RHC 2019: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

Read Harder Challenge 2019

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: A book by an author of color set in or about space.

I am a boy and a girl and a witch wrapped into one very strange, flimsy, indecisive body.

Hurray, it’s sci-fi time! I read a couple of science fiction books last year (The Stars Are Legion and The Three-Body Problem), both of which I greatly enjoyed and which went a long way toward reassuring me that all non-YA / non-children’s sci-fi isn’t Dune. I really hate Dune. This is a pretty entrenched position, and I’ll talk your ear off about it given the opportunity. Nevertheless, I’m excited about being excited about sci-fi again.

Anyway. An Unkindness of Ghosts is definitely not Dune. It takes place on a generational ship called the Matilda, which left the Great Lighthouse (Earth) about three hundred years ago. The Matilda has been on autopilot, drifting through the universe ostensibly in search of a new planet. Over the centuries, a religion related to the ship and its course has sprung up, and a cruel, painfully resonant caste system has been put in place.

At the very bottom of that caste system are people of color (and at the bottom of that, women of color). These “lowdeckers” are compelled to work as laborers at the hands of overseers who routinely abuse them. Aster, the protagonist, is one of these women.

Aster is a skilled healer (when we meet her, she’s amputating a frost-bitten foot), queer, and shows several signs of autism. The book doesn’t label her as such, though characters around her refer to her as “seeing the world sideways.” While Aster does have trouble parsing tone and facial expressions and thinks and interprets her world extremely literally, she also has a rich and complex inner life and full, complicated relationships with the other people in her world. She’s a wonderfully written character that I think avoids stereotyping admirably (not that I’m in any position to have the final word on that).

There are other identities and diagnoses that are strongly implied but never stated. Theo the Surgeon, Aster’s love interest, appears to be transgender, though he doesn’t have that language to describe himself. Aster’s best friend and formerish lover Giselle seems to be suffering from severe PTSD and possibly some sort of dissociative disorder. Not overtly describing these characters’ identities in terms I’m familiar with had a powerful effect by putting the characters in front of the terminology.

Everyone in the lowdecks has suffered trauma that is both broadly communal and deeply personal, which Solomon handles brilliantly and sensitively. These characters aren’t slaves in the sense of American chattel slavery, but the brutality and the inescapability of the lowdeckers’ bondage feels terribly analogous. It’s occasionally very hard to read.

I loved the characters and the depth of the world, but I had a hard time finding my way through this book. I think that’s on me, not on Rivers Solomon. I spent the first 200 pages or so really scratching my head trying to wrap my head around the Matilda. How many people are on the ship? How big is a deck? A wing? How big is the ship in, like, square miles? I think that if I’d read more worldship-style sci-fi, I would have had the foundation in place to hit the ground running. The Stars Are Legion is the only worldship book I’ve read, and that at least is very clear early on that the “ships” are spherical and planet-sized.

Overall, I’m glad I read An Unkindness of Ghosts. It’s thoughtful and complicated, and I haven’t read anything else quite like it. Even if I’m not quite up to speed on some of the sci-fi conventions I suspect were in play, the fantastic cast of characters was more than enough to make it worth the read.

2 thoughts on “RHC 2019: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

  1. Since “Dune” is practically the only science fiction I’ve read, and that was thirty plus years ago, maybe I should give this a shot. Did you feel that maybe Solomon tackled too many issues?

    1. No, I really don’t, but my klutzy summary makes it sound like she did. I thought she was able to write intersectional identities quite a bit better than I was able to describe them. I’ll bring you The Three-Body Problem this weekend if you want to try it (this one was a library book or I’d loan it to you)!

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