Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon (Akashic: New York 2017)

Reviewed by Tracy Vasquez

Rivers Solomon’s science-fiction novel An Unkindness of Ghosts is masked in a pain.  The point of writing on the pain of others is to expose the reader to a point of view; in this instance, Solomon writes from the perspective of Aster, who identifies as gender fluid. Aster is searching for a consistent path in the uncertainty of the cosmos.  “She craved clarity, transparency and answers.” (169)  She longs for answers from her mother, who died when she was a baby; yet, a mapping of sorts leads her on a path set by her mother.  Cutting out the contrivances, we see Aster through her history of loss and survival on the vessel Matilda.

As a first novel from Solomon, the book reads in a step by step milieu of a spaceship versed in nomenclature adrift in the cosmos—the tasks of duties for lowdecks that speak in dialects of long ago and are subordinated by the upperdecks.  The classification of life onboard the Matilda is based on race, and divided by levels of ability to insure the legacy of the sovereignty, order and power. The pain of others is represented in the content of the language, race and prejudice throughout the book .  The forced attempt at a drawl of words like meema made this reader keep wanting to say hee haw, yet this was how the book gave impressions of the familiar masked in pretense.  Solomon reveals her attempt at colloquial language by mimicking a Southern drawl.  The race/class system continues throughout the story line as Aster navigates the prejudices of the upperdecks, allowing us to see her in both her weakest and strongest efforts to find answers that will bring her closer to her mother.

Rivers Solomon writes within a history of authors speaking on gender identity and feminism.  Joanna Russ (1937-2011) was a science-fiction writer who took on gender identity during the 1970’s, a period of fear and shame for the LGBTQ community.  Just as Russ used science-fiction to approach feminism and identity, Solomon uses the genre to explore the pain of others within a fantastical world.   

The secondary characters and the antagonist crisscross Aster’s path, as she searches the vessel for her mother’s clues.  Aint /Ainy Melusine, Giselle, and Theo aid Aster, while Sovereign Lieutenant’s corporal punishment of Aster presents an overture on inflicting pain on others for simply being who they are.  Within this science-fiction/fantasy, the reader comes to rest with hope for change as Aster seeks a new planet; however, we are left at the end of the novel still adrift.       

The moments of uncertainty in the novel kept this reader turning the page in anticipation of what’s next.  Solomon’s exploration of pain was consistent with a history of stigma and othering. For readers who seek the adventures of science fiction, this novel’s diversity and uncertainty of cosmic travel will achieve the search.

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