There are many kinds of escape. Some stories tell of the escape from a dead planet, a dead end existence in which extinction is inevitable. Some novels describe the escape from childhood ignorance, or the oppression of ideas that hold back the soul. There are tales which pour into the imagination an escape from bondage or other force which dehumanizes, diminishes, plunders.
An Unkindness of Ghosts, as it happens is all of these stories, an more. From a purely narrative level, it is the story of Aster, of Q Deck, on the generation ship Matilda, 300 years from earth and yet not so far as to escape its ghosts. Just like the allegory The Cave, An Unkindness of Ghosts casts shadows of the past onto a future that is utterly unlike what we have known, and at the same time far too familiar. Aster is clever, Aster is special, Aster is exemplary, and yet Aster cannot escape the barracks, the guards, the overseers, and the constant cold of a ship whose masters care only for their own comforts and live in constant fear of a lower-class uprising.
Solomon’s masterpiece debut flips the script on familiar science fiction hero tropes, in which power is a mutable thing, a thing that can be seized, wielded, transferred. All Aster’s power lies in her mind, and in the tenuous connections she can forge between others on the margins of power. There is no hero, in this novel, only people who do their best, and those who do their worst.
In Aster’s world, words have become something else, nearly unrecognizable from their origins. Alchematics, botanarium, meema, surgeon general, these and more flow through a torrent of action and reaction, work, sleep, lockdowns, searches, doctoring, loving, living, and dying. Dead already is Aster’s mother, Lune, once a genius and now a ghost, haunting Aster through her journals and the stories others tell about her, dead soon is the Sovereign, whose symptoms somehow mirror Lune’s, 25 years ago, before she went, and may hold the secret to freeing Matilda.
With hints of Snowpiercer, touches of The Underground Railroad, and kinship with Who Fears Death, this novel is a necessary addition to contemporary science fiction, a conflagration of things lost and found and maybe, just maybe, hope.