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Slow River: Gays in STEM (sewage treatment and emotional manipulation) — Sex crimes and water purification in a cyberpunk dystopia

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Del Rey  

Nicole Griffith
© 1995 Nicole Griffith
343 pages

Content warning: Incest, suicide, pedophilia, sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse

I got this book while attending a straight friend's (doomed) destination wedding. It was the year all my straight friends got married while I struggled under the delayed adolescence of a late coming out. Wandering the streets of a strange city alone, putting off the moment I had to zip into bile-colored bridesmaid outfit after not having touched dresses for a year, I shuffled into a rainbow-colored bookshop like a lapsed Catholic post-divorce, seeking familiarity. I asked for a recommendation of something Gay to get me through the weekend of aggressive heteronormativity. Like a Queer communion, I was bestowed Slow River.

And now, five years later, I finally managed to finish the damn thing.

I do not know the ideal time to read 300 pages of abusive relationships, sex crimes, and (not joking) sewage treatment, but a weekend of being the single Queer in a room of paired straights is not it.

Slow River follows the Lesbian canon closely. We've got incest, sexual abuse, sad rich girls, and an inexplicable obsession with swimming. The main character, Lore, in order, gets abused by her mother (sexually), abused by her kidnappers (physically), abused by her girlfriend (emotionally), and then abused in all three ways by clients after her girlfriend drugs and pimps her out. It's very '90s cyberpunk. There are hackers and rich-family child abuse and sex clubs and child geniuses and white people saving the Middle East through magic technology. Also lots of algae, which the '90s loved like the 2010s loved shrooms.

In summary, Lore is from an evil water-purification billionaire family and is kidnapped for ransom. Her family doesn't pay, so she stabs one of the kidnappers, is dumped from a van, and decides to start a new life thanks to the generosity of Spanner, a hot cyberpunk hacker she just met.

Things go south in this relationship until, out of money, Spanner secretly drugs Lore to force her into sex work. Later, Lore plans a party to which they invite all of their friends, drug them, then film them having sex and sell it. Then — and this is truly the wildest part — Lore decides to go straight (career-wise only) and gets a job as a water purification specialist (the process of which is described in agonizing detail). Through the job, she finds out that her half-sister Greta is super evil and engineered the whole kidnapping thing, so Lore decides to narc on her and go back to her cushy billionaire lifestyle.

The writing is lyrically beautiful. Pieces of the character development ring sincere, such as Lore struggling with the fact that Greta gave her a lock for her room so she would not be abused as Greta was. (Greta, however, later engineers Lore's kidnapping, as you will recall.) In her relationship with Spanner, as well, Lore struggles with the emotional complications of someone saving your life, only to later attempt to ruin it.

But with those pieces of interesting development, there are also moments of what I can only describe as "entitled rich-girl shit." Lore agonizes nearly the whole book over having stabbed her kidnapper, who was physically abusing her. However, the fact that she drugged her friends, who saved her life multiple times, then filmed them having sex and sold it is completely glossed over. When she later calls up some of her friends that she filmed, they immediately and inexplicably agree to help her. She half-apologizes to them, but really just says that she feels bad for not feeling bad. Which...what?

Spanner and Lore are both monstrous, but Spanner, who has all of her joints broken and put back into place rather than getting a desk job, is the more interesting monster. I found myself wishing it had been a Spanner redemption, rather than a Lore get-rich-quick-again plot.

There's one piece that really hit the spot for me. Lore sees the corpse of a starved kitten that's all skin and bones. Then she walks in to see Spanner, sitting at her desk, desperately trying to concoct one more scheme to keep them afloat. Lore feels a deep sadness for the two starved creatures, neglected by a world that should have comforted them. She says succinctly, "Kittens should be round." And as a Gay whose Instagram feed is mostly made up of kitten fosters, that got me.