“She could become anyone she wishes. But how will she know she is still herself?”
More than anything, Slow River is, at least to me, about trauma. It is explicit in its focus on abuse and trauma, but I didn’t find it graphic in its depictions “on-screen.” Even still, it is a heavy and it makes it more difficult to talk about for me, since my reviews are usually what I enjoyed and found novel about whatever it is I’m consuming. There’s child abusive, emotional, physical, sexual abuse. It is supposed to be disturbing, so it is not for everybody.
Published in 1995, Slow River tells the story of a young woman named Lore, who comes from a wealthy family who made their money and renown creating cutting-edge sewage reclamation plants. That life, however, comes crashing down when she’s kidnapped and ransomed. Her family doesn’t pay, Lore escapes her abductors, goes off the grid, and enters a criminal underground via Spanner, a grifter who’s willing to help her—so long as Lore pays her back, however she can.
The story alternates between Lore’s past and her present. When she gets out of the dark and seedy underbelly that is this underground and begins working at a plant owned by her very own former family. And her life before her decision to move on, recapping the events with Spanner, which rapidly becomes disturbing as they showcase what the marginalized need to do to get continue to get by, as well as the various coping mechanisms utilized to disassociate from the things done.
The business carries your name. You’re responsible.
Lore comes from a life of privilege but, interestingly, the amount of focus on both of these worlds took me by surprise. Her family and her loved ones in the past are revealed to be as monstrous, if not more at times, than the slums everybody fears in that world, and where she ends up. So much so that when she does get free of her captors—she doesn’t choose to go home to them. This time Lore spends recounting these events seem like her attempt at making sense of a decision that doesn’t seem to make any sense. She’s processing what happened in a dissociative state because she needs to understand why she so adamantly refuses to go back.
“You’re too damn.. glossy. Like a racehorse. Look at your eyes, and your teeth. They’re perfect. And your skin: not a single pimple and no scars. Everything’s symmetrical. You’re bursting with health. Go out in the neighborhood, even in rags, and you’ll shine like a lighthouse.”
Spanner doesn’t understand why she’d stay. At any point, she can return home…which ultimately means that, to Spanner, she doesn’t embody the streets as she does. When Lore and Spanner’s relationship shifts from being complete strangers helping each other for mutual, temporary benefits, to something romantic. It begins to unravel them both—creating a sense of tension and unease that paces with the story well because of the alternating structure of past and present until they collide and you finally figure things out at the same time Lore does.
It is also surprisingly in-depth and thorough about water reclamation and other technologies, like digital currency and invasion of privacy technology and things like that. I wasn’t sure if this water reclamation technology actually exists or if it was completely hypothetical. Whatever the case may be, it certainly seemed completely believable to me, authentic or not. And that believability induced an element of horror. The problem of polluted water, and the fact that we’re going to have significant issues with water in a few generations, become both solvable and instantly already commodified. A simple solution for some, yet not available to everybody.
“All Lore understood about Spanner was that whenever Lore reached for her, she wavered and was gone, like the shimmering reflection on the oily surface of the river.”
That credibility permeates every other facet of the story, augmenting and accenting the terrible and the very human, kind moments punctuating the character interactions.
It becomes clear with these interactions that anybody of substance in the fiction carries some kind of trauma, and it is all rooted in systemic issues. What is so different and so captivating about this is—even if it’s never a “fun” story to read—that it points the finger at capitalism in a way that is so brutal; so messy and bloody and bare, that everything is always focused on this overall larger picture; rather than typical cyberpunk, which encases some of these same thoughts in a far more different style. This is not sex, drugs, and rock and roll. There are no mirrorshades and trench coats and futuristic weapons. It discards the trappings entirely.
I liked that about it because I found it to be very honest fiction that seemed very personal. The fiction is pretty clear that this system, capitalism, that we trust for no good reason—hurts us and traumatizes us, and it’s absurd and mean and unfair. These things are far too real in the fiction and thus it refuses to make them vehicles for catharsis or power fantasies. It’s just not going to be that kind of story and you find that out from page one. The future becomes much more profoundly upsetting when the predators are shown to be manufactured by a system that manufactures trauma, and is far from being reclaimed.
“Spanner said, without looking up from the screen: ‘I’ll see you again. You’ll always need me.’”