An Unkindness of Ghosts, Rivers Solomon (Akashic Books 978-1-61775-588-0, $15.95, 350pp, tp) October 2017.
Whether or not you believe generation starships will ever be a viable concept (an argument most recently engaged by Kim Stanley Robinson in Aurora), the stories are never going to go away: the notion is just too useful in too many ways. The idea of putting a large number of people in a confined vessel and then using it as an allegory or mirror of society is at least as old as the medieval tradition of the ship of fools and as clichéd as movies like Titanic, and at times writers have even transferred the idea to trains, as in China Miéville’s Railsea or the film Snowpiercer. But we’re never going to see a whole tradition of generation Amtrak novels (endless as some of those journeys may seem), and boats are old hat, so the generation ship remains the vehicle of choice for societal microcosms. It’s one of those SF concepts, like time travel or clones, that seems just as useful for mainstream writers, many of whom, as we’ve noted before, are coming to treat SF traditions as a kind of app store.
On the basis of their first novel, I wouldn’t exactly call Rivers Solomon a mainstream writer, since they know the tradition they’re following in An Unkindness of Ghosts, and work out a good deal more science than is entirely necessary for the allegorical aspects of the story. Most of that science involves botany and medicine (the astronomy gets a bit hand-wavy at the end), since the central character, Aster Grey, is a self-taught botanist and physician’s assistant, but one who actually knows enough medicine to practice on her own. Born into a brutally repressive and segregated society aboard the generation ship Matilda, Aster is both brilliant and neuroatypical; she makes lists of what she needs to do each day (including such things as “eat breakfast” and “clean body”) and she is “always memorizing new ways of being with people.”
None of this prevents her from being the main source of healthcare for the dark-skinned peoples who are consigned to the lower decks of the Matilda, while the white upper classes enjoy relative comfort under the guidance of a despotic Sovereign, who doesn’t really know any more about where they’re going than the lower-deck underclass. The Matilda has already been underway for some three centuries, even though no one has much confidence that it’s going to end up anywhere useful. As in many generation-ship tales, much of the technical maintenance has been reduced to ritual, and the society operates on an economy somewhere between medieval serfdom and outright slavery. While Solomon shows a more direct influence from Octavia Butler in the way their characters are drawn, some elements of her story hark all the way back to the modern granddaddy of such tales, Heinlein’s “Universe”. As in that story, Aster befriends a young renegade, Giselle, who knows secret passages around the ship and dramatically reveals to her the stars, as seen only from a forbidden upper deck. As in earlier tales, there are old documents that may reveal unsuspected or forgotten details about the journey; in Aster’s case, this takes the form of journals from her long-dead mother, whose apparently mundane diary might actually be a code for secrets about the ship, even how to escape it or change its course.
Aster also serves as the valued medical assistant to the Surgeon, one of the most revered figures on the ship, and this gives her access to explore the ship in a manner permitted to few of the lower-deck “Tarlanders,” as well as a limited degree of protection from the brutal overseers, who act pretty much like antebellum plantation goons and are about as well educated. But if she hopes to accomplish anything, she faces a kind of deadline: the fascist-like Sovereign is dying, and the next in line to succession – the Surgeon’s own uncle – is even harsher and more blatantly racist.
All this might make An Unkindness of Ghosts sound like a programmatic slavery allegory dressed in generation starship trappings, but Solomon’s evocation of this society is so sharply detailed and viscerally realized, the characters so closely observed, the individual scenes so tightly structured, that the novel achieves surprising power and occasional brilliance. The very opening scene, in which Aster has to amputate the foot of a little girl because of gangrene resulting from the inadequate heating of the lower decks of the starship, sets the rather grim tone. At once, we see her fury at the injustice, her awkwardness in social situations, and her classic, Heinleinesque competence. It’s enough to make Aster one of the more memorable characters in recent SF, and it’s enough, in the end, to make An Unkindness of Ghosts among the most provocative and fiercely passionate of recent generation starship tales, and Solomon among the most distinctive new voices to emerge this year.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
This review and more like it in the December 2017 issue of Locus.