An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
There seem to be a lot of rave reviews for this book, but unfortunately I just don't feel it. This is the second "literary" SF book I've read this year, and for me it's failed in pretty much the same ways. The writing and characterizations may be very good, but the science is simply lacking...and I'm sorry, but you can't have science fiction without fairly plausible science.
This book takes place aboard a generation ship (and a huge sucker; it has multiple decks with thousands of inhabitants each and is fusion-powered) 325 years into its voyage. I take it our Earth is supposed to be the "Great Lifehouse" from which the Matilda launched after some unspecified ecological disaster. Hundreds of years later, the ship seems to be wandering the cosmos (although from the patently awful ending, I'm wondering if it even made it out of our solar system) with no clear goal or destination. Over this time, a religious, oppressive society has developed, based on race. It's no secret that this book is basically the Antebellum South in space; it's even on the dust jacket copy. Which is fine, as this is the subject the author clearly wanted to tackle, and their worldbuilding, characters and conflicts are centered on this theme. But I just wish Solomon had written their book in a contemporary context and left the SF out of it.
It's a shame that overall this doesn't work for me, because parts of it are very good indeed. The main character, Aster, is intersex and neuroatypical, perhaps somewhere on the autism spectrum. Her harsh, relentlessly literal characterization rings true on every page. The other characters, including her Aint Melusine, her self-destructive friend Giselle Nwaku, and her ally and mentor Theo Smith, are also well drawn (these three each have a first-person viewpoint chapter, which is a nice way of getting the reader inside their heads). The worldbuilding on board Matilda is intriguing, with each deck having its own culture and language. With these people having spent 325 years on this ship, there's a nice weight of history, and the past--in particular, the story of Aster's mother--becomes more and more important as the story progresses.
Unfortunately, it's the science that does this story in. I don't usually say this, but I wish the author had been even more handwavey about her science than she already is, because then the story could have sat better with me. As it is, the parts where she tries to describe the ship's fusion drive, and the way the Field (crop-growing) Decks rotate, and how the ship is piloted, are just...bad. Slingshotting this enormous vessel around a black hole to change its trajectory? Come on. And the ending, while it's explosively plotted, important to Aster's characterization, and well-paced, scientifically is...ugh. There's no telling where in the universe we actually are, but even if the Matilda was only a few light-years away from our solar system, there's no way Aster could have made it back to Earth aboard a shuttle. She would have starved to death and/or run out of oxygen long before. That last chapter, in fact, pretty much spoiled the entire book for me, because of that and also because of the way it seemed to dribble to a halt with no real point.
If you can overlook this kind of thing, more power to you. I can't. This book is very ambitious, and I commend the author for that, but the execution of this idea is, to me, a total misfire.
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