Today’s Book: “An Unkindness of Ghosts” by Rivers Solomon
The Plot: A generation ship has reverted to a state resembling the antebellum Southern U.S., complete with slavery. On the ship, a Black Autistic woman named Aster hunts for clues about her dead mother, who might have discovered a way off the ship, or a way to change everything.
Autistic Character(s): Aster.
“An Unkindness of Ghosts” is a dark, gripping book. It is billed as being about a slave revolt, and definitely there is a slave revolt that happens somewhere in there, but the full book is much more complex, and the main conflicts more personal, than that description would suggest – even as the oppression and abuse of their circumstances weigh heavily throughout the book on Aster and everyone she knows.
Aster is a wonderful character whose autistic traits are written very well. (I’m not sure if the autism in the book is #ownvoices or not. I know Rivers Solomon has described herself as non-neurotypical, but there are a lot of things that go under that umbrella. So it might be #ownvoices, and it might not be. Either way, it’s good enough that I could easily believe that it was.) She speaks very formally and literally, and has trouble working out what people mean when they use figures of speech. She has a great talent for medicine and works as a sort of doctor, doing what she can to help others on her deck who have been injured by the harsh conditions there. She also has some more subtle autistic traits, of the kind that I don’t often see authors remember to include in books. For instance, she has immense difficulty with handwriting. She stims by banging against things as she runs, often without consciously realizing she’s doing it. (I have stims that I don’t do consciously, although not that one in particular, and I don’t often see that aspect of stimming discussed in fiction.)
Although Aster’s society doesn’t seem to have a formal word for autism, Solomon does a good job of showing that people recognize what is going on with Aster. Not just that she is different, but that she is a particular sort of different, with a name:
“I am a healer, like you. Well, not quite like you. You’re a little off, aren’t you?” The woman grabbed Aster’s chin, turning her face so they were forced eye to eye. “You’re one of those who has to tune the world out and focus on one thing at a time. We have a word for that down here, women like you. Insiwa. Inside one. It means you live inside your head and to step out of it hurts like a caning.”
Aster had been called worse.
This is neat – I would love to see more far-future SF and secondary-world fantasy that displays its own cultures’ understandings of, and names for, autism.
And while Aster is often baffled by what people are doing and what they mean, she also displays flashes of insight into how people work that remind me of my own hyperempathic autistic friends:
“She’s probably the one who made him sick,” said Vivian, but who knew if she really believed it? Her personality revolved around being the rude one, and she kept up the act to maintain her identity. In the process she’d become a caricature of herself.
And while Aster is the only autistic character, Solomon also takes pains to show that she’s not the only non-neurotypical person on the ship. In fact, the two other most important characters are also non-neurotypical. Aster’s friend and mentor Theo, a closet transwoman who works as a surgeon in the upperdecks, seems to have something like OCD, carrying out religious and cleansing rituals with compulsive fervor.
There’s also Giselle, Aster’s best friend from her deck, who I actually found the most fascinating character of all from a neurodiversity standpoint. I don’t know what diagnosis exactly would be appropriate for Giselle. She’s heavily traumatized, like everyone on the lower decks; unlike most people on the lower decks, she also experiences delusions, self-harms, and has both verbal and physical violent episodes, including violence against Aster. Giselle’s type of mental illness is very heavily stigmatized. I was transfixed by how she was portrayed, worst symptoms at all, and yet still remained matter-of-factly a friend Aster who and her other cabinmates cared about. In particular, even though Giselle often says and believes things that are not true, she’s also clever and figures out some true things before Aster does, including the fact that Aster’s mother wrote her diary in code. This isn’t portrayed with any of the usual obnoxious “oh no, are they crazy, or are they right??” tropes. It just is, the way it would be if any other character figured out something important. I have literally never seen a white or neurotypical author write a character this way. I love Giselle.
(For that very reason, I felt super ambivalent about Giselle’s role in the ending, which was my only real reservation about this book. But it’s nothing to do with autism, and is therefore, for the purposes of this review, neither here nor there.)
I also want to briefly mention “An Unkindness of Ghosts”‘ tone, because that has been the topic of a lot of online discussion. As Bogi Takács points out in eir review, this is quite a dark book in which the characters’ oppressors are very cruel to them. But it’s also a book that is respectful and even softened, in how it shows these things, compared to some of the stuff that actually happened to slaves in the antebellum South. There were parts where I had to step away for a bit and recalibrate, but that happens to me with a lot of books. I certainly didn’t find it as difficult to get through as, say, Mirror Project. 😛 For other white readers in particular I would encourage reading this book with an open mind. Like, read the content warnings in Bogi’s review, and nope out if you have to, but know that those parts of the book are #ownvoices and there for a reason.
Overall, “An Unkindness of Ghosts” is a very well-written book about multiply marginalized non-neurotypical people of color who make their own way through harrowing circumstances in search of hope.
The Verdict: Recommended-1
Ethics Statement: I have never interacted with Rivers Solomon. I read her book by buying a copy from Amazon. All opinions expressed here are my own.
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