An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
Paperback, 351 pagesPublished October 2017 by Akashic Books
Stonewall Book Award Nominee for Literature (2018),
Lambda Literary Award Nominee for LGBTQ SF/F/Horror (2018),
Hurston/Wright Legacy Award Nominee for Debut Novel (2018),
James Tiptree Jr. Award Honor List (2017)
One of the most common subgenres of science fiction is the Generation ship novel. With hundreds of entries by some of the biggest names in the genre, it is easy to think that everything has been said. During a panel, I co-hosted for the Dickheads podcast I glibly suggested that Kim Stanley Robinson had the final word on the generation ship novel with his hard SF masterpiece Aurora. Panelist and professor Lisa Yasek disagreed and told me that I needed to read An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon.
I am glad they did because An Unkindness of Ghosts is indeed an important work in the subgenre and the wider field of Science fiction in general. I have to admit that this book took a little while to hook me but from the start, I knew the writing was excellent. It has nothing to do with weaknesses in the book which there are few. It is a bit on me as I am a space nerd and a science geek, that is why the hard science approach of Aurora is more up my alley.
An Unkindness of Ghosts is a generation ship novel for sure but the HSS Matilda is more of a literary device or mirror to the antebellum south than an actual spaceship. By the end it is clear that Solomon put a lot of thought into the function of the ship, the societal aspects came across stronger to me. It is not until p.285 during the reveal of a major twist that we get a page that deals with orbital mechanics or how the ship works. That is totally fine for this novel just it was impossible for me to turn off my space brain, and I felt I may have been missing the point by overthinking how the ship worked at times.
That is not the point at all. This book is a hardcore experience and not for the light-hearted. First and foremost I want to talk about the prose. Rivers Solomon is a powerful writer who paints this story with many shades of pain. There is a coming of age story here, but if there is a chart of trigger warnings you can pretty much check-off every single one of them. This is a painful read at times but the rich and raw truth of it is so powerful you feel the struggle of the characters.
Life in the lower decks of the Matilda is harsh and brutal, the way the society on the massive vessel is organized by deck. The different decks have different languages, customs, and classes. Humanity has escaped the dying earth and is trying desperately to find a new home for humanity. After generations in space, it would be easy to lose hope and believe that the promised land is not real.
The society on the ship is enclosed and a microcosm for the systematic oppression that strips slaves of their humanity. I got the impression that Solomon was using the Matilda to examine how the last slave ships in the dying days of the slave trade functioned and blowing that dehumanization up through the Science fictional concept. In this sense, An Unkindness of Ghosts reminds me of Mary Doria Russell's novel The Sparrow.
That said this book is more rooted in the genre than The Sparrow a book that didn't care for tried and true Science Fiction methods or tropes, and Russell shied away from being called SF. That is not the case here. I will say that by the end the Science Fictional aspects were the least important thing to me.
Solomon uses the ship as a literary device to not only hold a mirror to racial issues but class, labor, and most importantly non-binary representation. I loved the characters. One of the things I liked about the characters was that they were messy. Aster and Theo were not typical narrative heroes who strongly knew who they are and what they were about. Aster is on the autism spectrum, it seems also that her gender issues are also on a spectrum, as they are ones she is trying to work out during the story.
Aster's main drive through the story is to try and understand her mother's suicide. Mother issues bleed off the page throughout the story. Like in slavery mothers inside Matilda sometimes lose their biological children and some times end up raising children not their own.
“I’m not maternal but that doesn’t mean I don’t love. I love Aster. I love all the girls and women I look after. It is hard to be in somebody’s presence for so long and not develop something like love.”
Life in this spaceship is not that different than life on earth and the struggle with and against conformity is at the heart of this tiny culture. With the added pressure of enclosed space, a world where every inch is used for some function and only the wealthiest on the upper decks can see stars. Nature is just not a thing. Aster not being neuro-typical is part of makes her so wonderfully different and interesting of a character, but I personally loved how her non-gender-conforming binary lifestyle was related to the culture on her deck. I loved this passage...
“In my language, there is no word for I. To even come close, you must say, E’tesh’lem vereme pri’lus, which means, This one here who is apart from all. It’s the way we say lonely and alone. It’s the way we say, outsider. It’s the way we say weak. Everyone always wonders about I love you. In Ifrek you say, Mev o’tem, or, We are together. “How do you say, I’m tired?” people ask. “Ek’erb nal veesh ly. The time for rest is upon us.”
When Aster travels up however see is confronted by being different. Two passages spoke well to this for me.
“Conform or die. That was his motto. I am oddly doing bits of both, each half-assedly.”
Science Fiction or not this novel did the best job of conveying the feeling of being non-binary that I have read yet. Solomon gives the novel a rich texture that they clearly understand from experience. I have noticed from checking out a few reviews that many readers have focused entirely on the pain of the book, that said the coming of age aspect has moments of welcome growth for the characters and it is not all pain. Not only does the last act solve Aster's mystery but I loved this moment where Aster starts by explaining the pain of being different and then arrives somewhere else...
“Aye. You gender-malcontent. You otherling,” she said, the fog of anesthesia wearing off. She could see him clearly now. The curl of his lashes. The white flecks of skin over his dry lips. “Me too. I am a boy and a girl and a witch all wrapped into one very strange, flimsy, indecisive body. Do you think my body couldn’t decide what it wanted to be?” “I think it doesn’t matter because we get to decide what our bodies are or are not,” he answered. Aster sat up, and Theo helped her prop two pillows beneath her head. “Is that so? Then I am magic. I say it, therefore it is true.”
I am Magic.
Without giving away the ending the science fictional elements and the answer to Aster's questions about her mother's death are the heart of the final act. "The Gods navigate Matilda." Well, that was the belief but more is going on. I liked this end to the story.
This is a book I enjoyed more and more as it went on. Once I got a handle on the world and started to figure out the setting and characters. It is the kinda book you don't read quickly. My last review was of the Afrofuturism issue of Extrapolation. I thought about this quote from Doug Stark's essay. "Sf’s representation issues do not merely reveal authorial biases and assumed readerships. They insidiously foreclose futurity for those who cannot find themselves in depictions of heterosexual, cis-gendered, able-bodied white men." Thanks to Rivers Solomon we have a science fictional response. No shock that it comes from a non-binary author of color. This is a book that gets better after you close the book and think about it. I just finished it yesterday and my appreciation for it has already grown. While it wasn't a perfect book for me personally I would say it is must read and a masterpiece of science fiction.