Book Review

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

a bleak future that looks a lot like the bleak past

cw: references to extreme racism as depicted in the text

This was great, if imperfect; exciting, if a little confusing; hopeful, if a little bit bleak…

An Unkindness of Ghosts is set in a far future on a lifeboat-ark-colonising type spaceship that has been chugging away from an ecologically devastated Earth for a few hundred years. The ship is self-sustaining: it grows food, recycles waste and auto-pilots around asteroids and other space debris, so the humans on the ship don’t really need to worry about the practical organisation of their potentially endless journey into the stars. So, instead of worrying about life and death and sustainability – or even the ship’s destination – those in charge instead choose to focus on something far more insidious: creating and maintaining a race-segregated society where everyone who isn’t white is a constantly monitored and controlled slave who is perennially at risk of corporal punishment, sexual violence and – when an even more extreme faction takes control towards the middle of the novel – arbitrary public execution.

The central character is Aster, a lower decker (the higher the deck, the paler and more powerful the person), a healer and the assistant/friend/more skilled companion to Theo, the ship’s Surgeon General, a fancy boy (high deck) former child medical prodigy who’s the bastard son of a former ship captain and a lower deck woman Aster is also friends with. Aster is investigating the coded notebooks her long disappeared-presumed-dead mother left her, trying to figure out the scientific secrets the notebooks hold…

As well as all the violence and cruelty, Solomon’s Matilda (that’s the name of the spaceship) is also a place of surprises – decks that have been sealed for generations that even those in power no longer know about; directional shifts made by computers that no one is observing; many secret relationships between people, the higher decks so committed to racism that they don’t see the basic humanity of many of their shipmates and thus don’t realise that the person they’re abusing is their bastard child, is the friend of the Surgeon General, is, well, is a person.

Solomon’s depiction of this is relentless, and rightfully so – this extreme form of social segregation, of abuse and physical control was a historical truth that literally happened and continued for literal centuries less than two hundred literal years ago. Solomon captures the horror of this terrifying reality, and even though it’s happening in a spaceship moving at crazy speeds due to sci-fi technologies, there is never any misstep in terms of its depiction. The notion that humanity could return to this stark and deep racism is of course a bleak idea, but (unfortunately) the continued rise of fascism and fascists globally kinda (unfortunately) makes it clear that there are a lot of fucking scum on Earth who would love a return to extreme fucking racism. The best thing for these people probably is, yes, to launch them all into space. But not in a fucking spaceship, y’know y’know y’know…


Elsewhere, there’s interesting stuff about non-conformist genders and sexualities, discussions around the differences between structured education and autodidactic practice, but these elements don’t stick out in the text – it’s a neatly put together novel for the most part, and though there are a few elements that are distractingly reminiscent of the TV show The Expanse (which I’m watching between the weekly hits of Succession on treadmills atm), though the “hard sci-fi” moments don’t really gel or cohere to themselves, and though An Unkindness of Ghosts isn’t totally without its flaws, it is definitely not the shittest novel set in space that I’ve ever read and it does do a great job of evoking and depicting its deeply unpleasant, unequal and nasty society.

Definitely worth a go if it sounds like your thing!

Order direct from Akashic Books is 10 years old! Celebrate by sharing this post – or others – with friends (if you have any), family (if you have any), lovers (which I presume you have because this website isn’t for children), or by donating to the site via the below link so that I can maybe take a day off work some time and enjoy being alive for a few hours.

0 comments on “An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: