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.
I may have mentioned that GoodReads, while occasionally useful, is not my most favoritest book thing in the world. I have a really difficult time using to effectively find books like other books I’ve read, which is especially frustrating being I’m a librarian and supposed to be good at finding things.
But anyway. I was writing up a book that, to me, had a lot in it that made it “gritty,” like a main character who was a hunter and eventual cold-blooded killer, a narrator who didn’t shy away from detailed descriptions of said killings, and a cast of characters who were inured to and even enjoyed killing, maiming, and otherwise torturing. Gritty.
Also, it was a fantasy novel, of the fairy tale retelling variety.
So I thought to meself, ‘self, let us go unto the GoodReads and find another book to compare this to, besides the ones we’ve already thought of, that the indie bookstore using this review to sell to customers might better find the reader to which this book is destined.’
I work from home, so yeah, I can talk like that to myself if I want to.
And into GoodReads I went, and into the genre search I typed “gritty fantasy.” (yes, I already did the other browsing for fantasy fairy tale blah, blah, blah. I turn a lot of stones.)
And what to my wondering eyes did appear but a list featuring novels by about three different people, all of them cis, white, hetero- males (males). And these males, as far as I could make out, all seemed to write novels that featured males and general maleness all around. So I made a joke about it on the Twitters.
And my tweet was picked up by a bunch of people, and favorited and retweeted multiple times, and for someone with 210 followers, that’s a big deal. But it was pointed out to me by one user that my original tweet was cis-sexist.
Yes, Extreme Cat Lady, yes it is.
That is a statement I will not argue. It is a valid point. It is one that I thought of as I was drafting my original tweet. Trans men are men, and trans women are women, and genitalia does not a gender make.
Cis, hetero (white) men, though, seem to not only get to define everything, but are the definition of everything. Popularly. Commercially. In the ways that currently “count” for something. “Gritty” seems to denote cis-maleness. Cis-maleness, it seems, is required for a novel to be gritty. And the thing is, what makes a GRRM novel gritty? As far as I can tell, when it comes to GRRM, gritty is a just another synonym for rapey. And it’s a specific type of rapey that relies on the cis-hetero-maleness of the characters whom the story is about. And, from what I can tell (I lost interest in GRRM a long time ago and so don’t read things that are “like” that) the other novels on the search results list also tend to conform to a specific cis-hetero-male rapey theme.
And this is on GoodReads, a website that is supposed to be a crowdsourced way of classifying and recommending books. Other people, readers, just like you and me, shelved these male books on the gritty fantasy shelf more often than any other books. So as a reading culture, as fantasy readers, we all seem to buy into the idea that to be gritty, a novel has to conform to some sort of penis-bearing maledom that leaves little room for any other gender identification or expression to be valid and worthy of telling a story about.
Dictionary.com refers to a 1590s word origin relating to a feeling of unpleasantness (like eating bread full of grit), in one of its definitions of gritty. But it also defines gritty as courageous in two separate definitions. What does that have to do with cis-maleness? Well, besides the obvious. Plenty of things are unpleasant, and many of them happen in novels. But the novels that get to be called gritty go well beyond unpleasant and into the realm of incredibly shitty human being that somehow got to be the protagonist of a novel.
So how about a real definition of gritty? A useful definition?
gritty, adj: courageous in the face of unpleasant circumstances
Who isn’t familiar with True Grit? The novel, not Rooster Cogburn/John Wayne. That story is about a woman who goes out and finds her father’s killers. Who hires an unpleasant man to help her, who experiences hardship and witnesses death. I’m not saying that novel should stand up as an emblem of anything, but it’s a useful touch point when talking about the idea of grit in novels.
I guess the most amusing part to me is that this all came about because of a novel that, even though the protagonist is a woman, is incredibly concerned about penis-bearing faery men. The gritty woman goes under the mountain to save the male she loves and ends up working towards the end of all the beautiful faery males, and against the one woman who (evil or not) holds any power. So, yeah, gritty.
There are a lot of novels that could be called gritty, by the definition I devised. Of course, at some point a few are going to be brought out as major examples. But why does it have to be the rapey ones? Why do the males get to define everything? Especially when it is the women (all women, cis women, trans women) who most often need the grit to get through those stories?