A very strong debut providing a new, albeit disturbing, slant on the Generation Starship trope.

opening remarks

I’ve been tossing up what to read next.  I was thinking of dipping into some of the novellas that have been burning a hole in my e-reader but then one of my favourite critics, Abigail Nussbaum, recommended An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon and given it’s also sitting on my phone waiting to be read I thought yeah, why not… let’s give it a whirl.  It’s a debut novel to boot which makes it a little more exciting.

knee-jerk observations

An Unkindness of Ghosts is a Generation Starship novel.

While I can’t say I’m an expert in this particular sub-genre I do know that if I was ever given the opportunity to board one of these ships I’d rip up the boarding pass and hide in a cave, even if it was the only way to escape a doomed world.  This is because nothing ever goes right on the Generation ship.  Either the computer running the ship goes mad, or the crew – after hundreds of generations – de-evolve into barbarism or everything goes fine and dandy until they arrive at their destination and either the planet in question is inhospitable or it’s populated by sentient spiders or it’s been destroyed by a meteorite.  The point being that rather than be a pinnacle of human achievement the Generation Starship turns out to be a nightmare house of pain and misery.

I’d like to say that Rivers Solomon bucks this disastrous trend but that doesn’t seem to be the case based on the first 60 or so pages.  On Solomon’s Generation Starship, the sweetly named Matilda, it would appear that society – either by design or generations of decay and decline – has decided to adopt a policy of segregation and discrimination.  People of colour live in tough conditions on the lower decks while the privileged white population enjoy the space and false sunlight of the upper decks. 

In amongst this, we have Aster, a physician, who does what she can to tend to the health of those on the lower decks. Unfortunately, that often involves amputating limbs because of frostbite as those who rule have turned off the heat to the lower decks in an attempt to ration power.  What’s interesting about Aster is she appears to be on the spectrum.  She speaks in a deliberate manner, doesn’t always pick up on behavioural cues and is overly literal.  So while I might cock an eyebrow at another Generation Starship gone bad narrative, the way it’s gone bad and the struggles of our central character provides a point of difference that’s engaging.

Aster is an associate or acquaintance of the Surgeon.  To a degree, he protects her especially from the abusive ministrations of the Lieutenant.  He also comes to her because Aster is a dab hand at medicines and creams and has developed a potion that deals with the Surgeon’s debilitating pain.  I mention this because when a Guard comes blundering into her sleeping quarters, which she shares with other women, her association with the Surgeon gives her the confidence to take no shit from the intruding bastard:

Here we have described the life of a child on the lower decks which also involves picking crops in the field just like in the good old days of the antebellum South:

Unsurprisingly, this is also a prudish and religious society.  An earlier scene saw a girl beaten because she was sleeping with another girl.  Here the Surgeon reflects about his own sexuality:

Aster sees stars for the first time.  Because she’s not the melodramatic type the tone here is understated which makes it all the more beaustiful:

As the plot thickens, as the Lieutenant begins to take a stranglehold on power, the relationship between Theo and Aster grows stronger, becomes more intimate.  Later in the novel, and with the assistance of Theo, Aster dresses as a man to infiltrate the coronation of the new Sovereign.  This one paragraph, though, perfectly sums up how those in power view their crew-members on the lower decks:

Because this book takes place on a Generation Starship the reader might be led into thinking that the racial division on the ship is just an entrenched part of life, that it’s always been this way, that no-one, not even those who whip their slaves or sharecroppers, truly understand why they’re doing it.  And then we get a scene like this – between Aster and the new Sovereign – and we understand that this racial attitude, the cruelty, is not just baked into the society, it’s part of an active, living, horrible ideology.

While I’m more than happy with the beginning of this novel – the way it’s structured, the way it flows – the beginning of chapter 23 would have made one helluva of an introduction to the Matilda and Aster.

As much as I love Aster, a part of me wishes the novel was narrated by Giselle.  Her voice leaps from the page compared to Aster’s more muted tone:

The Gist Of It

That’s one powerful piece of writing, an unflinching look at slavery, racism and gender set on a Generation Starship.  Rivers Solomon has taken a tired old trope, one that Kim Stanley Robinson essentially dismissed in his novel Aurora, and has used it to articulate what it means for a person of colour to be treated like an animal, to be beaten and raped, to never be free.  Where in the American South there was the small possibility of escaping to the North, there’s no escape on this ship for Aster and Giselle and Aint Melusine.  The Generation Starship, by the nature of the sub-genre, adds another layer of entrapment.

It’s easy though for an author to create drama from misery and pain.  But what’s wonderful about An Unkindness of Ghosts is that it’s also about science and discovery.  Aster’s journey to piece together her mother’s secret through her journals, a secret that could free those below decks doesn’t mitigate the sheer horror of being a salve, but rather it adds texture to a narrative that could have been one-note.  Solomon never undercuts the reality she has created, one of the strengths of the novel is that Aster rarely visits the upper decks, this is a story that’s firmly set in the impoverished conditions experienced by the slave-class.  And while Aster does attract the attention of the Surgeon and enjoys marginally more freedom than those around her, she uses it to develop her own skills as a physician so she can care for her people.  In other words this is not a novel where one exceptional member of the downtrodden is elevated to live with the high and mighty. This is a book where a young woman uses her limited resources to make life marginally better for those around her.

There’s so much else that’s fantastic about An Unkindness of Ghosts.  The fact that Aster is neuroatypical, which provides her with a unique insight but also adds an additional level of difficulty to what’s already a challenging life.  And there’s the strong gender thread that weaves its way through the narrative, especially expressed in Aster and Theo’s relationship.  There will be those who may question the science – although from my uneducated point of view it seemed solid – or may question how the society on this ship became this way or wonder where the other marginal groups are… is there another Matilda floating around where Asians are subjugated?  But these questions would completely miss the point of this compelling wonderfully written debut novel.