One of the reasons I love speculative fiction is that, at its best, it takes us to imaginary worlds to better reflect on our own, discussing relevant themes in a thought-provoking context. So when I first read the core concept of this novel – systemic racism and intersectional oppression on a generation spaceship – I was immediately intrigued. While self-induced hype comes with its own risks, after reading it I can say that An Unkindness Of Ghosts delivers everything it promises and then some; it is a powerful, haunting read, that shows the reader no mercy in conveying its message.
Title: An Unkindness Of Ghosts
Author: Rivers Solomon
Original Publisher: Akashic Books
Publication Date: 18 September 2017
Genre: Science Fiction – Dystopia
Standalone or Series: Standalone
Synopsis: On the generation ship Matilda, all passengers are organized in a rigidly stratified society, where those with dark skin are relegated to the lower decks, where they are forced to carry out the hard labour that allows the upper-deckers to live a life of leisure, and are tightly policed by vicious overseers that have little restraint in abusing of their power.
Aster, the main character, is a lower-deck healer; orphaned as an infant after her mother’s alledged suicide, ambiguously gendered, neurodivergent, she’s an outsider even among her peers. Thanks to her fortuitously gathered medical knowledge, however, she manages to earn some respect and to help those around her despite their dire circumstances. She finds an unlikely ally in Theo, the Surgeon General, the white-passing bastard son of the former Sovreign and of a lower-decker woman, raised among the upper class but struggling with his own role and identity.
When the cicumstances of the new Sovreign’s death show a surprising link with her mother’s fate, Aster is driven to investigate the deepest secrets of the Matilda, starting a chain of events that will sow the seeds of civil unrest.
Analysis: The novel is mostly written in third person limited, following Aster’s point of view, except for a few chapters that are in first person and from the perspective of other characters. The writing style varies to properly adjust to each point of view, effectively displaying how language changes across social groups. Since we see the world through the eyes of its inhabitants, we never get a full exposition on all its faciets, instead we only see what the character is aware of, and deems relevant to notice in each context.
While some information on the technical features of the ship is provided, the focus is definitely on its societal dynamics. As the writing follows the main character’s point of view from a very close distance, we get a very crude report of the abuses suffered by the lower classes; we get immersed in Aster’s meticulous thought process and vivid inner life and, in a stark contrast, we witness to the brutal objectification of her body, perceived as freakish, disposable, less than human. What’s perhaps even more unsettling than any graphic description is the normalization of violence, perceived as an inexcapable fixture of life and even banal in its atrocity.
The ship is a very clear allegory for historical slavery, as well as for any other instance of societal oppression; the very name “Matilda” is a reference to the schooner Clotilda, the last known U.S. slave ship to bring captives from Africa to the United States. Using a futuristic setting, as opposite to a historical one, however, provides the story with an additional layer of meaning. The civilization that inhabits the Matilda is, in fact, advanced and archaic at the same time; we see a humanity in dire straits, escaping a devastated Earth and surviving thanks to futuristic technology, but also relying on a hypocritical veneer of faith and on the most retrograde prejudices to shape its own society. While the novel doesn’t claim to be an accurate prediction of the future, it is indeed a reminder of how progress is neither a straight line nor a monolithe; of how the challanges we might face may stimulate resourcefulness, but may also be used to justify oppression and the loss of rights we all too easily take for granted.
While the worldbuilding is devastatingly bleak, the portrayal of individual characters is refreshingly human and nuanced; people are represented as diverse in their bodies, sexuality, physical and psychological conditions; while gender roles and expectations appear to be enforced by Matilda’s ruling class, individuals are often at odds with traditional boundaries. Such a portrayal of multifaceted diversity is skillfully handled and comes across as natural and spontaneous, never forced or overly didactic (it surely helps that the author faerself counts as #OwnVoice for many of these identities).
Conclusions & Recommendations: As I said, this book entirely lived up to my high expectations. If you appreciate smart, well-written, though-provoking science fiction, and are more interested in speculating on the future of humankind than on that of machines, you are likely to love it as well. It must be noted, however, that this is not a book for everyone, nor for every time of life; if you are sensitive to any of the many disturbing topics it addresses (see the Content Warning below), please proceed with caution. On a less dramatic note – if you’re looking for a hard sci-fi approach, you may find yourself disappointed because not all technical aspects are fully explained or even expected to be rigorous; it’s not necessarily a flaw since scientific accuracy is clearly beyond the scope of this novel, but it’s worth mentioning anyway since it might matter for your personal enjoyment.
Content Warning: Slavery – Rape – Child Abuse – Racism – Police Brutality – Homophobia – Torture – Suicide – Death of Child