Can a book be both science fiction and historical novel? Before I read An Unkindness of Ghosts, I would have thought it unlikely, but I have learned otherwise in this remarkable novel by Rivers Solomon. The colony ship Matilda is transporting humanity to its salvation among the stars. It has many decks–specialized not just in purpose but in privilege. The higher decks house the White ruling class in opulence and comfort. The middle decks are a sort of business class, guards, merchants, tradesmen, scientists and the like. Aster is from the lower decks where the Black passengers work as slaves, their lives ruled by the guards who routinely rape the women.
Yes, this is the antebellum South among the stars. As in the South, the power of the State blends with the power of Religion to justify privilege and repression. The State exercises rigid control over reproduction, deciding who is “fit to breed” and removing children from their mothers if they are light-skinned and able to pass. Different levels speak different languages and have different customs. Some levels use gendered pronouns while others do not.
Gender is an important element in the story. Aster, the magnificent heroine, is resistance made manifest in the body–resistance so adamant she had her breasts and uterus removed and smears a numbing salve in her vagina to discourage rape. She thinks she is hard, loveless and unloving, but is driven by love and compassion. She is also driven by curiosity to discover what led to her mother’s suicide when she was born. When the current sovereign dies, his death leads to discoveries that give her hope of real salvation–though the ascension of the murderous and violent Lieutenant to the role of Sovereign endangers them all.
An Unkindness of Ghosts is a magnificent science fiction unlike any other. Matilda, this colony ship, is an ingenious construction that transposes the past into the future, revealing far more about human nature and society than people will find comfortable. The characters are understood through their actions. Solomon trusts her readers to make inferences, to grasp the essentials with exposition and explanation. She shows instead of telling, forcing us to engage deeply, to sometimes go forward without necessarily understanding everything in the moment–just as Aster must. It takes courage to trust readers with uncertainty and the best writers have that courage.
I loved this book. If I didn’t have such a looming to-be-read pile, I would go back to the first page and read it again, knowing my experience reading it a second time would be even richer. It’s that kind of book, one that will bear rereading and reward it.
I received an e-galley of An Unkindness of Ghosts for review from the publisher through Edelweiss.