The themes of gender identity and the LGBTQ+ spectrum were always going to be relevant for Pride month and An Unkindness of Ghosts was thoughtfully chosen for this book club. However, current events have given an added layer of pertinence. Earlier this year, the CBR Book Club had chosen Station Eleven and then we found ourselves in a pandemic. This month we are seeing protesting to change a racist police system (and institutionalized racism) and An Unkindness of Ghosts has an outright rebellion against the racist society aboard the Matilda spaceship.
Reading this book during the movement sparked by the death of George Floyd, has illuminated to me just how much the book reflects how black people are treated, here and now. While stomach churning, what I otherwise might have brushed off as hyperbole in how the guards and upper classes aboard Matilda view and treat the black and brown people in the lower decks, now doesn’t seem far-fetched in the slightest. It was incredibly depressing to think that this far into the future the treatment of black people hasn’t changed. And I can’t imagine the discomfort a BIPOC person would feel reading An Unkindness of Ghosts.
Why guards quoted this nonsense to justify themselves was beyond her. The whole point of occupying a position of power was that you got to do what you wanted with impunity.
Twit, now dog and she’d heard much worse so many times that she did not care, could not care. She didn’t need much. Didn’t need to be adored and loved and called nice things. All she wished for was perfunctory respect paid to the fact that she was, indeed, alive. Real, breathing, thinking, movable parts and all.
That’s what ghosts really are the past refusing to be forgot. Ghosts is smells, stains, scars. Everything is ruins. Everything is a clue. It wants you to know its story. Ancestors are everywhere if you are looking.
As a white woman, I’m facing the uncomfortable reality that black people have been continually subjugated even after the abolishment of slavery. But black people in America have been living with ghosts this entire time dealing with the scars and ruin that white people have wrought. What has been an awakening for me has been actuality for black people and I’m working to learn more and untrain biases.
I appreciated all the different nuances which Solomon approached gender identity, which is perhaps unsurprising since Solomon uses “they”. How different deck levels use different pronouns, one deck “they”, another everyone uses “she”, as well as Aster and Theo working through their identities.
I hate it when you call me lad, ” I say. He laughs deeply and gruffly. “I do suppose you’re a man now.” No, not quite. Not at all. That is the exact opposite reason why it upsets me when he calls me things that mean boy.
Aster examined her new self in the mirror and said, “I make a very dainty man.” She looked nothing, nothing at all, like the man she hoped she’d look like, one of those burly, rough-faced types who walked the passageways of Matilda like a conquistador…. Aster didn’t know where Theo acquired them, but if one were to pick – and people did like to pick – they would choose male, of that she was certain.
“Perhaps because I’m not a man at all.”…”Aye. You gender-malcontent. You otherling,…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.
Rivers Solomon packs a lot in this book. In addition to racism and discrimination against LGBTQ+ and gendered variance peoples, Solomon also has a main character that is on the autism spectrum. In surebitch’s review, they state, “Aster is neurodivergent, clearly, but she’s not stupid; in fact, she is at first portrayed as smartest than everyone else around her, and she has a very logical brain. And yet this is what she chose to do?” Having three autistic siblings and a child on the spectrum, and approaching the book with that thought in mind, markers that indicate Aster being autistic continually leapt out at me. The way Aster would count and tap things while walking, being very touch oriented, not always catching joking or sarcasm, the perfunctory way she delivers information, her cataloging and detailed organization systems, and bafflement at others’ behavior at times.
The inside lining was soft, stretchy, and absorbent. A knit jersey, maybe. It felt wonderful, and she loved buttoning herself up into this protective cocoon. It was heavy and present, putting deep pressure on her joints and limbs.
Aster loved the way the pages felt, their heftiness,their texture. The paper hummed. Chalked with charts, diagrams and tables, the book contained what a person could not – an order, a system, a rubric. Grammar textbooks reduced a language to something graphic and chartable, subject to scrutiny. Aster welcomed these straightforward, detailed explanations after dealing so long with Lune.
I do agree with surebitch. Even with taking Aster being autistic into account, towards the end of the book some of her actions are baffling and seem counter to how she has behaved/responded in the past. And it is frustrating how far mistreatment of Aster had to go before Theo could give into his feelings for Aster.
Overall, An Unkindness of Ghosts is an excellent science fiction book in how it examines the present through an imagined future. I loved the reveal of what Aster’s mother was up to and the cause of the mystery poisoning. Despite leaving the reader hanging regarding the ultimate fate of the Matilda, the ending was quite touching. It is not a book I would have picked up while browsing but I’m glad to have read it.