32 pages 1 hour read

Rivers Solomon

An Unkindness of Ghosts

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide


An Unkindness of Ghosts is a 2017 science fiction novel by Rivers Solomon set on a generation starship called Matilda, the political and labor organization of which resembles the antebellum American South. The ship left the ruins of Earth more than 300 years ago, heading towards a destination now forgotten by its residents. Most of the story is told from the perspective of Aster Grey, a resident of the “lower decks” who, like her neighbors, is forced into servitude. She is also among the most brilliant minds on the ship, particularly in the field of medicine, and an invaluable asset not only to the workers around her but to Theo Smith, the Surgeon General of g. Solomon wrote the novel with a specific aim toward describing gender, racial and neurotype identity, and revolutionary change. An Unkindness of Ghosts was a finalist for the 30th Lambda Literary Award for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror and earned Solomon a place on the shortlist for the 2018 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

Plot Summary

In the lower decks of a starship called Matilda, 25-year-old Aster Grey surgically removes the gangrenous foot of a child named Flick. Power outages have led to substandard living conditions for the lower-caste residents, and the extreme cold in Flick’s quarters has led to frostbite. Similar outages happened near the time of Aster’s birth. Travel between low decks is closely guarded by the upper deck power structure, but Aster holds a special pass from the Surgeon General, Theo Smith.

Later, Aster returns to her hidden botanarium, where she finds Giselle, with whom she has a sisterly relationship. Among Aster’s notes are her dead mother Lune’s engineering journals, which Giselle steals to read in private. Theo Smith visits Aster, requesting Aster’s reluctant help in formulating a cure for a mysterious ailment affecting the ship’s acting leader. Giselle later tells Aster that Nicolaeus’s symptoms—partial blindness, confusion, dissociative behavior—sound like those described in Aster’s mother’s notebooks. Giselle points out that Aster’s mother wrote the notebooks in code, and Aster makes it her priority to uncover the clues found in Lune’s notes.

Aster works in the fields under the watch of cruel guards and overseers, and her freedom of movement is limited by her social status. Aster needs Theo’s help to track down clues, and he does everything he can to help. She secures a pass to the engineering deck that monitors Baby, a place where Aster’s mother once worked. There, she learns that Baby is operating at full functionality, that a large magnet likely caused the power disruptions on the Matilda, and that the maps in the engineering room hide a secret area that Lune included in her own map.

Sovereign Nicolaeus dies, and the cruel Lieutenant, Theo’s uncle, succeeds him. Based on the autopsy and other clues, Aster quickly deduces that both Nicolaeus and her mother were killed by a rare form of heavy metal poisoning from an unknown metal called siluminium. Correlating her clues, Aster discovers a walled-off shuttle bay filled with her mother’s notes. Giselle is in hiding there. With these new notes, Aster discovers that, near the time of her birth, Matilda’s route was altered and put on autopilot, unbeknownst to the ship’s leaders.

During the succession of power, guards and overseers become more reckless and crueler. They detain Aster and Giselle under flimsy pretenses; while detained, Aster is tortured and Giselle raped. After her release, Aster leaves Flick’s preserved foot for the new Sovereign as an act of protest. In retaliation, Lieutenant publicly executes Flick, angering the lower deck residents. Aster discovers a missing book in the library, checked out by a person named Seamus Ludnecki on the day Aster was born. Sometime later, Aster meets Seamus and, through him, learns that her mother rerouted the ship towards Earth, speeding it up. He helped her fix the shuttles that could secure her escape.

Aster, Giselle, and her bunkmates plan an insurrection. Aster is brought before the Lieutenant, who smashes her hand with a hammer. Giselle attempts suicide in Aster’s botanarium. She is saved, only to face public execution by Lieutenant. During the execution, the Lieutenant stabs Giselle, and Theo injects Lieutenant with poison. Armed with rifles, the crowd explodes into violence against the ruling class guards. While escaping, Aster discovers her dead mother’s body in one of the shuttles. She enters the coordinates for Earth, leaving with Giselle’s and her mother’s bodies. Arriving safely, she buries her loved ones in the ground.

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