generally embodies that which a culture knows to be true.
In the thirties and forties, American writers knew that the
world was getting bigger, brighter, and more reasonable. There
was new class mobility, the Depression was over, and a world
government of rational, impartial scientists would soon be
completely in charge. Future cities imagined in these times,
then, were utopic visions of science-based meritocracies:
well-fed white people bustling across clean-looking pastel-colored
sky bridges with their slide rules sticking out of their pockets.
the eighties, on the other hand, writers knew everything was
falling apart. The economy was fueled by junk bonds and the
government was going broke; more and more people were out
of work; and homelessness was the new epidemic. More recently
imagined Cities of the Future are in decline: rain-wet streets
are neon-streaked and full of piles of dirty clothes that
turn out to be brain-burned refugees from various corporate
do we know to be true today? That civilization--art, education,
democracy, law--springs from and is of the city. That, paradoxically,
"inner city" has become a euphemism for poverty, despair,
and injustice. We also know that there are two parts to any
city--the physical infrastructure, and the people and their
institutions--and that both are changing.
infrastructure of many cities is essentially Victorian: the
sewers and bridges and railways, the street plans and the
bureaucracy date from the nineteenth century. They were designed
in and for the industrial age. They are collapsing, but because
they are literally integral to the functioning city, they
cannot be demolished and rebuilt. We cannot live without them.
We cannot replace them. We have no real idea of how long they
will hold up. In the utopic visions of the thirties and forties
these problems were simply magicked away. In eighties cyberpunk
dystopias the problems have overwhelmed us.
people, not sewers and railways and bridges, are what make
a city. People and their social institutions--class, language,
religion, sexual orientation and so on--are what create the
layers of metropolis. My definition of a city: a place with
a large enough population to *have* different layers.
city is homogeneous. Not only is every neighborhood different
to every other, but every citizen will know a different layer,
will bend before a different social wind. Think of it this
way. Four white female students share a house in a university
district. One Sunday morning, one gets up bright and early
to attend a fundamentalist Christian service. About the same
time, one of her room mates is just staggering back, dazed,
from a wild night spent at a lesbian club then someone's bed
then the beach at dawn. The third student has been at the
computer lab all night, running a new program, and won't come
home even to shower for another thirty-six hours. The fourth
is still asleep, dreaming of all the things she will buy when
she inherits the family business. These four do not live in
the same city. They have different experiences of law enforcement,
transportation, stories, and health-care providers, and at
different times of the day and night. The pulse of the city--its
food, clothes, religion, politics, art, speech patterns, morals
and expectations--is different for each. And these four live
in the same house, attend the same university, are the same
biological sex and have the same skin color....
the interesting thing about a city is that layers have a habit
of intersecting. Take that lesbian club, for instance: there
will be women of different socio-economic class, different
race and color, different politics, different tastes. There
again, most of them will be in the same 18 - 30 age range.
And that woman at the computer lab: she'll be hanging with
people of all kinds of backgrounds and mores and attitudes;
some will be gay, some straight; some are working three jobs
to pay for college, some are being funded for by Daddy. These
nexus points are the irrigation arteries of the city. It is
from such intersections of different nutrient streams that
the energy and the art of a metropolis are born. Prevent this
mingling and mixing and there is no hybrid vigor. The whole
stagnates. It rots and dies.
is happening in some cities. Walled enclaves are springing
up; suburbs and edge cities are voting en masse to prevent
transit lines reaching them from the urban center; inner cities
are being abandoned after dark; more people communicate via
email than at the water cooler.
this is what we know to be true today: in order to remain
viable, our cities--whether the human component or the physical
infrastructure--must be transformed.
Cities of the Future being imagined in the nineties reflect
this knowledge. For example, in Michaela Roessner's VANISHING
POINT ninety percent of the populations disappears. A city
is no longer a city when there are too few people to form
distinct layers. In Kathy Goonan's QUEEN CITY JAZZ, the transformation
of the infrastructure is radical: nanotechnology leads to
metamorphosis. Nothing of the old remains. In Egan's PERMUTATION
CITY, the virtual city is--as Attebury points out--more real
than the decaying actuality. The old is simply escaped from.
It seems that what we know to be true today often leads to
fiction in which some aspect of The City is destroyed.
what each writer knows to be true is slightly different; our
experiences are not the same. We each take our truth and bend
it to a different purpose.
RIVER comes from the intersection of two different experiences,
both of which changed my perceptions of myself and my place
in the world. The first experience was when I was eighteen,
the second almost ten years later.
was born in Leeds which grew to its present size during the
textile revolution. It is now a bustling regional financial
center. I was raised in a very conventional white middle-class
Catholic family, and taught to always obey the rules--stay
within the system and the system will protect you. I did not
know that there was any other way to live. And then when I
was eighteen I ran away from home to live with my girlfriend
in another city. I stumbled from three square meals a day
in a law-abiding atmosphere of wall-to-wall carpets and central
heating into another world.
this other city--whose economy was failing and whose drains
were collapsing--I had no job and no money. No belongings.
My lover and I were hanging with bikers and drug-dealers and
prostitutes. I submerged myself in this new reality utterly.
It was all very exciting. Very adult. Begging for food and
selling speed for a living felt like a radical act: I was
hardcore. Rules were for other people. I was above all that.
I was different. This lasted for a few years, and then one
day I woke up and realized that this was no longer a phase,
or a game, or a diverting interlude; it was my life. This
starving, cynical, uncomfortable and dangerous existence,
in a hopeless and declining city, was all I had. So I struggled
to climb out of the pit. And as I struggled, I looked around
me and wondered why all the other people I knew in similar
straits were not struggling, too. I began to wonder: what
makes some people want to change, and others not? How come
two people who seem to be faced with the same choices, with
access to same resources (i.e. apparently none), make two
different decisions? People, I understood suddenly, are not
all the same.
1988 I came to the US for the first time to attend Clarion,
a six week writing workshop at Michigan State University.
As I flew over the cumulus clouds of the midwest, it occurred
to me that there was not a single person on the continent
who knew me. The sudden sense of being outside the world,
of not being bound by ordinary rules or people's expectations,
was exhilarating. I could land and be anyone I liked. No one
would know any different. But then I realized that this hiatus
in my ordinary life gave me the opportunity to play a much
more dangerous and high stakes game. I could find out who
I really was. Me. Not me-and-my-family, or me-and-my-education,
or even me-and-my-accent, just *Me*. Without the usual identifying
cultural markers, my fellow students and teachers would have
no choice but to evaluate me on the basis of *now*. And by
doing that, they would form a human mirror. For the first
time, I would see my essential self, stripped bare.
two realizations, together with the less-than-utopic city
in which I had lived for nearly eleven years, formed the background
for SLOW RIVER.
is a very deliberately layered book because that is how I
have come to view the world. Details of Lore's character are
lacquered one on top of the other, each revelation seeping
through to stain the next, each informing the whole. Layering
forms not only the narrative structure, but also the predominant
image of the novel. Lore knows the different strata of a bioremediation
plant because she has, literally, been different people. Remember
those four white girls? Lore has been rich and spoiled. She
has been a thief and a prostitute. She has been a kidnap victim.
She has been a lowly grunt in sewage processing plant. I have
learned to see cities from several perspectives. They are
all very interesting. Lore learns the city from an even greater
range of viewpoints (because in fiction, after all, you can
turn up the heat without getting personally burned). She knows
that the city is like a jungle, each layer having its own
predators and prey. She understands where the power in each
milieu lies, and how those milieux interact.
science fiction of the nineties destroys some aspect or other
of the city. I did not want to do that. I wanted to keep as
background the city as I have seen it, as a reader might recognize
it. My need with this book was to ask questions about people
and their place in the world; to look at how if you change
one, you change the other; to examine the influence of each
upon the other. So the city in SLOW RIVER hover continually
on the brink of disaster: one slip in a vital system and there
will be pollution and death on a terrible scale. Not much
different from what we know to be true of most cities today.
SLOW RIVER is science fiction, so I posit a technological
advance that adds a bit of hope to the mess: the means to
remediate pollution safely and completely. It is a small change.
All the old buildings and systems are still there: the sewers,
the old water treatment building, the culverts and roads.
All the people still live. The citizens are real. It is neither
utopia nor dystopia.
city of SLOW RIVER is a very personal vision of what might
be. It springs from the cities I have seen, the places I have
lived. I do hope, however, that I end up living somewhere