Oppression and Freedom in ‘An Unkindness of Ghosts’



The first few elements I was struck by in reading An Unkindness of Ghosts were the themes of systemic oppression and the resulting struggle for freedom in a people who have been dominated.

The world of the novel takes place entirely on a spaceship, that is supposedly headed with the last of humanity to a new world, now that Earth has been destroyed. The ship is divided into the upper decks, where the wealthy, white, and privileged live, and the lower decks, inhabited by poor and brown residents. To make matters even more stark and hierarchical, there is a lettering system from A to Z defining the decks. So the top and most privileged deck is A, and Z is the lowest and least privileged deck.

An Unkindness of GhostsThe protagonist, Aster, has some social capital (through knowing a high-up official named The Surgeon) that allows her to flow between decks — as long as she has specific, written approval and doesn’t miss any of her many work obligations in the process.

The threat of violence is everywhere, including sexual violence. But one thing that I really appreciated from the author, Rivers Solomon, was that they were able to expertly communicate to the reader the places in the book where sexual violence had happened or was likely to have happened, without actually taking us through the trauma of it. Yet, somehow, we still feel the weight and fear of these assaults and threats of assault.

I also appreciated that Solomon challenged the gender binary through An Unkindness of Ghosts. Default gender pronouns for all children change based on what deck one is on, and (SPOILER ALERT) Aster and The Surgeon come to experience their respective genders on a spectrum by the end of the book.

It’s striking to me how revolutionary it still is to express gender in this way, especially when talking about science fiction, where the use of imagination should push against constrained tropes and thinking. Yet, so much of science fiction and fantasy has the challenge of being stuck in similar prejudices and dynamics as the real world.

Another form of representation I was happy to see was mental illness, as expressed through several characters, most notably Aster’s close friend Giselle. Giselle’s character isn’t airbrushed. She’s not conventionally “nice.” She causes herself and others harm. She struggles with demons. She’s violent. And yet, she gets to be just as much of a full-bodied character as everyone else, with her own needs and desires and relationships as the plot moves along.

Finally, there’s the story itself. The ship, The Matilda, has supposedly been hurling through space for 300 years on its way to the new planet, and some strange things are happening aboard the vessel — a power outage, a poisoning, changes in leadership, and an uncovering of hints left by Aster’s mother.

Underneath it all is the suppressed, but powerful desire of the lower-deckers to have better living conditions, to be free. It’s a theme that has played out endless times throughout literature and film history, but the take in Soloman’s book feels just as fresh as any.

It might sound cliché, but I felt a lot of resonance with Octavia Butler works in reading Solomon. I thought of Butler’s Lilith’s Brood collection, where an alien race is not constrained by two genders. And I also remembered Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, where oppression and the burning desire for freedom constantly butt heads. I’m hoping that works like Soloman’s will get the recognition they deserve as being on the vanguard of modern science fiction.

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