An Unkindness of Ghosts
October 3, 2017
During a particularly tumultuous phase of my early undergraduate career, marred by angry confusion at the unfamiliar metamorphosis of my identities, I stumbled upon a class about slavery.
Of course, on my predominantly white, liberal-ass college campus, at the dawn of Obama’s second presidency, this class was not an outlier by any means. By the time I found it, I had spent two years stubbornly avoiding the accursed Africana trap I had imagined in my head. Why rehash an ancestral history that lived deep within my bones? Why suffer through another shameful lesson on black suffering in front of my peers? Why be reminded of a distant traumatizing past, when I was trying to steer myself into a brighter future? I was committed to a blank state of being, where merit and intelligence ruled over this country’s whole messy racial business. I was young, confused, and angry, remember? My delusions were my own.
But somehow, accidentally, I found myself in one of those dreaded Africana classes. It was called How to Lose Your Mother, taking its inspiration from a similarly named book by Saidiya Hartman. The clever name drew me in, but I was arrested by the intended lesson plan for the year.
This class was to deep dive into the effects of the transatlantic slave trade on the formation of diasporic black identity. It was supposed to shed light on ancestries long since destroyed under, and reformed in patchwork reimaginings despite, the violence of historical and modern modes of racism. Why? Simple, I should hope. Hartman’s book states that “to lose your mother is to suffer the loss of kin, to forget your past, and to inhabit the world as a stranger.” So, as my professor ambitiously hoped, this class was going to be one of the small ways its students could find their way home.
By the end of that first day, you could tell this class was going to be a beautiful and harrowing experience. It was also too much for me to bear at that point in my life. I fled from that classroom and never returned. Registered for another class that I swore would align better with my major. Never mentioned it or thought about it again – until now.
Nearly five years later, I find myself drawn in once more by an interesting title. It is An Unkindness of Ghosts, the debut novel by Rivers Solomon. And once again, I find myself arrested by a harrowing beauty.
I have mentioned this book briefly before, but I don’t mind describing it again. Its premise starts out familiar enough to even casual science fiction fans. A catastrophic event on Earth has forced the last of humanity to flee to the stars, searching for a mythical Promised Land that may not even exist. After three centuries of aimless drifting Aster Grey certainly doesn’t think so, but she has more pressing concerns on the HSS Matilda. Dark-skinned people such as herself occupy the slums of the ship’s lower decks, generations of families working as sharecroppers under the brutal regime of the Sovereignty. The seeds of civil unrest have lain dormant under this societal pressure, but increasing violence from the regime has provided new inspiration for these seeds to grow.
Aster engages in acts of rebellion in her own private ways, sneaking around the ship to educate herself in medicine, linguistics, and the art of interpersonal relationships. But the biggest mystery that plagues her life is her mother’s apparent suicide. Everything changes, however, when her mother’s journals reveal a potential link between herself, the Sovereignty’s leader, and secrets about the Matilda and its journey. With war erupting around her, Aster must retrace her mother’s life to discover the key to freedom and the safety of her people.
An Unkindness of Ghosts concerns itself with the reinstallation of slavery in the distant future. This premise has admittedly been done to death in science fiction, and this book would be horribly cliched if Solomon were a lesser author. Instead, the author tackles this premise with all the grace and richly crafted detail that comes from a deep understanding of, and compassion for, the psychological and social realities born from this peculiar institution.
It can first be seen in the thoughtful construction of society in the Matilda’s lower decks. The ship enforces its arbitrary socioeconomic division through an alphabetized living system where the beginning of the alphabet is the wealthiest and whitest, the end of the alphabet the poorest and the darkest. Despite those in power seeing the lower ranks as homogeneous, there is more nuance to the situation that is interesting to read about here. Centuries of clandestine intercommunity interactions have resulted in similar turns of phrase, though pronunciation and structure differ. Customs and folklore passed down from one mother and child on deck Q may seep upwards in some misshapen form to deck G, where more privileged skinfolk retain the lessons if not the words. And a universal belief in magic and the guidance of ancestral spirits color everyone’s perception of reality no matter their location, represented as Brother Bear, the Spider God, or even your long deceased mother whose presence is felt even by others.
This thoughtful portrayal of distinctly similar cultures is realistic to actual conditions under slavery, as kidnapped Africans from vastly different tribes blended their heritages to establish a new sense of solidarity. It also envelops me in a startling sense of cultural familiarity, since it encompasses the legacy of this intermingling in the current diaspora. I don’t know all the old folk stories, but I do know the Jamaican version of Anansi. I love oxtail and cornbread and fried plantains, even though I don’t understand the desire for bone marrow or lentils.
Other imaginative, familiar aspects of this book worth celebrating deal more explicitly with its main characters. Solomon’s exploration of neurodivergence, gender, and sexuality three centuries into the future is sophisticated and beautifully rendered. While general concepts of men and women exist on the Matilda, it is clear that distinctly heterosexual gender roles are a facet of oppression imposed by the privileged classes. Aster, her colleague the Surgeon, her friend Giselle, and the entirety of the lower decks allow themselves to exist in more malleable positions. Queer, nonbinary and neurodivergent peoples lead the plot, which elevates their autonomy as fantastic heroes of this story. In comparison to An Unkindness of Ghosts, it’s a crime that most science fiction literature is so bereft of more expansive imaginings of these identities.
But these positive instances of culture and identity all have a common theme that shadows even the most positive character interactions, and that is trauma. It is generational, feelings of fear, paranoia, and loss that can only be passed from one marginalized family member to the next as reliably as a gene. It is also personal, born from decades of physical, mental, and sexual abuse justified as a religious and racial right by ruthlessly cruel men. Violence happens on and off the page in this book, but Solomon strikes a rare and appreciated balance that showcases the true horror of this chattel-inspired life without the suffering being excessive.
More often than not readers see the emotional aftermath of this shared psychological lineage, expressions of posttraumatic healing and self-destruction just as nuanced as any other character trait. This dedicated focus on these characters’ personhood results in An Unkindness of Ghosts’ most heartbreaking scenes, but also some of its most affirming messages. Even in the face of these grand adversities, Solomon gives their characters a basic dignity in their experiences and a clear respect for their humanity. They suffer from severe tragedy, yes, but it is interlaced with genuine joy, love, and playfulness often ignored in more exploitative narratives.
Not only are these characters respected by the narrative, but they provide each other with the respect they are often denied as well. These marginalized people see one another for all that they are and reach across their own hurts to embrace and comfort. There’s one scene in particular between Aster and the Surgeon near the end, after several chapters of increased violence against Aster and her familial deck, that is so full of kindness and understanding that I ended up sobbing like a raw, ugly child. It certainly wasn’t the first or last time with this book, only the most memorable. These characters have all lost their mothers, some more literally than others, all in reference to their kin, their past histories, their true places in the world. And yet they find each other and rebuild, despite all that loss.
At this point in the review, I’m getting a little self-conscious about my endless praise, but I really can’t think of anything negative to say. I’m usually more of an advocate for science fiction that shows black people victoriously existing in a future of their own design, but Solomon offers a strong, realistic counterpoint to the more common idealistic narrative. I could almost lament the brief shifts from Aster’s narration to the Surgeon or Giselle, but the transitions are so smooth and the characters so well-developed that my only real complaint is that I wanted more. And begging for more writing is not much of a complaint, now, is it? Even the writing is too beautiful to really critique! Solomon is a master of economic but stunningly lush language, no word without purpose and its purpose well-received. Their explanation of complex scientific concepts and mechanics is also very admirable. They easily keep readers engaged, even with descriptions of the chemical components of Baby Suns, an array of difficult medical procedures, and the subtleties of expert botanical maintenance.
There’s nothing left for me to do, really, but sit and ruminate on the journey in which I have been so lucky to briefly participate. I suppose I could parallel Solomon’s writing to the works of Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler at their prime, as the literary world is wont to do. But in truth, they are a class all their own. Through this debut, Solomon proves themself a bold and unapologetic bringer of truth and knowledge, a forbearer of wondrous new possibilities in speculative black fiction. And in this innovative step forward, they force me as a black queer woman to confront the past.
I’ve long since gotten over the fears that come with realizing the magnitude of my blackness, my queerness, all the little multitudes of my identity. But this book feels like a long sought-after encouragement to accept these vast histories within myself because I am so lucky to have as much of them as I do now. It feels like the kind of encouragement I needed when I was younger, the kind that I’m certain others around me needed too, and the kind that will most certainly usher us all into a brighter future together.
An Unkindness of Ghosts is out today. If I need to say it plainly, I will do so now: buy this book. Let it fill you with its vengeful ghosts and hollowed out living humans. Let it hurt you and try to break you and then, when you are spent, let it lift you up and carry you forward. Let it guide you home.