An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

I became aware of this book because of a review in New Scientist late last year.  The review made it sound so good that I immediately ordered a copy.  I was not disappointed.

This is the best book I have read in a very long time.  It is set on a generation ship that carried survivors away from a ruined earth over 300 years ago and whose social structure is that of the antebellum South – darker-skinned people live on the lowerdecks and they provide the labour in the fields as well as in the homes of the white upperdeckers.  The system is (obviously) brutal and violent.

Aster lives in one of the lowerdeck slums.  She is neuroatypical and deliberately physically unattractive.  She is valued by her community for her medical knowledge, and has a secret “botanarium” where she grows the plants to make her medicine.  She has never known her mother, Lune, who was an engineer maintaining the “Baby Sun” which powers the ship and grows the crops and committed suicide when Aster was a baby.  All Aster has to remember her by are Lune’s extensive diaries. One of Aster’s few friends is the Surgeon, a member of the white elite who encourages her medical studies.

Life is an endless struggle for the lowerdeckers but has been in a sort of equilibrium for a number of years, when the Sovereign is taken ill and his successor is expected to be even more brutal – rations are cut, heat is turned off.  Though the official line is that the ship is taking them to a Promised Land and people’s (ie lowerdeckers’) sins are the reason it’s not yet been found, no lowerdeckers believe there is an end destination. Through her mother’s diaries, Aster comes to believe that there is a way off the ship, and that is why her mother died.  She only has to start an insurrection to make it happen.

This book has everything – excellent worlbuilding, compelling characters, tight plotting.  The prose is quite wonderful – every lower deck has its own dialect which in turn show different social attitudes (one doesn’t gender their children).  The strength of the lowerdeck community working together to survive oppression is highlighted, as is the fact that the system brutalises and dehumanises everyone from the top to the bottom.  I’ve read a few sci-fi books that had slavery as a plot point but never one written by an American person of colour, and it really shows – this is a viscerally different experience.

Go out and read it now! I suspect it’s going to be everywhere and winning loads of prizes by the end of the year.


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