Slow River by Nicola Griffith
I encountered this as part of my reading of Nebula-winning novels, and am glad I did. Very impressive stuff. Excellent characterization, bringing a sort of complexity and three-dimensional integration of perspective, emotion and action that puts most authors to shame. As well the protagonist if homosexual without being exoticized or the account being in any way apologetic for her sexuality. Above all what carries the story is how much I believed in the core setup of characters, and how sympathetic and compelling they were even when put in shameful or disquieting situations. Overall the story structure is a quiet and gradual one, featuring some dramatic standoffs and disturbing situations, but pacing it with a gradual commitment to the back and forth of a full psychology, the layer by layer experiencing of events packed with unfolding the past and recovering memories of a larger context. There is a lot of darker presence in this work, from the setup of kidnapping and victimization to the eventual uncovering of core familial dysfunction and abuse. Yet I read it as too grounded and wide ranging to ultimately be a pessimistic work.
My one qualm about this work winning the Nebula was that it's rather light in science fiction elements. It takes a near future environment of minor technological advancement and focus on corporate intrigue. There isn't much range offered here beyond the present, instead a look into an imaginative but somewhat conentional layout of economic tensions, secrecy and media saturation. Yet these elements are done so skillfully, and with a degree of complexity for description that's so rarely brought in genre representations of capitalism, that in the end I'd count this element as also a success. Looking at the Nebula shortlist for 1996, Slow River was up against two volumes I've read--Sawyer's Starplex and Stephenson's The Diamond Age. Both works have certain virtues, but I'm quite pleased Slow River beat them out.
Griffith just moved from 'author I don't know at all' to 'author I need to read all published books of'. It's really a very good book.
Similar to and better than: Whit by Iain Banks
Similar to and worse than: Sometimes this judgement seems a lot easier and more useful to make than others. It's usually beneficial to provide something in the way of context, show with a case to case example that almost every book isn't the best or worst in its style. In this case, while I can certainly think of a number of soft science fiction novels that are better than Slow River, at the moment nothing is coming to mind that has the same approach towards family relationships, dysfunctionality and skillful presentation of near-future economic tensions. I'll pass on the comparisons for the moment.