Humans might one day escape Earth, but escaping our biases may prove much harder.
That’s one of the lessons from Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts (Akashic Books, 2017) set on the HSS Matilda, a massive generation starship where the nightmare of slavery persists hundreds of years after humans have fled their dying planet.
At the center of Solomon’s masterful debut is Aster, a young woman trying to figure out why her mother apparently killed herself shortly after giving birth to her 25 years ago. An Unkindness of Ghosts is a powerful story about oppression, racism, gender non-conformity, and the role of trauma in society and peoples’ lives.
The book earned a spot on many best-of-the-year lists, including the Guardian‘s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of 2017. It also made the shortlist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, 2018 Locus Award for First Novel, and the Lambda Literary Award for best science fiction, fantasy or horror novel.
The Matilda is as complex as a planet with social castes and languages that have evolved so much over time that people who live on different floors don’t always understand each other. “Matilda first came to me when I was reading about the last slave ship to come to the Americas,” Solomon says in her New Books interview.
The Matilda’s black and brown citizens live in cramped squalor and endure constant violence at the hands of armed soldiers and the white, wealthy upper-deckers. But Aster refuses to be defined by threats and social controls. A brilliant scientist, she’s learned how to make medicines from plants that she grows herself. Despite having trouble reading social queues, she’s a fearless defender of her dignity and doing what’s right.
“How do you have hope when it’s not just you and your individual life, but it’s all your friends and family and it’s your parents and your grandparents and their parents and back and so forth and it really does seem like you’re trapped?” Solomon asks.
“I was the kind of child who every night, I watched the news and used to cry. I was very, very sensitive. Even as young as 10, I didn’t understand how people just went on in it. And so I think it’s no surprise that … that’s kind of an essential question of the novel.”
Her next book project—which she was embargoed from mentioning during the interview but which she subsequently tweeted about —is inspired by Clipping’s song The Deep “about descendants of enslaved Africans living in the ocean's deep.”
Rob Wolf is the host of New Books in Science Fiction and the author of The Alternate Universe.