Thursday, June 1, 2017
Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
When I read the blurb for this book, "a worthy successor to Octavia Butler" stuck out as quite a claim. I wondered if the book would reach the expectations set by that sentence and honestly felt like that sentence might be too much for any writer to live up to. After reading this book, I can say very confidently that the claim is true. Rivers Solomon is a fantastic writer whose prose an ideas have marks of influence from science fiction greats like Butler, but which also stand out beautifully on their own.
An Unkindness of Ghosts takes place on a large space vessel called The Matilda. The ship is basically a fascist hereditary dictatorship and theocracy. It is intensely stratified by race, class, gender, and other measures with the lower decks occupied by enslaved women and others and the upper decks occupied by the rich, predominantly white, privileged classes. Each deck has it's own culture, accents, and sometimes languages. Enforcement of these divisions is often defended as the will of God as the ship careens at near light-speed towards a promised land that has been promised now for centuries. The story is told mostly through a third person narrative centering Aster and her experiences, but also has a brilliant touch of interspersed first-person journal-like entries from other characters in the story. This allows the reader to see the story from multiple perspectives, adding to its richness. The story is part dystopian/apocalyptic science fiction, part afrofuturism, part mystery, a little bit coming of age, and a dash of romantic and platonic love.
Solomon did her research regarding the medical and scientific aspects of relativity, medicine, psychology, and other tools used to propel the story forward. A story like this could have easily become boringly structured around blatant hierarchy, or a cheesy space saga, but it does not. The story is rich with believable and interesting characters, honest understanding of the daily affects of and reactions to complex trauma, nuanced expressions of hierarchical interactions and identities- including when oppressed groups can be pinned against one another, and captures what it truly feels like to be powerless and powerful at the same time.
Topics tackled in the book include slavery and indentured servitude, Mammy archetypes, gender nonconformity, female masculinity, male femininity, androgyny, intersexuality, queerness, consent, racism, fascism, sexual abuse, suicide, authoritarianism, and many others. The presence of all of these themes makes the story complex and more believable rather than bogging it down. In my opinion, this story shows the reality of places like the United States- and some other areas of the "West"- through the use of science fiction and allegory. This is my favorite kind of scifi when done well as I believe it can change the world. Rivers Solomon does it amazingly well.
I hope that this book takes off and is seen for just how great a feat it is. I would be completely interested in a series that continues or expands upon the story told in this novel as well as completely new stories from this author. I look forward to seeing much more from Rivers Solomon in the future.