Hugo reading 2018: An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon

Rivers Solomon provided an ARC of her novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts. It’s set on a gigantic colony ship which appears to contain the last remnants of Earth’s population, possibly on the way to a new planet, though nobody seems to have any expectation of getting there. It’s a dystopian world, with a pseudo-religious dictatorship, and passengers divided into decks by skin colour. On the upper decks, pale skinned people live luxurious lives; on the lower decks, those with darker skin are essentially slaves, producing food and other necessities for the colony ship.  The slaves – who are almost all women or coded female – are subject to beatings and sexual assault by the guards, to genetic mutations whose source is not mentioned but which I suspect spring from their high radiation environment, and also to electricity shortages that leave their residential areas so cold that they suffer from frostbite.  They also have all the high risk jobs, as well as the generally unpleasant ones.

The protagonist is Aster, who is from the lower decks but has managed to get an almost upper deck scientific and medical education, with the help of the Surgeon General, Theo, who is closely connected to the Sovereign, though his mother was black. Aster is written as a highly intelligent and compassionate woman who has something along the lines of Aspergers – she is very literal-minded and her emotions are just a bit… off.  Then again, in that environment, whose emotions wouldn’t be? Also, her mother killed herself on the day she was born, and Aster is trying to decipher her diaries and learn just what she discovered that may have led her to do this.

This is a thoroughly gruelling book to read. The brutality visited on the slaves is endless and pervasive, and periodically rises to deliberate and individual cruelty. Sexual assault is so endemic that part of Arden’s daily routine is to smear her vagina with a lubricant and a numbing agent, so as to minimise pain and damage if she is raped.  There’s an image I didn’t need in my head, thanks.

The mystery of what Luna was working on is compelling and interesting, and the characters and world are well drawn, but dear God this was a harrowing read.  In the last twenty pages, I began to wonder if the book was going to have an actual ending at all (and was preparing to throw a tantrum if it turned out to be another half-book!), but it did, of a sort.  It was very rushed, though, and I’m not sure whether anything was really resolved.  There were a couple of very dramatic events, but I’m not sure how I am supposed to feel about them – while they both have the potential to create positive change, nothing about the world the author has built leads me to believe that these will improve matters for anyone in the long run.

I have a feeling there is a sequel in the works.  I shall not read it.  Maybe I’m shallow, but if I’m going to be made to feel horrified and miserable and faintly guilty about slavery in the US (which is clearly what this author had on her mind when writing this book), I’d rather read about real people and events than made up ones.

In terms of my ballot, I’m not too sure where to put it.  I, too, tend to fall prey to the insidious idea that serious, depressing books are somehow more Worthy, but I can’t bring myself to put a story I so strongly disliked reading high up.  Trying to step back and be objective, the author clearly knows her craft, but I don’t think she quite managed the dismount – I just don’t know what she was trying to convey with the ending, I can’t tell whether she was deliberately making it ambiguous, and I can’t bring myself to go back and re-read it to see if I can determine this.  I do think the ending was rushed.  I would have liked to see an epilogue set a year or a month later, even if all it did was show that nothing had changed, the protagonist was dead and everyone who had tried to change anything had been crushed.

I do think this book is less successful than Under the Pendulum Sun (which also had a hasty ending, but a little more closure, and everything at least turned around and clicked into place so that one could see the whole puzzle at last), and it was certainly less enjoyable to read.

Drat it, I don’t want to put *either* of Ng or Solomon above Prasad, and I won’t.  So there. I’m pretty sure that fluffy will not win out over harrowing in the long run, but I’m not going to be part of encouraging a trend of increasingly miserable books being written and nominated.

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