An Unkindness of Ghosts

Rivers Solomon
An Unkindness of Ghosts Cover

An Unkindness of Ghosts


A friend on the autism spectrum recommended this book, and I'm glad she did. I found the portrayal of Aster, the autistic protagonist, completely convincing. She is one of hundreds of people on a generation ship that is traveling toward a distant, and perhaps mythical, planet. Passengers on the lower decks of the ship, where Aster and other less privileged people live, are crammed together, forced into hard labor, and cruelly regulated. Descriptions of their lives and living conditions are vivid and full of sensory details: I found it difficult to control my anxiety while reading about the small room Aster shares with too many others, people who don't understand her and whose actions she finds intensely irritating. I could relate to her desperate need to find hidden places on the ship so she can be alone, relax, and think.

Aster uses more extreme methods to deal with other difficulties, especially sexual predation. This is a major problem for lower deck passengers, and pregnancies that result from attacks can be dangerous. Aster deals with this by choosing to have some of her body parts surgically removed, which doesn't eliminate the problem altogether but does make her less appealing and, because of that, less likely to be attacked. I was startled when this brutal method was first mentioned, but the author handles it in a careful and convincing way, and it didn't take long for me to accept that, for this character in this situation, it made perfect sense.

The author never suggests autism saves the day: the plot is much too complex to be reduced to that. Also, I was pleased to find only a few, very brief passages in which the author seemed to put on her teacher's hat: too many books with autistic characters seem intended to educate people who aren't on the spectrum, and they come off as clunky and didactic. However, Aster's need to find remote and forgotten spaces on the ship, and her pragmatic way of dealing with the many dangerous situations that arise during the journey, are important and positive elements in the action, elements that make this novel deeply satisfying.