An Unkindness of Ghosts
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
The title might suggest horror, and horrific events do occur, but this is science fiction. Rivers Solomon's debut novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts, transposes the antebellum South onto a generational starship. It is not clear in the text whether we should consider this an alternate universe story, one in which segregation and slavery still existed into a future time when the Earth is dying and colony ships are sent out to preserve humanity. Maybe those conditions were reinstated some time in our own future. It is possible the society on the ship changed after a disaster struck some 250 years prior to the main action. I don't think it matters. Considering our history, and today's political trends and racial strife, either scenario is believable.
The majority of the book is written in third-person, although there are three short sections in first-person, each from the perspective of a different character. Oddly enough, not the main character, Aster, whom we meet on the first page. She is a twenty-five year old black woman, knowledgeable in the art of botany and herbal medicine, but also more traditional medical techniques, which she is learning as an assistant to the ship's Surgeon General, Theo Smith. We learn he is the son of a former Sovereign, the ship's political head of state, who was forced to resign for the scandal of fathering a child by a black woman. I don't think either Theo or Aster know his mother was her Aunt (Aint) Melusine, although he does remember her as his childhood nanny. Both Theo and Melusine get their short viewpoint chapters, and so does Aster's close friend Giselle.
The lower decks house the workers, with the Field Decks of farms, ranches, and orchards, above them. The Mid-Decks are for commercial enterprises, banks and shops, clothing and machine manufacture, restaurants and entertainment venues. Lower deck residents only go there as servants. The upper decks house the rich, the powerful, the political elite. The ship is powered by a fusion reactor known as Baby Sun, and a series of rotating decks simulate night and day for the Field Decks. Aster's mother, Lune, had worked as an engineer on the reactor. Everyone believes she committed suicide shortly after Aster's birth, and all that she left behind were journals, charts, and graphs. As intelligent as Aster is, it is the less bright Giselle who deduces the journals are written in code, and it is Giselle who discovers a long abandoned part of the ship, the flight control deck and shuttle bay. Unlike in several other generation ship stories I've read, everyone still realizes they are on a ship, although not all still believe they will reach their intended destination. Aster and Giselle piece together information that leads them to believe the accident that prompted their current predicament was caused by collision with an asteroid field. The flight deck had been partitioned off, and it's possible no one alive still remembered that. But Lune had figured it out, or so Aster comes to believe, and she is determined to continue the work her mother started, and if possible to launch a shuttle if they determine a suitable planet is within its range.
I was confused by some of the character motivations, particularly that of the new Sovereign, Lieutenant (his given name, not a title). He is Theo's uncle, who despises his effeminate nephew, but I suppose he has to tolerate him for his medical expertise. Perhaps he knows of the familial relationship of Theo and Aster, as well as their current friendship, but instead of revealing that knowledge he uses it as leverage to torture them both, Theo psychologically, Aster physically and psychologically. It also doesn't seem logical that Aster could move about the ship the way she does after Lieutenant cracks down and recruits more guards. You would think she would have been targeted and confined to the lower decks. I haven't decided if the book should have been shorter or longer. If shorter, there could have been the basic setup of the situation and characters, the striation of society, building up the tension but cutting it off at a certain point to set up a sequel book, which could have given more background information. Or it could have been a longer stand-alone, giving us all the background information on how the society had developed, whether it was that way from the start, or if the accident changed things. Did the predominate religion exist before the ship, or did it evolve out of various other faiths over time? There were numerous anti-climaxes, including the discovery of the control room less than halfway through, then they don't visit it or mention it for several chapters. Several interludes are of stories Melusine had told them as children, Giselle's remembrances of her and Aster play-acting as bickering husband and wife. Right now, I'm thinking a longer book would be my preference, unless a sequel concentrated on those left on the ship instead of following Aster's struggles on the planet, although my reasoning for that would involve a spoiler.
I cannot fault the racially divisive story line. Unfortunately, I know slavery is still a fact of life in certain countries around the world, and could very easily happen again in America, given a certain set of circumstances. Actually, it's already here if you consider the mass incarceration and forced labor in the private prison industry. The pre-Civil War is a period of our history that should never be forgotten, but hopefully never to be repeated, on Earth or in space. All in all, an impressive debut in spite of a few minor faults, and I look forward to more stories from Solomon.
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