Neurodiversity in Space: Rivers Solomon – An Unkindness of Ghosts

This book was one of my five star predictions for the year and I’m glad to say, it was everything I had hoped and then some. As I loved Rivers Solomon’s novella The Deep, I wasn’t really worried that I might not like this book. But I didn’t just like this book, I loved it with the strength of a baby sun and I totally want to read everything else Solomon writes.

by Rivers Solomon

Published: Akashic Books, 2017
eBook: 340 pages
Audiobook: 11 hours 55 minutes
My rating: 9/10

Opening line: Aster removed two scalpels from her med-kit to soak in a solution of disinfectant.

Odd-mannered, obsessive, withdrawn, Aster has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She’s used to the names; she only wishes there was more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, as they accuse, she’d be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remained of her world, save for stories told around the cookfire.
Aster lives in the low-deck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, the Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster, who they consider to be less than human.
When the autopsy of Matilda‘s sovereign reveals a surprising link between his death and her mother’s suicide some quarter-century before, Aster retraces her mother’s footsteps. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer and sowing the seeds of civil war, Aster learns there may be a way off the ship if she’s willing to fight for it.

This will be a difficult review to write, so let me say the most important thing first: I adored this book, from the very first page to the very last. It exceeded my (pretty high) expectations and strengthened my resolve to follow Rivers Solomon’s career closely. In this novel, they do so many different things, give us so many layers of story and character and world building that I don’t even know where to start gushing.

The most logical thing is to start with Aster, our protagonist, who has lived on the generation ship Matilda all her life. She was born in the lower decks, which are populated mostly by People of Color who are basically slaves in space. They have overseers, they get up very early to work in the fields, they have little to no rights, and the rich people from the upper decks look down on them as if they weren’t even human. But if you’re expecting a narrative that dwells mostly on the horrible social structure of Matilda you’re only partly right.
Aster is a helper/mentee to the ship’s surgeon, Theo, a former child prodigy who is considered only a step away from godhood. Aster is training to become a doctor of her own and the book even starts with her performing an amputation. But that’s not all Aster is or does. Although it is never mentioned explicitly, we learn throughout the story that she is neurodiverse, sometimes having difficulty distinguishing whether people mean what they say literally or figuratively. She makes a great effort to learn new words, to listen how people use them, to learn how to behave.
I guess Aster won’t be for everyone. Her curt and direct manner don’t exactly make her a Mary Sue, but I absolutely loved her.

But this book also isn’t only about Aster becoming a doctor. Twenty-five years ago, Aster’s mother Lune died, leaving her nothing but a journal that contains records of Lune’s everyday life. When one day, Aster’s best friend and sort of kind of lover says that the journal is obviously written in code, Aster begins searching for the truth her mother has been hiding and which may even have led to her death. Add to that the fact that Matilda‘s Sovereign Nicolaeus is very ill, the lower decks don’t get any proper heat, and conditions on the ship are getting worse and worse, and you’ve got all the ingredients for an exciting novel.

The reason I loved this book so very much is the characters. Because Aster isn’t the only complicated, interesting, realistic person on the ship. I quickly developed a soft spot for Theo, whose past we learn about through flashbacks and memories. The circumstances of his birth give him more privilege than Aster but that doesn’t mean he has had it easy. Frequently being called effeminate for choosing not to wear a beard or for not behaving “manly” enough, he has his own burdens to bear. Aster and Theo both don’t identify with the binary genders that were assigned to them and while they may not know what to call it, they know what feels right to them.  I found this to be another highly interesting aspect of their characters, also considering that they don’t have a lot of romantic feelings towards anyone. But they do care for each other.
Giselle, that impusive, complicated, wonderful human being, equally impressed me. The way she deals with the horrors she is confronted with came as a surprise. This book comes with trigger warnings for physical violence, assault, and rape. I wasn’t surprised that the overseers pick out girls from the lower decks when they feel like it – sadly, it’s that kind of a society – but I did have certain expectations on how the lower deck people would deal with this. Aster has her own way of making sure she survives which fit her practical personality (but make it all the more clear how terrible it is to live on the Matilda as a Black person), but Giselle is very different. That’s all I can say without spoilers. Giselle wasn’t exactly likable either and does some seriously shitty things, but I appreciated her all the more because it made her feel so real!

My second favorite part was the world building. It is done effortlessly through storytelling, without info dumps or lenghty exposition. We simply follow Aster throughout the day and, thorugh the things she sees and experiences, we learn about how Matilda works. There are a handful of chapters from different points of view – one for Theo, one for Giselle, one for Aster’s surrogate mother – but the bulk of the novel is seen through Aster’s eyes. Her astute observations and analytical mind aren’t exactly the right vessel for flowery descriptions or romantic metaphors, but I thought the practical, almost cold, way in which she views things created a great atmosphere and showed life on the generation ship for what it was.

Aaaand just in case you’re worried there isn’t any plot, let me reassure you. The red thread is Aster’s research into her mother’s past, trying to decipher her journal and find out what her mother knew. Interwoven and connected to that plot thread is the way Matilda operates as a whole. The ship has been going through space for nearly 300 years, traveling to an unknown destination, a promised land for the colonizers. If I say any more, I’ll get into spoiler territory, but you can probably guess that something isn’t quite right and that Lune figured certain things out that may or may not have led to her death. I would have loved this book even if there wasn’t much of a plot, but for those of you who are more plot-focused readers, I think this mystery and its ultimate resolution will be enough to keep you interested.

An Unkindness of Ghosts has so many more things to offer and I’m sure I’ve missed some of them, which is why I plan to re-read it some day. As my five star predictions go, this was a total hit. A deeply unsettling look at humanity through the eyes of a diverse character, this is a book I’ll remember for a long time. And it’s the book that makes me officially call myself a Rivers Solomon fan.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!


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