Solomon, Rivers. An Unkindness of Ghosts. Brooklyn, Akashic Books: 2017.
In this extraordinary speculative fiction novel, debut author Solomon explores racial discrimination and slavery, disability, gender and sexuality, and scientific progress aboard a space vessel traveling to a promised utopian planet. Some spoilers below.
The HSS Matilda left a dying Earth some 300 years ago in search of a legendary Promised Land. The ship is a closed slavery system, and is physically organized according to racial rank, with the darkest-skinned dwellers at the bottom and the whites at the top. People on the lower decks work harsh jobs under violent and unforgiving overseers. They are also subject to inhumane conditions, like lack of heat, poor-quality food, and little sleep.
Like all colonization structures, the colonizers maintain social control via rigid binaries of acceptable behavior and identities; the white upper-class is deeply misogynist, homophobic, and transphobic, and members police themselves and each other to maintain the social order. In contrast, among the Black and Brown underclass, gender is understood to be vast and slippery, queer sexualities are common and considered natural, and sex roles are blurred due to widespread intersex conditions.
The worldbuilding in An Unkindness of Ghosts is phenomenal. Descriptions of the slavery conditions are disturbing and difficult to read. The psychology of colonization and its effects on both parties is explored thoroughly and resonated for weeks with this reader. Lower-deck culture is rich and fascinating; I was especially intrigued by the differences between decks in language and pronoun conventions (on some decks, all children are referred to with “they/them” pronouns, for example).
Character-building is superb as well. The main character, Aster, is a brilliant Black scientist who grows medicinal plants and performs surgery in her spare time between working the fields. She is clearly Autistic, though this is expertly “shown, not told” through her thought processes and behaviors. She is strange, bewildered by social cues, and has rigid thinking. She spends much of the novel deciphering her dead mother’s coded journals in a desperate effort to find a way off the ship. Aster is also nonbinary: “‘I am a boy and a girl and a witch all wrapped into one very strange, flimsy, indecisive body’” (308).
Giselle, Aster’s closest friend and adoptive sister, is a vibrant, profoundly traumatized Black saboteur who ricochets between supporting and helping Aster and destroying her work in fits of pique. She has a long history of sexual trauma and her behaviors and thinking indicate that she has PTSD, as well as frequent distressing delusions. Giselle becomes bolder and less concerned about her own safety throughout the book, as she seeks to disrupt the upper-deck social order.
Theo, Aster’s friend and eventual beau, is a mixed Black surgeon who passes as white and lives on the upper decks. Theo is related to the ruler and is respected as the Hand of God, a miraculous healer. Theo is effeminate and often chided for it; but uses religious custom to excuse frequent shaving and feminine adornments. Through the book it becomes clear that Theo is transfeminine. Theo’s status enables care for Aster under the guise of apprenticeship.
I highly recommend this troubling and beautiful novel to adult and very mature teen readers who love science fiction, dystopias, and social justice. An Unkindness of Ghosts should be on every public and academic library shelf. I predict that this text will be analyzed by literary theorists and read in college classes, and I dearly hope that Rivers Solomon produces many more works.
Content note: This novel contains many scenes of violence ranging in graphicness, including sexual assault, beatings, torture, and murder. There are also somewhat graphic descriptions of surgeries.