In their debut novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts, Rivers Solomon tackles the classic sci-fi theme of the generation ship. Though, as often in a debut novel, there are some awkward aspects, it is also a powerful story that includes voices that aren’t heard enough in sci-fi.
Aster lives on Matilda, a ship that has been roaming the stars for centuries, searching for a habitable planet. As a Black woman, she’s constrained by the hierarchical and racial order–confined to the lower decks where she and her friends are at the mercy of the guards’ brutality. However, she educated herself and is now assistant to the Surgeon General. While trying to understand her mother’s death, she slowly discovers the secrets of Matilda‘s voyage.
The first very striking aspect of An Unkindness of Ghosts is the variety of marginalized characters, often relegated to the background of sci-fi but who are here main, front and center. Aster displays many attitudes of someone who is on the autistic spectrum, though the word is never used; she’s also a queer person. Her friend Giselle suffers from PTSD and has mental health issues; the Surgeon is a mixed race character, also queer; finally, most of the lower decks characters are persons of color.
An Unkindness of Ghosts is the novel every queer geek of color (and ally) has been waiting for.
The race issues are also prominent–Matilda‘s society is very much a racist one. The high deckers are white and treat the low deckers with contempt and fear, brutalizing them while they live in opulence.
Solomon often adopts a very belligerent tone about those issues, and they convey with force and clarity the unfairness and utter awfulness of the treatment reserved for marginalized persons, only thinly revealing that Matilda is a metaphor for slavery and an oppressive racist and gender normative society.
The writing is often beautiful, and it conveys not only the pain and anger of the characters but also their complexity. It reaches some remarkable heights at many moments in the story and the ending is quite strikingly told.
Sadly, like in any debut, there are some aspects which can feel a bit awkward. The internal cohesiveness would have benefitted from closely following the various threats put in place, and the pace can be a bit awry at times. It sometimes felt as if Solomon had so many things to convey – and they had – that they didn’t always manage to reach for an effective storyline.
Nonetheless, I will keenly follow what Rivers Solomon writes next because I’m quite eager to see their writing develop and to know where they will go from here. I think this is a novel and a writer that should be supported and that should be known because their story and their voice is important and must be heard.
Rivers Solomon, An Unkindness of Ghosts, Akashic Books, 2017.
Disclaimer: a free review copy was received in exchange for an honest review on Amazon but with no obligation attached to review it on Black Girl Nerds. Thanks to Akashic Books for kindly providing me an ARC of it.
C. has been reading science-fiction and fantasy for about 30 years and tries to have a life in between books, though it’s often less interesting than fictional worlds. You can find more science-fiction and fantasy books reviews by C. on http://www.themiddleshelf.org or on Twitter: @themiddleshelf1