Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts is yet another great example of the kind of book I would have missed had I not started reading more speculative fiction and diversifying the voices in my library. That would have been a pity, because this complex, powerful novel may very well end up at the top of my 2019 favorites list.
After Earth suffered an unnamed cataclysm 300 years ago, the remnants of humanity were crowded onto the spaceship Matilda and launched toward some long-forgotten destination. Humanity being what it is, the ship ends up segregated by race and privilege, with white people in power on the top levels using religion to justify the segregation and poor treatment of black people on the lower levels, people who are resilient and determined to make the best of a bad situation, developing their own technologies and creating their own comforts, even as they face daily threats of violence, sexual assault, and death.
Aster is a physician, botanist, biochemist, and all kinds of other things. She’s something of an ogre to other people, including her own, but she’s also the special assistant to the Surgeon General, illegitimate half-black son of a former leader of the ship and believed to represent the divine. This association gives Aster greater freedom than most to move around the ship and study books from the archive, though she’s still subject to the cruel whims of the ship’s Guard. When she learns the current Sovereign is ill and that the Surgeon’s uncle, a power-hungry zealot known as Lieutenant, is set to inherit the throne, she knows she’s in grave danger whether she acts against Lieutenant or not. Not one to sit back and accept her fate, Aster soon realizes she must choose her actions carefully, because if she slips up, she’ll put everyone she knows at risk.
From almost the beginning, I was reminded of both Octavia Butler’s speculative novel Kindred and Joon Bong-Ho’s film Snowpiercer. Like Kindred, this is a fresh take on the social, economic, and legal structures of the American South, both before and after the Civil War. Aster is like Dana in that she’s smart and strong and independent but also vulnerable and unsure whether she can escape her fate. The similarities with Snowpiercer are also quite striking: the remnants of humanity are travelling endlessly with no apparent destination, crowded onto a vessel that must be somehow self-sustaining, the people segregated and dominated by a brutal and sadistic ruling class. While Kindred looks at the present and the past, the other two works look to a future where the worst mistakes of the past are repeated all-too easily. Far from being derivative, Solomon’s work adds even more depth by expanding on those themes to include fundamental issues of gender and sexuality.
The characters seemed strange at first, but Solomon follows through with them and provides context for why they speak and act as they do, so that even the most irrational actions are believable because they are consistent with the characters who perform them. The world-building of Matilda is creative and vivid, and I loved Solomon’s parallels between Matilda and the United States, past and present, especially in how the ruling class uses religion to create divisions and maintain power. This book is fantastical and dark and brutal yet also incredibly humane with an unexpectedly moving but entirely earned ending. Rivers Solomon has written a novel that represents the best of what literature can do: teach us about the past, caution us about the future, and illuminate the present.