidnappers brutalize and control her. With Spanner, Lore finds herself victimizing others. The class dynamics in the water treatment facility mirror these relationships as Lore meets a workforce that also feels powerless. The novel’s multiple “rivers” symbolize these power dynamics in the inexorable driving of their currents. In other words, it’s a richly drawn novel that does have something to say. In some ways it’s actually quite similar to its big competitor of the year, The Diamond Age, which also uses its vision of the future to explore issues of class and power but focuses more on the technology and the world, while Slow River focuses on character. I like good, character driven work, but, in this case, The Diamond Age is so rich that I’d have to give the Hugo winner my vote for this year. But, it is nice to get two different entries out of the biggest sf awards that are both strong and share some thematic links.