An Unkindness of Ghosts

An Unkindness of Ghosts

Rivers Solomon
science fiction
nonbinary; trans; agender; asexual; just very queer
Goodreads link

An Unkindness of Ghosts is so astonishing that I’m not sure where to begin. Perhaps I’ll begin outside it, with trigger warnings. I appreciate trigger warnings, but one thing missing from them is a mention of how the triggers are utilized within a story. For example, there is a difference between warning: sexual violence used for titillation or warning: sexual violence used as plot device and warning: sexual violence and a full exploration of its subsequent trauma and consequences explored herein; enormous attention paid to its victims and the corrupt, hierarchical power structures that permit such violence to occur; systematic oppression examined and laid out in eloquent and lyrical prose. Warning: An Unkindness of Ghosts is heavy. But it uses its heaviness to heal.

So: Some calamity on Earth occurred and the survivors escaped on a massive ship where whole, unique societies exist on separate ship decks. 325 years later, the power structure that dominates is reminiscent of the antebellum South, and our main narrator, Aster, is an autistic prodigy born into the dark-skinned “lowdecker” slave class. She navigates her violent and limiting world with acuity and heart.

Aster is charming. I loved her. Her head is a great place to be. She’s smart and moral and unwavering, and, being neurologically atypical, she takes everything literally, which Solomon sometimes uses humorously and sometimes (often simultaneously) to lay out readers’ own thoughts in ways they themselves likely rarely articulate. Here are some of my favorite Aster bits:

“I don’t have a secret laboratory,” Aster lied.

Aster had been called worse: simple, dumb, defective, half-witted dog, get on all fours and spread. Not all there. But Aster was there. She felt herself existing.

“I like machines very much.”

[After her bunkmates make fun of her for what they think is her masturbating:] “If you’re trying to rile me, which I suspect that you are, you’ll have to do better than accusing me of something as banal as self-stimulation.”

“Nobody’s allowed to touch me. Nobody’s allowed to call me names. I’m alive,” she sobbed out. “I’m alive.”

Aster did not reward common decency with her affection.

The bolded bits are my emphasis. This book explores external vs. internal violence and the effects of societal oppression and invalidation. Characters often grapple with the sheer enormity of their existence, which no one else will acknowledge. I remember, as a kid, having male teachers tell me that women are useless creatures who can’t do math or understand economics, and I remember feeling such sheer rage. I wished I could take the fullness of my existence and reveal it to them. I am ashamed to tell my family I am bisexual because they have reduced all bisexuals to hypersexuals. We have to hold our enormities inside ourselves; our consciousnesses are our prisons and our liberation. It’s the kind of thing that needs to be explored in stories about systematic oppression, but, when the stories are written by Americans, too often aren’t. Americans are colonizers; Okinawans write a lot of contemporary literature about the feelings of internal violence (rage which you are not permitted to express), but Americans are largely holders of external violence (we occupy Okinawa).

Rivers Solomon explores internal vs. external violence extensively. And also, she is American; I don’t mean to suggest Americans don’t feel internal violence, because I think just about every woman in the world does, for example, but I will say I don’t think it’s often examined by contemporary white American writers.

This sounds wretchedly mean, but this book feels like many popular dystopias, like The Hunger Games, except written by someone much smarter. One of the things that always bothered me about The Hunger Games was how weak its climax was, and how unearned its victory. President Snow gets an arrow through his head, and somehow all of the structural inequalities in Katniss’s society disappear. In An Unkindness of Ghosts, the dictator is dying, but he’s about to be replaced with someone much worse. Here’s a glimpse into the kind of god-awful world Aster lives in:

“Seventy years [ago] … a scientist named Frederick Hauser proposed a solution to the problem of the Tarlands’ [dark-skinned people's] declining population.

It was wasteful, he declared, to recycle the Tarlanders’ defective bodies into [the ship] when the steady pulse of an electrical current could reanimate them as perfect, obedient workers. It didn’t matter that the genetic anomaly endemic to their people might lead to their extinction if their spiritless cadavers could hoe fields effectively. No productivity loss.”

In this world, which is like our world, there are no easy answers. It’s a hard society to stomach, and yet stomach it the characters must, because they were born into it. Through that hardness they continue to live the full spectrum of human experiences, which includes love, affection, romance, friendship. Bravery.

There is an astonishing moment when, like President Snow inviting Katniss into his office, the dictator of the ship speaks to Aster. He compares her and her race to vermin.

“More than anything, I pity you. We try to tame you, but there is no taming vermin. Tell me, how would you feel if a mouse joined you at the supper table without explanation, without apology? … Would you not chase it away and lay traps for it? Often, a mouse will lose a limb in a glue trap. And is it not for the best?”

Aster is angry, frightened, and aware that any efforts at rebellion will be futile. She says this as she leaves:

“There is a breed of mouse that existed [on Earth],” she said. “Spiny mouse. Acomys spinossissimus. They could regrow entire limbs after losing them. I read about them in the Archives.”

And she leaves.

This is the kind of rebellion I want to read about: the ones where well-shot arrows can’t save the world, but where the rebels win, or salvage some kind of victory, because they are smarter and better. In this scene Aster made me think of Ho Chi Minh; of Vietnam winning, after decades, against French colonization and American cruelty, dying and dying and dying but winning anyway. It’s rare that fiction can capture the true enormity of real life heroism. An Unkindness of Ghosts does it.

The frequent violence is never sentimentalized. I learned, as a kid, to write about violence the way J.K. Rowling does, because when I was a kid I mostly read Harry Potter. Rowling focuses a lot on the sheer agonizing pain of her characters, on Harry’s scar piercing, on the effects of the Cruciatus Curse. River Solomons offers another way to express pain on the page: describe the violence exactly, clinically, and then end the chapter. The pain will leap into the reader’s own bones.

The writing is exquisite, scientific and poetic at once. Every main character, by the way, is queer; one is agender, one transgender, one asexual, etc. Many are neurologically atypical, perhaps autistic or schizophrenic. Their narrations are varied, tender, and layered, and I probably shouldn’t say things like this, but reading geniuses like Rivers Solomon makes me wonder why the rest of us even try.

I’ll leave you with a piece of wisdom from perhaps the most downtrodden character in the book, angry and unstable Giselle:

I’m not destroyed. It’s not possible to be destroyed.

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