There are a very small number of novels in my library that target environmental concerns. Simultaneously integral to and abstract from human affairs, it is one of the most difficult themes to work into a novel with impact. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl has an environmental undercurrent, but the focus remains mainstream sci-fi sensawunda. Approaching from the opposite direction, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy does a very nice job of bringing global warming and corporate politics to the foreground, but is threaded through with the thinnest of plots. J.G.Ballard’s first four novels all grapple with environmental disaster, but are aimed at removing the brain housing to get at the psyche beneath—the environment merely a plot device. Perhaps the novel that best slaps the reader in the face with the hazards of not accounting for mankind’s interaction with the environment while maintaining its fictional dynamic is John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up. A dense, non-linear work, however, it is a novel for the at-depth reader of science fiction. Enter Nicola Griffith’s 1995 Slow River. Effectively balancing environmentalism with story, it may be the most well-rounded and accessible effort to date in the tiny-sub genre of environmental sf.
Bringing the abstract aspects of the environment into human reality via the bildungsroman of a troubled young woman, Slow River is only the second of Griffith’s novels but displays a broad, sure-handed patience that echoes the title. Named Lore, Griffith tells her story in three arenas: Lore's childhood/teenage years, the time immediately following her kidnapping, and a job she later gets at a wastewater treatment plant.
Daughter to a family heading one of the world’s major biotech companies, Lore grows up in the lap of luxury. But the home is dysfunctional. Her relationships with her siblings and parents stretched thin due to the affluence, family drama, and focus on business, she struggles to find her place and direction in life. Skipping ahead several years, criminals, thinking to get ransom money from Lore’s family, kidnap her. But things go awry, and she escapes after killing one of them. Her family having made no effort to ransom her, Lore is left on the margins of society, with nobody to support her but a self-destructive woman living on the edge of legal employment named Spanner.
Slow River is almost fully humanized science fiction (not something I often have the opportunity to say). Griffith does a wonderful job portraying the main characters. Beyond identity implants, data slates, net running, media scams, video phones, and other such elements of cyberpunk, Lore, Magyar, and Spanner are given real voices, presented in subtle terms, and present real failings and virtues. There are numerous scenes wherein Spanner’s war with life—the pain and hurt—are depicted so indirectly the reader can almost touch her, and Magyar’s slow revelation of character gently warms the reader. Lore’s manager at the treatment plant is more Darth Vader than evil boss, but the remainder convince as humans drawn from the real world, assuring Griffith’s grasp of character.
Beyond the human elements, Slow River champions science. Griffith having a degree in environmental engineering, performed in-depth research for the novel, or friends who know the ins and outs of wastewater treatment, the novel showcases detailed knowledge of sewage plants and pollutant hydrology. Never rendered in info dump or icky-yuck fashion, Griffith integrates the rarely-spoken-of-yet-integral-aspect of civilization’s infrastructure into plot and dialogue, bolstering the story rather than dragging it down. Nicely balancing biology and chemistry with the elements of fiction, the reader never gets bogged down in a swamp of info, and are instead made to understand how sciences impact Lore’s, and the world’s, story.
In the end, Slow River is a biopunked lesbian Cinderella story made grittily relevant for the superb balance between science and humanism. About an affluent young woman finding herself, she battles her own demons, the demons of her lovers, and the demons of the world (not literally!) coming to terms with life. Wonderfully structured, patiently plotted, taught with emotion, and possessing verifiable science, the culmination is one of few science fiction works which successfully integrate environmental themes to create enjoyable story. Readers of Kim Stanley Robinson will thus want to try the novel. Griffith’s story more individual than universal, the authors nevertheless run in parallel pursuing both environmental and social agendas.