To say that Rivers Solomon’s debut novel An Unkindness of Ghosts is a love story would be too simplistic. And yet — it would also touch upon an inherent truth in the novel. The book is a classic science fiction multi-generational ship story. Instead of focusing on whether such a life is viable on a ship (as debated in Aurora), Solomon focuses a lot of more on what kind of a society would survive in the bowels of this ship. The image she paints is not a positive one; the economic system aboard the HSS Matilda looks a lot like slavery. The lower decks are filled with dark skinned people, refereed to as “Tarheads” early on in the novel, who work on rotating plantation fields under the ships nuclear engineered sun, Baby. The middle decks have some brown people, but mostly white people down on their luck, and their upper decks are filled with white people. Their regent is called the Sovereign, and he rules with that classic Divine Right of Kinds, and the guards and upper deckers happily use brutality and violence on the lower deckers to keep them in line. While in the lower decks, there is not enough heat so that kids lose their limbs to frostbite, in the upper deck, there is an ice rink.
The story of the book is simple. Aster, a young queer black woman from the lower decks, is the assistant to Theo, the Surgeon General of the ship. Theo is a black person who passes, so he lives on the upper deck. His father used to be the Sovreign, and at the beginning of the novel, his uncle is setting himself up to be the next . The book starts with the current Sovereign, Nicolas, getting deathly ill. As Theo tries to figure out how to save him, Aster learns that the illness that plagues him is eerily similar to the illness her mother had, 25 years ago. Aster tries to make sense of the past, find her mother, and continue to survive on a ship that seems to teetering on the brink of something.
Not really the setting for a love story, right?
But that’s the thing. Somehow, Solomon can take a violent and destitute situation, and make it something more. During no part of their book do their posit that “really, rascism is okay!” — actually the opposite is true — throughout the novel, Aster constantly reminds the reader and her audience that she can and would happily kill all the Upper Deckers on the ship. Her comfort and knowledge about violence is honest in such a refreshing way. Aster has not been brainwashed, and she is happy to fight against the regime in all her small ways. And yet, Solomon laces this violent and traumatic landscapes with so many amazing moments of humane love, potential and kindness that I was genuinely moved to tears in several sections.
The book opens on a scene in which Aster has to amputate the foot of a child because of the cold. As she is preparing for the surgery, she and Flick, the child, discuss their families. Flick has not only his mother with him — but also his grandmother and great-grandmother, and he proudly assigns himself into their care. As Flick names their parental figures Aster is jealous; she is an orphan who never had that lineage. As Aster walks away from that interaction, wearing a new warm coat, she comforts herself that she does have her mother’s old notebooks. The love between generations is an on-going theme though, and Aster and her relationship with her dead mother, as parsed through decoded notebooks, isn’t the only example of it. Aint Melusine and her love for both Theo and Aster, each in their own way, is an important element of the story.
The second type of love that this book explores is the love of sisters. Aster and a her bunk mate, another motherless woman that a caretaker type woman adopted, Giselle, are very much cast in a sibling relationship. Together Aster and Giselle are a fierce duo. They both struggle, and the book doesn’t hide that fact that Giselle is both traumatized and mentally ill, and as a result she can be cruel and fickle. Aster takes it, and sometimes returns it in kind, and sometimes acknowledges that the pain comes from a place of hurt, and lets it go. Aster even sometimes makes sure to call Giselle her sister, and to bind her to herself in that unbreakable way, partially because, she explains, sisters can never stop being sisters. The nuances of Giselle and Aster’s friendship, or sistership, are fascinating, partially because Solomon doesn’t shy away from the real material pain people can cause each other. The two of them have been beaten and scared and hurt in so many way that sometimes they can’t help it, and hurt each other, only for them to both realize, and apologize.
The third love is the romantic love between two broken people. This element of the story especially spoke to me; I felt like by allowing both Aster and Theo to be traumatized and scarred by their own queerness, but not broken by it, Solomon perfectly toed the line of queer suffering. Theo described himself as “not a man,” and had other small narrative indicators that he might actually be trans, and I thought that that was a fascinating way to handle unnamed queerness. While in the novel he took male pronouns, and never asked for any others, there was a strong current of his own unhappiness in his body, and while Aster mirrored and understood this, they could love each other. Their romance also neither over-sexualize them, nor did it present them as sex-less, two things I was initially a little bit worried about. Instead, their romance was skillfully handled in a brash and revolutionary way. and I reveled in it.
Lastly, there is the love story of author and story. As I listened to this book, the only thought I kept on coming back to was that Rivers Solomon was the only person who could tell this story. And I say that with complete honesty: they may be a debut author, but the skill and precision with which they handled complex scenes and difficult issues just floored me. And I think because Solomon chose to tell a story through the lens of a queer intersex disabled and (possibly?) autistic young black woman, the story worked. Amar El-Mohtar, who reviewed this book for NPR, said it so well:
To name a thing Solomon does in this book is to praise it. I loved the way each deck had its own dialect, how lowdeckers explored those differences with each other and learned each other’s languages. I loved the attention to gender variance, to queerness, and the rooting of rigidity around gender in the ruling class’ obsession with policing black bodies. I loved the exploration, in several heartbreaking scenes, of how enslavement breeds cruelty along an intersecting circuitry of lines among lowdeckers, as everyone tries their best to survive. I loved the clarity and precision of the prose, which felt like drinking cool water on an empty stomach, like being limned in light on the inside. Most of all, though, I loved Aster’s voice, Aster’s perspective on the world, Aster’s anger and her fierce, unrelenting kindness to those she loves, no matter how they hurt her.
I just want to take every person by the hand, gently sit them down, and have them read this book. It’s amazing, nuanced, fascinating, wonderful, and a perfect example of what amazing stories can be told when we allow diverse writing to exist in the science fiction community.
[Quick shout out to Solomon’s patreon down here — I support them, and so should you, because we all want them to have the brain space to write more amazing fiction]