Rivers Solomon is a dyke, a Trekkie, a wannabe cyborg queen, a trash princex, a communist, a butch, a femme, a feminist, a she-beast, a rootworker, a mother, a daughter, a diabetic, and a refugee of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. They write about life in the margins, where they are firmly at home.
This novel is published by Akashic Books (on Twitter @AkashicBooks) which describes itself as an “indie publisher dedicated to reverse gentrification of the literary world.”
An Unkindness of Ghosts has been popping up on “best” and “must-read” and “debut novel” lists all year, and now I get it. Rivers Solomon’s web site describes An Unkindness of Ghosts as “a science fiction meditation on trans-generational trauma, race, and identity”. It is thoughtful, brutal and riveting. The action takes place in a dystopian future aboard a space ship that is segregated racially, economically, socially and politically. The main character, Aster, like author Solomon, lives life on the margins. She is a 25-year-old woman of color, probably with Asperger syndrome, a brilliant scientist, and an outsider not just vis a vis the white male ruling class but also among the other enslaved peoples of Matilda. An Unkindness of Ghosts is the story of Aster dealing with and learning from the ghosts of the past, particularly the ghost of her mother Lune, a brilliant outsider in her own right. It is also a story about injustice and the fight for freedom.
Matilda has been traveling space for 300 years, a refugee ship from “the Great Lifehouse,” aka earth, which was rendered uninhabitable for reasons unknown. A white male patriarchy rules the ship with a “Sovereign” at its head, serving as both political and religious leader. Upper deckers are white, wealthy and privileged, lower deckers are working class and slaves. Matilda is large enough to have both manufacturing and agricultural fields which are worked by slaves, including Aster. Slaves are forced to live together and are subject to curfew and physical abuse, including sexual abuse. Aster has a special place though because of her expansive knowledge of medicine. Even the ship’s Surgeon General (Theo) recognizes her extraordinary abilities and has great respect (perhaps even love) for Aster. Aster’s mother Lune, who had been a mechanic, committed suicide shortly after Aster was born, but journals that she left behind hint at something more. Literal minded Aster reads her mother’s journals as a straight forward description of various decks on Matilda and problems she encountered. Aster’s friend Giselle sees that they are a code. Figuring out that code and what Lune knew about Matilda drives Aster toward bold actions against the patriarchy that could threaten her own well being as well as that of the people she loves.
The most important people in Aster’s life are Giselle, Theo and her Aunt Melusine. Each of them has strengths or advantages that Aster lacks and that will help her in her quest to discover what happened to Lune. Giselle is emotionally and behaviorally the opposite of the Spock-like Aster. Giselle is highly emotional and unpredictable where Aster is relentlessly logical and literal minded. Aster refers to Giselle’s delusions, and she does seem mentally unstable at times. Giselle wants to make things happen instead of putting up with the status quo. She even refers to “burning it all down,” the ship, the patriarchy, etc.; better to die fighting than live a slave. Giselle may not be a scientist, but she still possesses a creativity and genius of her own, and without it, Aster would never have discovered the truth about Lune.
Melusine is a connection to the past and a mother-like figure. She knows the old stories and tries to take care of both Aster and Giselle. She has been a nanny to white families and is Theo’s mother by way of a powerful white man and former sovereign. Melusine recognized Aster’s intelligence and was patient with the child who acted so strangely and was a late talker but clearly had genius in her. Melusine also sees Giselle’s irrationality and her need for a stabilizing force, which Aster can sometimes be.
Theo is one of the highest ranking men on the ship, recognized for his god-like ability to heal which he demonstrated in early childhood. Even though his mother is black, his lighter skin protects him to a degree. His uncle, who will become the next sovereign, despises Theo’s assistant Aster, and as he takes full authority over the ship, Aster’s life and the lives of those she loves will be endangered. Theo is a bit of an oddball like Aster; freakishly smart (although he defers to Aster’s superior intelligence) but physically imperfect, Theo is sometimes an object of derision by other whites, but he is also one of the most powerful men on Matilda. The question is whether he is willing to embrace and exert his authority against his own class, and whether he will fully acknowledge his feelings for Aster.
An Unkindness of Ghosts tackles the matter of what is “home” if you are an outsider, disenfranchised, have had your own history taken away so that you don’t even know your family tree. Where is home and what is family? And what does this struggle to comprehend that do to your own identity? Giselle teeters toward madness while Aster becomes more focused and driven. The question is whether Aster will have time to get to the truth behind what happened to her mother, what is happening on the ship, what is happening in her relationship with Theo and what she needs/wants to do about any of that. Aster’s autism is a complication, and she is aware of her limitations, but she is also not immune to the psychological toll of slavery, violence and repression. And she is the Sovereign’s target.
This is a great novel featuring non-traditional individuals and relationships, and addressing the impact of slavery and violent inequality upon individuals and history. If you are a fan of N.K. Jemison’s Broken Earth Trilogy then you might want to pick up Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts.