UK and US editions of Slow River

Current US cover (Ballantine/Del Rey), current UK ebook (Gateway/Orion), original US cover (Ballantine/Del Rey), current UK print edition (Gollancz Masterworks), original UK edition (Voyager/HarperCollins).

Slow 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.

I 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, Hull. I stumbled from three square meals a day in a conventional lower middle-class atmosphere of wall-to-wall carpets and central heating into another world.

In Hull—a city whose economy was failing and drains collapsing—I had no job and no money. No belongings. No security or safety. 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 amphetamines 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 to climb, 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. We are never in the same situation. We might seem to be, but we come from different places and have different experiences of the world. What looks like the same situation is, most often, a fleeting moment of crossover/coexistence. I came from the middle-class—admittedly the lowest rungs, but still I had been raised with a particular set of expectations, education, and values. Not everyone is so lucky.

In 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.

Is there such a thing as an “essential self?” I have no idea. But the idea fascinated me. If there is, where might that essential self originate? Can it be warped, encouraged, or destroyed? How far outside the moral and physical boundaries of that essential self would we be willing to step in order to stay alive? And—if we stepped so far out that we became someone we did not recognise or like—would we still be us? I wrote Slow River to answer those questions.

Slow River is set in a near-future urbanscape. It begins with a woman, Lore, who is kidnapped, then dumped, nameless and naked and hurt, in the dead of night in middle of strange city. She has no name, no job, no money, and no clothes; no friends or family or support system; she can’t go to the police because she believes she has killed one of her kidnappers. How far will she go to stay alive? And what will happen on the morning she wakes up and finds she can no longer face the person she’s become?

The book is set in the near future, and deals peripherally with information technology. As a result, I’ve often seen it described as cyberpunk but I’ve never thought of it that way, perhaps because I associate cyberpunk with nihilism. While Slow River is as realistic in its depiction of urban lowlife as I could make it, it’s also full of the beauty and hope (and absurdity) of everyday life: sunshine and the way it changes the texture of stone-clad buildings; the taste of a hot, fragrant cup of tea; the eyes of a squirrel balanced on a power line…

Lore is the youngest of three siblings born to Katerine and Oster van de Oest, the owners and officers of the very rich, and very powerful—but still family-owned and -controlled—van de Oest corporation. The family made its money from patenting genetically engineered bacteria and fungi—and, importantly, the nutrients they need to live on—which are used in various bioremediation processes. Primitive bioremediation is already with us (think oil-gobbling microbes that help clear up oil spills), but in my near future I took the technological very much further. I had a fabulous time imagining solar aquatics: the transformation of sewage into clean drinking water, edible fish and recycled heavy metals without the addition of harsh chemicals. It was thrilling to figure out what it might take to return the Kyrgyz desert from its dioxin-riddled failed-cotton monoculture wasteland to its steppe state using six hundred-foot high heliostats, artificial waterfalls, and glass pipelines hundreds of miles long.

Writing Slow River used all that I knew and understood in 1993. There are descriptions of and opinions on: personality, a kidnapping, hot but science-fictional sex, nanotechnology, prostitution, growing up, dangerous and potent aphrodisiacs, illegal media piggyback scams, pornography, fashion, the responsibilities of the rich to the poor, fame, vice, survival and much more. Some of it has turned out to be true; some, eh, not so much (I missed social media completely).

◻︎

Slow River is fiction, I made it up.[1] But I took the premise seriously. To get worthwhile answers to the questions of Lore’s essential self, I would have to show where Lore came from and how she found herself in her present situation. I had to include Lore’s background, history, and upbringing as well as her current dramatic situation. I wanted to show why she was not, in fact, in the same situation as those around her, even though she might, from an outsider’s perspective, seem to be.

I’d been thinking about the book ever since that first visit to this country in 1989. I knew I didn’t have the skill to do justice to the vision. But at some point I just had to begin.

I wrote the first ten thousand words twice and threw them away. Then wrote the first thirty-five thousand and stared at it, and despaired. It wasn’t working. It wasn’t working at all. The narrative had become hopelessly muddled with flashbacks piggybacking on flashbacks, and dizzily escalating dream and nightmare sequences. Emotionally it was a mess. Each time I sat down to work I felt queasy. The more I tried to consciously wrestle the book into shape, the worse everything got. It wasn’t until I’d given up—or thought I’d given up—that I found the solution.

Kelley came home from work one night and found me sitting in a heap on the living room floor.
“How did your work go today?” she asked.
“It’s crap. I’m crap. I can’t write. I’ve given up. I’ll have to find a job.”
I meant every word; my life, as I understood it, was over. Once Kelley saw that I was utterly serious, that I could not be consoled, she disappeared into the kitchen and after a long moment re-emerged with two frosty Dos Equis.
“Okay,” she said. I looked up. She held out a beer. “This is a magic beer. When you reach the bottom of the bottle everything will be better. You’ll find out how tomorrow.” I stared. “Trust me,” she said. “Just drink the beer. It’s magic.”

I drank the beer. About one swallow from the end, I felt a stray thought break my brain surface and arrow back into my subconscious. I trusted the magic, though, and didn’t pursue it. In the middle of the night I woke up thinking, “Brazzaville Beach!” (Brazzaville Beach is William Boyd’s 1990 novel set in the Congo and written from two different points-of-view—both from the same character, one in first and one in third person.) And the solution lay there, whole and perfect, in my mind. The next day I deleted those thirty-five thousand words and began again.

Instead of two points-of-view I used three, though all were Lore’s. I used first person past tense for the narrative present (A); third person past tense for the immediate narrative past (B); and third person present tense for her childhood (C).

Present tense is the language of dreams, of dissociation and dislocation. It is malleable, the tense of events to be reviewed and interpreted later. It seemed suitable for a childhood that, in comparison to Lore’s present situation, was almost a fairytale—at least on the surface. Let’s call it layer C. Past tense, on the other hand, is much more concrete: this happened. The events described are not open to interpretation—just right for layer B, Lore’s immediate past. I wrote this section in third person because she is looking at it from a little distance; not the same distance as her childhood but no longer quite who she is in the narrative present. The main layer of the novel, though, A—the one with which we begin and end—is in first person. This is the mature Lore, the one who is working out how her childhood, her immediate past, and her present, fit together. This is the voice that decides, the one who chooses, the one with agency.

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. 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. Lore learns the city from a range of perspectives and finds out 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.

The greatest challenge for me, technically, was to layer these narratives in such a way that they reinforced each other emotionally, while also situating the reader, making sure they always knew what part of Lore’s life they were in, emotionally, timeline-wise, and geographically. To help with that I built a formal pattern that I knew a reader’s subconscious would recognise: a recurring ABA C ABA C ABA… The readers’ brain, I reasoned, would learn to expect various time and perspective shifts, and relax.

I wrote each viewpoint in chronological order.I don’t remember how long it took me to actually write. Not long, I suspect. I was moving through an ecstatic dream. Then I printed it and chopped everything up (literally—when it comes to think kind of work physical paper works better for me than screens), spreading it out all over the living room, dining room and hall floors, then splicing it all back together. Undoing. Redoing. That took two solid weeks of twelve hour days accompanied by curses at playful cats and petulant glares at Kelley when she told me it was time to eat. (And one particularly horrible day when she flung open the front door, announced, “Honey, I’m home!” and set a whirlwind loose on my carefully arranged piles of paper, destroying all the work I’d done so far.) But eventually I had it all arranged to my satisfaction: emotional chords and plot lines harmonised, character development and reader movement through the book followed pleasing peaks and troughs.

I printed the final draft. Gave it to Kelley. She read it, burst into tears, and told me it was brilliant. I beamed and told her she gave good beer. “Oh, god,” she said, “I was so scared that day, I didn’t know what to do, I’d never seen you like that before. The magic beer thing was sheer desperation.”[2]

◻︎

Technically, Slow River owes its initial inspiration to Boyd. Structurally, it is my own. Texturally, the book is a direct descendant of those historical novelists I refer to as the English Landscape Writers—Rosemary Sutcliff, Henry Treece, and Mary Renault. I want a reader to be able to pick up the book, open it at any page, and know immediately the smells and sounds of a character’s surroundings; the taste of the wind, if there is any wind; the ambient air temperature. I want the milieu to say something of the character surrounded by it. Emotionally, I want Slow River to feel, well, like a river. A river in its many phases: cold and thin and bitter; smooth and deep and dangerous; big and glad and energetic.

I wrote Slow River for myself, to answer those early questions about the essential self, but I also hoped lots of different people—men and women, gay and straight, those in search of serious literature and those wanting a beach book—would pick it up and give it a go.

Slow River is science fiction: it’s set in the near future and the plot revolves around a technology that is (still) in its infancy. But I’ve seen it described in a variety of ways—a novel about sex and industrial sabotage, lesbian fiction, a picaresque whodunnit, a page-turner about corruption and corporate dynasties—and I don’t really care, as long as readers approach it with an open mind.[3]

In March 1995, three months before the book came out, I was at OutWrite, the lesbian and gay writers’ conference in Boston. I was appalled by the ignorance and prejudice on casual display. At the end of the conference I took my last two advance reading copies of Slow River to the exhibitors’ hall to get rid of so I didn’t have to lug them back to Atlanta with me on the plane. I approached a woman at one of the booths. She will remain nameless, but let’s just say she represented a (now defunct, ha!) review journal. I said hello and asked her if she wanted a galley of my new book. She reached out a rather disdainful hand.
“Well, I’m sure there’s someone in our office who likes this kind of thing.”
“What kind of thing, exactly?”
“You know, rockets and ray guns and computers.”
“Just try it,” I said, exercising great restraint. “You might like it.”

There are many editors and reviewers and critics like this woman. They will condemn the book without reading it. “Oh,” they sniff, “science fiction,” the same way those who compile the Canon have previously sniffed, “Oh, women’s fiction. Minority fiction. Queer fiction. Regional fiction.” What, I wonder, are they afraid of?
[4]


[1] To some extent all fiction is autobiographical. To convincingly describe fear, for example, we have to understand fear, but that fear can be transposed from one key to another. Fear of heights can become fear of snakes. In case you were wondering, I was not born into money, I was not abused as a child, and my mother was not a monster.

[2] Now I know that this despair is just part of my novel-writing process. At least for about half my novels: for Slow River and Stay and Always. Not for Ammonite or The Blue Place or Hild. It doesn’t seem to happen with stories, and it didn’t with my memoir. Why? No idea.

[3] For an example of how I’d like to see the book read, see this review.

[4] We are all afraid of something, sometimes many things, and often we are not even aware of our fears. For example, when I was writing Hild I kept avoiding the love between Hild and Cian. I didn’t want to imagine Hild thinking about a man sexually. To some degree I’m a method writer: I have to feel the rage, the lust, the hunger, the fear, the loneliness. Or at least have felt it. I know what lust feels like, but I didn’t want to focus it on men. I really, really didn’t. Eventually I understood: the thought frightened me. But why, exactly? It took longer than I’d like but I finally faced the fact that, on some level, I thought straight cooties might rub off on me. Ridiculous but there it is: I was worried that once I’d started to think about men in sexual terms I’d be unable to stop; I’d start to find men sexually attractive.
This was idiotic. One, fiction can’t make you be anything you have no capacity for, and two, why was I assigning such enormous power to heterosexuality? That was when I realised: this is what some homophobes feel. It gave me a vast new sympathy for those who are/have been homophobic. This shit is real and not initially under our conscious control. But here’s the thing: it’s fixable. Face it and you’ll find you can get over it. As soon as I realised what my problem was, I could laugh at it. Think of it as recovery. Or at least amelioration of the reflexive fear response. I can recommend to every writer the trying on of a perspective you find alien, even repugnant; you might learn something.
When I asked straight writers to contribute a queer story, and litfic writers to contribute a fantasy, science fiction, or horror story to Bending the Landscape my intent was to break down barriers. I admit I had no idea what I was asking of some people. But they came through like heroes. I admire each and every one of them (especially those who went there with someone of the same gender. It’s easy enough for a straight woman to pretend to be a man in love with a man, or a straight man to pretend to be a woman in love with a woman. But for those straight men who wrote from the point of view of a queer man, straight women writing from the perspective of a queer woman, queer women writing about a straight woman, well, I salute you).