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An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon4.5 stars
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Generation ship stories have always been “microcosm of society” stories, but the best ones have the ability to rise above being simple allegories in the same way any work of science fiction becomes great. They immerse us in a living, breathing world with people who have real conflicts and goals. And the greatest goal is in finding ways to survive and overcome and hang onto yourself in the face of the worst possible adversity.

On this score, An Unkindness of Ghosts — the debut of Rivers Solomon, an American writer currently living in Cambridge — succeeds beyond its wildest dreams, infusing generation ship tropes with complex and layered character development and a brutal, unflinching plot driven by the sheer kinetic force of a primal scream. In a single novel, Solomon has proven themself a worthy successor to Octavia Butler. If you’d told me that not only the best SF debut but one of the best SF novels period of 2017 would have come from a small press committed to playing by its own rules, I might have initially been skeptical. But the fact just proves the point of the book. Underdogs can win just by refusing to be anyone other than who they are.

Aster Grey lives aboard the Matilda, a vessel over 300 years into its journey to some unspecified world, a “promised land” few on board really believe in any more. One of Solomon’s world building gifts is that they allow us, right from the start, to piece together some of the ship’s history just from the information we’re given about the present. Some kind of cataclysm on Earth forced the Matilda into its voyage, and its passengers may be humanity’s last remnants. But whatever degree science and reason might have contributed to the original voyage, the society on board has since reverted to a kind of heredity autocracy rooted in age-old religious fundamentalism and white supremacy. As expected, the white and privileged inhabit the upper decks while the poorer and darker live down below, in freezing and filthy conditions, where they’re forced into what is essentially chattel slavery working the onboard agricultural decks.

We’ve seen this general premise before. But we haven’t seen it done in a way that allows the society in the story to feel this visceral, with such keen observations as to culture and people, and without the primary storytelling agenda of pushing lessons on us. Solomon assumes we’re adult enough not to need lessons, and to understand the endless loop of human history that made these power dynamics inevitable. For as long as people have been around, history has been a narrative of oppressors and the oppressed. And Solomon makes it clear that much of what motivates those at the top of the power pyramid is fear.

Aster is intellectually gifted, intersex, and, to put it mildly, not neurotypical. Nonverbal until eight years old, she doesn’t grasp emotional cues very well but understands human connecton in a detached way. She makes to-do lists that include reminders of normal stuff, like eating. She excels at botany, a science she more or less taught herself, and prefers the company of her plants in her botanarium to most people. But thanks to serving as the assistant to the ship’s Surgeon General, Theo Smith, a relative of the ruling Sovereign, she’s learned enough basic medicine to care for her fellow “Tarlanders,” which is one thing she does with dedication and even compassion. The book opens as Aster is amputating a child’s gangrenous foot, a direct result of the ship keeping the lower decks unheated to conserve energy.

Other than Theo, Aster’s only real friend is Giselle, a misfit girl whose behavioral swings are so extreme she may have something like borderline personality disorder. It’s through Giselle that Aster discovers the many ducts and passageways through the ship that allow them to avoid the guards. Giselle also shows Aster the stars for the very first time. There is also Melusine, sort of a surrogate parent figure, who provides Aster with her mother Lune’s old diaries, which Aster pores over in the hopes of learning anything she can about the woman who killed herself under hazy circumstances when Aster was only very little.

Trouble arises when Sovereign Nicolaeus is poisoned, opening the way for an even crueler successor: a man known as the Lieutenant, the Surgeon’s uncle and a sociopathic racist who has a distinct personal hatred for Aster, from which she’s barely protected only through her working relationship with Theo. This regime change occurs in tandem with Aster’s discovery that her mother’s diaries may be written in code, and they actually discuss secrets about the ship itself. Apparently there are reasons for the power outages that are becoming more frequent, something about a mysterious change in the ship’s course. Maybe… even a way off?

Solomon’s writing is so absorbing, her eye for detail in every aspect of her storytelling so keen that it would take way too much time explaining everything impressive about it. It’s in the little observant touches, such as each deck having its own dialect, even its own language, that the world building achieves a criterion of realism. And by all means, give me a broken, flawed, angry, often aggressively unlikable but still brave and committed protagonist over a too-earnest wish-fulfillment superhero archetype like Katniss Everdeen every time. Aster is the most agonizingly torn antihero SFF has seen since Baru Cormorant. And though she makes very different choices, the ultimate peace she works her way towards is that much sweeter because of everything she wasn’t afraid to fight to get there.