River Solomon’s “An Unkindness of Ghosts”, Narratives of Oppression, & The Allegory of the Cave
There are only a few books that I have read that truly affect me in any kind of way — whether in a way that leaves me sad, or hopeful, or immensely broken. From those, there are only a small number of books that affect me so much that they make me feel an entire array of emotions at the same time. Not to sound snobbish, but those books usually come around once every few months, wrapping themselves around me to such an extent that they, quite literally, make me shed tears that I can not stop. They also bring some perspective to our present world, sometimes providing scathing commentary through stories that viscerally show the injustice and cruelness of societies. They also leave some room for a certain kind of hope — not hope in some grandiose and all powerful actor, but hope for the will of ordinary people that persist in the best way they know how to. The book that I’m talking about is “An Unkindness of Ghosts” by Rivers Solomon.
“An Unkindness of Ghosts” was Rivers Solomon’s first novel, a science-fiction novel set on an intergenerational spaceship sometime in the future. The book is different, however, by the fact that that spaceship is organized through race. Simply put, light skin people are placed on the highest decks of the ship, conferring on them a whole host of privileges that includes things like freedom of movement, ability to work for wages, and the right to formal schooling and education. On the other hand, darker skin passengers are placed on the lower decks of the ship, quite plainly showing where they are placed in the hierarchy. The people on the lower decks are not able to move freely around the ship; they are required to work for no pay under grueling conditions for hours of the day, and their lives are regimented around that work; and, perhaps the most heartbreaking of all, they are constantly monitored by an army of guards that are in charge of keeping count of them, while being given the power to do anything to them. The lowerdeckers are also constantly told that they are “lesser than”, and that they need to be “controlled” because they are inherently “sinful”, providing a parallel to the antebellum south and the structures it produces that’s quite hard to ignore.
Stories, narratives in fact, are incredibly powerful, and basically shape the way that our society is operated. They also shape the lens from which we tend to view the world from, understanding what’s possible or not when it comes to prospects of change or reform. They also, in a sense, highlight the inner workings of whatever society we live in, sort of providing justifications for the status quo that can stay incredibly stringent. As Michael Jones and Mark McBeth note in their work on narratives, narratives are “found to be a primary means by which individuals organize, process, and convey information.” Stories, in an actual sense then, provide organization mechanisms that allow individuals to think of the world in certain ways. They also provide a means to process information through. They can also allow structural forces to stay the same, regardless of the consequences. For example, in Bulgaria and the U.K, the narrative of neoliberalism fundamentally changed the way that chronic illnesses were managed and thought of in those two countries. In the U.K., neoliberal narratives framed the issue of chronic illness management as an issue of individual responsibility, causing a perception of moral failing to be placed on people affected by chronic illnesses, while in Bulgaria, the issue was an issue of resources that lend to a consumerist mindset when it came to their relationship with medicine. Which allowed avenues of thinking that caused people to think of illness management in certain ways. They were very much thought along neoliberal lines, making it harder to change those patterns of thoughts.
Neoliberal capitalism, is a narrative in of itself that was propagated by the Reagan and Thatcher eras, backed by violence that sought to make it a perceived natural order. Even though it’s a fairly recent phenomenon, finding its rise in the late 1970s from the onset of the Pinochet regime that slashed social spending and caused reverberations to be felt today, it’s still a model that’s very much thought of as the norm. It’s a narrative that stubbornly stays in place, regardless of the harm that has been done in its name, quite literally changing the prospect of what’s possible or not. It tells the story of marketization, of deregulation, and the increased role of the private sector, leading to the assumption that markets are efficient tools of innovation that can reorient public life in a certain sort of “acceptable” way. The narrative of neoliberalism also brings the story of markets into areas of life that didn’t have them before, creating new generations of intellectual property rights, and slowly causing these forces to more or less be seen as the default. The narrative also tends to stay as a staple of modern life, and nothing can challenge it, lest the person making critiques of the ghoulish system be labeled naive and fundamentally unaware of how life is. It, thus, becomes a narrative that reinforces itself, taking control of the psyche of the people in a society so that they’re unable to imagine anything better.
In a sense, the way that narratives operate in our world can resemble the Allegory of the Cave in some aspects. Remember, the Allegory of the Cave is an idea elucidated by Plato that posits how stories can be thought of as the truth. Its framing centers around prisoners locked in a cave, forced to see the images broadcasted by their captors on the walls of it. Over time, the prisoners intensely believe that the stories told by those images are the ultimate truth of the world, and it becomes impossible for them to think of a different framing of the world. If a prisoner does happen to escape the cave, there’s a strong chance that the prisoner would get blinded by the intense sunlight, causing the other prisoners to think of the world outside as dangerous, and leading them to stay as prisoners. It’s a profound allegory because it plainly shows the power of narratives bringing about a truth that might not be real, and it shows how people can fundamentally change their worldviews — often through violence and examples — to think that anything outside of it is dangerous. Which leads us to the notion of narratives being seen as justifications for many types of oppressions, laying upon a “truth” to the world that can’t easily change. Oftentimes, it stays, even affecting the people oppressed by those stories to the extent that they come to believe in them. Making the prospect of resistance incredibly unlikely.
Narratives of Oppression
Throughout “An Unkindness of Ghosts”, narratives drive the reason as to why the ship is organized the way it is, and why it has been kept the same throughout generations. It’s simply perceived as the “natural” order of the way things should be, created by the “heavens” and propagated by the “holy” Sovereign and his guards. For context, the passengers of the ship are on a search for another habitable planet, after an unknown calamity caused the original inhabitants of the ship to leave Earth. The only way they can reach that planet — or the heavens as their religion says — is to maintain the present order to prevent the lowerdeckers from indulging in their natural life of “sin”. Hence the reason why work is required for the lowerdeckers, work that is incredibly grueling, but perceived as necessary, per the narrative. As Aster, the main protagonist of the novel, narrates about work, “work was the backbone of morality, and so on and so forth. The Sovereignty’s Guard wouldn’t have [her miss work]” (Pg. 127). That’s also the reason why the work shifts for the lowerdeckers start at an incredibly young age for them, so that the status quo can be ingrained in them, and thus, not challenged.
The religion of the Sovereign, which is the main belief system guiding the ship, and which the large majority of upperdeckers believe in, provides the stories that justify the status quo of stringent hierarchy. Like I mentioned earlier, that hierarchy is primarily based on race, which provides a clear association of sin with skin color that’s maintained quite harshly. It’s the reason why lowerdeckers are perceived as nothing more than “filthy creatures” that are “dirty”. As the Lieutenant — who’s the highest ranking guard member of the ship, and who later becomes Sovereign — makes clear, “‘it’s a kindness that there are few mirrors in the lowdecks…you’d kill yourselves if you knew, if you were faced with your faces over and over again…I have six pit bulls, the same shade of brown as you…How is it that a four-legged beast…is more beautiful than you?’” (pg. 241–242). In those words, Lieutenant Smith clearly outlines the way that the upperdeckers see the lowerdeckers, providing an instance of everyday language being used as a continuation of the lowerdeckers’ oppression. They seem to be carefully chosen words also, words that are highly emotive and vivid, seeped with a perceived sense of goodwill that provides a sort of rationale as to why those words were said. And, they very much harpen back to the “natural order” of the ship, comparing the people who look like Aster (black and brown skinned people, the darker the worse) to literal animals. The perception of sinfulness, then, returns, and that perception gets enforced by the language used by the upperdeckers and the Sovereign’s Order, providing a justification of that order. That everyday language also calls for a narrativization, which Lieutenant Smith gives to Aster by saying, “‘we’re on God’s path, and we mustn’t stray. It has been centuries, and it will be centuries more’” (pg. 241).
This type of language also has another purpose other than it being the avenue to normalize forms of thought that justify the grand narrative of the ship. It also serves to provide internal points of self doubt and belief that can, in a sense, cause some people in the oppressed group to subtly feel that those talking points are true. Simply, that language can serve as a way for the lowerdeckers to internalize the narratives themselves, to perceive some ounce of truthfulness that can bubble up in one way or another. It’s an internalization of the “lesser than” attitude that the upperdeckers have for the lowerdeckers, and which structurally gets elucidated through the ship. That subtle internalization affects Aster as well, and gets shown in the novel in one particular instance: when Aster faces Lieutenant Smith for the second time of her life. Having to apologize for a verbal slight against him, she says, “‘I am sorry. I am sorry. I am sorry. I didn’t mean that…Compared to me you are practically God and I am filth.’” (Pg. 240). This is perhaps telling of some of Aster’s internal thinking about herself as a person, some internalized attitudes of her inherent “inferiority” bubbling up in this uncomfortable situation with the essential monarch of the ship. It’s also important to note that Aster is neurodivergent, and throughout the novel, it’s known to the reader that lying doesn’t come easy to her, even more so in uncomfortable social situations, which perhaps points further into how this response signifies some of her own attitudes towards herself. In fact she says so as much. As she narrates after her apology, “she hadn’t rehearsed these lines, and they weren’t pretend. She couldn’t fake contrition if she’d tried because she’d never been a good liar” (Pg. 240).
This instance is a moment that, I feel, signifies the cumulative power of the grand narrative that’s constantly told on the ship, and it shows exactly how deep that narrative goes. It reaches so deep that even Aster, being as rebellious as she is, tells it to herself. At certain points, it even gets reinforced in her own mind, blocking out the mere possibility of a better world existing, which is significant. For, the passengers are on an intergenerational spaceship, which in our own lives, signify promise and greater possibilities outside of Earth. It’s also perceived as a technological marvel to us, even embodying a sort of freedom from the constraints of Earth and the possibility of a new society. Now, contrast that with the reality of the ship, and heighten it by the fact that, in the novel, it’s pretty evident that the Sovereign and other steerers of the ship clearly do not want to find a habitable planet. Taking all of that into account, the significance of the ship as the setting of the story becomes quite clear, and in a sense, elucidates what it represents. Saying it in a simple way, I believe that the ship is a sort of allegorical representation of systems of oppression that exist, and have existed, in our actual world. The parallel to the Antebellum South has probably already been made clear, and I’ve mentioned it earlier; a parallel to the system of white supremacy is clear also. The ship, thus, provides an image of structures that are violent, but which doesn’t always have visual representations in our own world. It’s also incredibly hard to break; for, physically the ship is made of metal that cannot be easily broken, and in actual life, powerful forces often seek to maintain those systems by any means necessary. Which, leads us to narratives once more because stories, in a way, reinforce those systems also.
The reason why I want to talk about narratives again is because a lot of those systems that I talked about before are backed by narratives that justify the existence of those systems quite furiously. They’re backed by powerful stories that get passed down, sometimes through religion, through pseudo scientific knowledge, or through political leaders that seek to keep the firm hierarchy of individuals in place. This is also an incredibly historical thing; stories and narratives provide the justifications for oppressions that have occurred in the past, and which are occurring today. It’s probably widely noted that stories, mostly backed by pseudoscience that had no basis in reality, were used as justifications for slavery and organization of life around the plantations in America. One such story was about the just and superior morality of white people as a whole, contrasted with the “barbarity of African life” that was something that compelled those white people to enslave Africans to “save them from such misery”. During slavery, narratives of African Americans lacking “sufficient intelligence” to be fully equal, of possessing certain mental illnesses that made them inherently more likely to be controlled, and not able to handle free life were used as justifications to keep that institution alive. Those types of stories were also used after the end of the institution of slavery as well, being used as a crux to take away political power from the hands of black politicians and leaders during the period of blowback after the Reconstruction period. Even today, “biological” and racial essentialist arguments are still used by racists and white supremacists to justify the over-policing of black communities today.
Which brings us back to the concept of The Allegory of the Cave, which, I believe, is highlighted in this novel quite intensely. The reason why I would say so is because those narratives that are told, and which justify the hierarchy of the ship, create a cocoon of some sorts that becomes quite difficult to break from. By that, I mostly mean that it becomes extremely difficult to imagine better worlds beyond the ship, and causes the passengers to think that this is all that there is. This is evident by the structure of the ship itself, by which I mean that, all around the ship, there are no windows that the regular citizens can access that look upon the starlit sky. Which means that the passengers of the ship, encompassing all the upperdeckers and lowerdeckers, quite literally can’t see anything beyond the metal walls of it. As Aster narrates when she first discovers a dome that shows the sky, “[this was one of the only] two parts of the ship with windows, unprotected by the metal hull” (pg. 153). The metal here is quite interesting to me because it signifies something that’s tough to change, not easy to mold. But, by great efforts, it can be molded to any type of shape, which truly shows the artificiality of the ship’s social order. It’s made up, it’s not real, though the passengers believe it to be real (mostly the upperdeckers who confer actual benefits from the arrangement), while for the lowerdeckers, they can’t think of a world beyond the ship. Kind of like the prisoners of the cave who couldn’t think of the stories beyond the shadows. However, when thinking of the allegory more deeply, there are problems with it that are troubling, mainly when it comes to the supposed pacificity of the prisoners.
Un-Passive Prisoners and Survival as Resistance
I don’t like talking about the pacificity of prisoners, or the supposed inability of the oppressed to rebel in grandiose ways, and that’s because, if that’s where the conversation is focused, then it can make it seem that we’re blaming the prisoners for their own oppression. Thinking and understanding how a system might reinforce itself among the members of a society, especially when it comes to aspects of internalization, is important. But, we shouldn’t get lost in the sauce, causing blame to be placed on the oppressed for their “unwillingness” to rise up. If we do, then we can sound a lot like the liberals and fake leftists who finger wagged at the Afghan people for supposedly doing little in resisting against the Taliban. That’s something we can’t do, mostly because it steals agency away from the victims of real oppression, and causes us to essentially blame them for their oppression. Which is my biggest problem with The Allegory of the Cave: it’s too simple, and doesn’t show us the way that real people can resist from within the system to survive, and to perhaps feel some joy also.
In “An Unkindness of Ghosts,” we see that the lowerdeckers, through the eyes of Aster and her companions, aren’t entirely helpless, and that they do engage in silent forms of resistance that goes against the social order of the ship. The people transgress those rules whenever possible, either through ways of belief and action that elucidates to the reader that the grand story that’s told by the Sovereign’s Order is not entirely believed by everyone in it, or just by living life with as much joy as possible. One example of the former actually occurs early in the novel, quite clearly outlining the relationship between the Order and the lowerdeckers. When Aster is operating on Flick, a child who needs an amputation because of hypothermia, they both engage in sarcastic banter directed against the Sovereign’s Guard. Aster says to them, “‘I wouldn’t want you — righteous defender of the moral order that you are — negatively affected by my sacrilege.’” (pg. 12). And, to that, Flick replies, “‘how about if you promise to do my surgery up good, I’ll write a letter to the Guard begging they spare you?’” (pg. 12). This banter, in a sense, signifies the lack of regard that they have for the artificial order of the ship, and the way that it has been propagated through generations. It also shows how, even after the tight control that the Guards have on the lowerdeckers when it comes to aspects of work and movement, the grand narrative of the spacecraft is one that not everyone believes in. It’s that break in the belief, that ridicule of the story, that makes all the difference when it comes to resistance and survival. I include survival here also because that’s the main goal of the lowerdeckers: to survive. And, at certain points, those same people are able to survive while being true to who they are, multiplying that act of silent resistance also. We can clearly see those other instances in the novel as we read on.
Even though I intensively touched on the racial structure of the ship, it’s also important to note that the spaceship follows a heteronormative structure that’s maintained as harshly as possible. But, that doesn’t quite stop queer people in the novel from engaging in sexual activities, and cultivating meaningful relationships, with whoever they want. Mabel and Pippi provide a clear example of that. Even though, early in the novel, we’re told that they’re relationship is considered a sin by the guards and the Sovereign’s Order, they still persist on with it, regardless of the consequences. Even after getting caught and punished for the mere action of laying in the same bed, they still, and quite defiantly, hold onto their love. As Mabel says to Pippi as they wait their turns to head onto the field decks for their usual day of work, “‘I’m not spending my days away from you’” (Pg. 71). Even though Mabel whispers those words, still unsettled by the punishments that both Mabel and Pippi endured for their “transgressions”, it’s still significant that she said them. For, it serves as a form of actual resistance against the Sovereign’s Order that seeks to impose its draconian rule, quite clearly showing their weakness in entirely controlling people, regardless of the strength they seem to portray. It also shows the small cracks in their narratives, and perhaps allows other people to follow suit in their willingness to seek any kind of love.
In addition to that, the patriarchal order that seeks to impose strict controls to the reproductive freedom of the assigned female at birth people of the ship — by criminalizing abortion as an example — is nevertheless constantly subverted by doctors and medics performing abortions and providing contraceptives to anyone who needs it. Two such doctors include Aster herself (pg. 158), but also her mentor, Theo, who actually performed a hysterectomy on Aster as soon as she needed it (pg. 43). In addition to that, even though a cisnormative structure is thought of as the “norm” within the Sovereign, certain decks of the ship have their own relationship with gender that doesn’t change regardless of the amount of control that the guards have. For instance, on the deck where Flick lives, Aster notes that all the children are referred to with the pronoun “they”, while on her deck, all the children are referred to with feminine pronouns (pg 10). Theo, who was raised by his mother for a short period of time in his youth on Aster’s deck, notes the relationship with gender also. As he narrates, “all Q-deckers…are assumed women unless there’s a statement or obvious sign otherwise” (pg. 108). These subversions play as quiet resistance points for the lowerdeckers of the ship, providing a semblance of control onto their lives that the Sovereign’s Order seeks to take away from them. Of course, it’s not an ideal relationship still, and oppression under the patriarchal and cisnormative orders still exists, and sometimes, it’s quite violent at some points. But, this quiet resistance serves as a method of survival that is desperately needed for those people, and it also serves to show how the Order’s narratives are just that: narratives. It shows the cracks within them, and shows the way that the people can take certain aspects of their lives back from those systems of oppression. Which is normally, and has been, the case for any other people suffering under other systems of oppression also.
One such example is the forms of queer resistance that have occurred throughout history, and which occur even to this day in places that still have anti-LGBTQ+ laws on the books. For instance, during the reign of the third Reich in Germany, where forms of homoerotic and homosexual expressions were explicitly banned, there were still underground resistance forces that sought to maintain queer expression as much as possible. As Keira Roberson notes in her Master’s thesis on the subject, “with each evening spent among queer peers, each sexual encounter, and
rejected Nazi sexual politics” (pg. 44). In addition to that, when it comes to the “they were just roommates memes”, the action of living with a member of the same-sex, through the cover of roommates, was an act of queer resistance that occurred in the past also. It simply allowed for the couple in question to live as peacefully as they could together, engaging in a form of resistance that maximized their survival as much as they could, while also staying true to their romantic and sexual selves. In certain Middle Eastern countries where same-sex activity is explicitly criminalized, activists and queer people still organize to create networks and communities, in real life and in digital spaces, that seek to provide instances of companionship and safety that they’re at a risk of losing in their usual lives.
Under the white supremacist structure that’s still existing today, and which had different iterations in the past, black people have also engaged in resistance that sought to bring control and agency over their lives. Stephanie Camp, an American feminist historian, writes about one such instance. Writing about body politics during slavery, Camp notes how enslaved people created an alternative space for themselves away from the plantation, engaging in “illegal” parties that were marked by fluid motion and bodily pleasure that sought to be actions that brought back control over their bodies in meaningful ways. In particular, she writes, “just as exploitation, containment, and punishment of the body were political acts, so too were enjoyment of the body” (pg. 544). They were such political acts, in fact, that slave owners actually sought to do everything they could to prevent groups of slaves from congregating around one another, lest they engaged in outward forms of rebellion. The ironic thing is that, even through this grotesque period of oppression, slaves still engaged in forms of resistance that sought to undermine the institution in subtle ways, and one of the way was through joy. Even today, we see joy used as a form of resistance and survival under the white supremacist superstructure. As Alize Scott writes in her Master’s thesis about black joy in particular, “positioning Black joy as a response to the extremes and an emotional camouflage supports the standpoint of Black joy as an act of resistance, while positioning it as a response that creates a distance between the self and what would destroy it supports the notion of Black joy as a means of refusal” (pg. 19).
In “An Unkindness of Ghosts,” we similarly see joy used as resistance and a means of survival. The people on Aster’s deck, for instance, find fulfillment and some semblance of ease with the food that they communally make and eat. As Aster narrates, “bowls of savory porridge were one of many things that would sustain them throughout the morning…A late-day supper made the afternoons easier to bear when working twelve-hour shifts in the Field Decks” (pg. 66). The food that they eat, which is uniquely there’s, and as the novel notes, full of flavor, is an instance of joy where they’re able to find control in their lives, acting as a way of survival. The act of engaging in whatever kind of love that they want to, along with being free to navigate gender along everyone’s unique cultures, is also an instance of joy that they can act out on every day of their lives. And, as the novel progresses, we see how that joy manifests to real bouts of hope when Aster finds a way to transcribe her late mother’s notes, and through them, finding out that a better world is possible. At around the same time, the Lieutenant comes into power, and his contempt for the lowerdeckers leads to policies that seek to actively take that joy and potential of resistance away. And, through all of that, we learn what the novel is truly about.
An Unkindness of Ghosts and What the Earth Promises
Lune, Aster’s mother, is very much a ghost to her because she doesn’t have any real memories of her mother before she passed. The only things left were her notes, notes which were incredibly difficult to transcribe, and in the beginning of the novel, something seen as incomprehensible scribble to Aster and the reader. Only when we continue on in the novel, and as we observe Aster’s journey, do we see that the notes are actually written in code, and that Lune, Aster’s mother, had plans to change the direction of the ship so that it could finally reach a habitable planet. This possibility of a better world existing beyond the ship, essentially free from the social order that it created, rejuvenated Aster’s will in a sense, allowing her to devote a lot of her time to fully transcribing her mother’s notes and preparing for that better world. As Aster says to her friend, Giselle, when she first gets a hint of her mother’s plans, “‘what if my mother really found a better world? What if they could never lay a hand on us again?’ It sounded like a dream, but Aster believed” (pg. 154). This initial instance of hope, hope for another world, can be seen as the first actual moment where the cave breaks for Aster, actually allowing her to imagine a better world. But, that moment doesn’t last long, for the cruelty of the cave, and the people who maintain the order, seek to do everything to break the oppressed as much as possible.
After that first greeting with hope, Aster and her friend, Giselle, get caught and punished by the Guards for being out of their cabin after curfew. It’s a particularly harsh punishment that they face, but even harsher for Giselle — as she missed a great amount of consecutive work days — causing Giselle to fall into a stage of traumatic upheaval that inhibits her from even getting out of her bed. From there, it’s a cycle of hope and violent reaction that Aster faces, making that tiny bit of hope incredibly difficult to hold onto. Whenever she finds more clues about her mother and the promise of that better world, the Lieutenant and his Guards respond by breaking Aster, and by generally, engaging in policies that seek to combat the form of joy that Aster had known for so long. After Giselle’s punishment, the very first thing the Lieutenant did as ruler was to change the food that Aster and her deck members ate, deeming it as too unhealthy (pg. 243). Another thing that he did was publicly execute Flick, purposely sending a statement to Aster so that she couldn’t feel emboldened again (pg. 246–247). And, after Aster finally found the last clue about her mother, and her plan to reach that planet, he sought to break her completely one final time: literally, by breaking her hand (pg. 299), and mentally, by ordering the public execution of her best friend, Giselle (pg. 324).
This cycle of hope and reaction is, at an essence, an unkindness of ghosts. Simply put, the past, and the memories they beget, can offer the greatest of hopes, allowing for the imagination to see anything beyond the shadows of the cave. It’s those ghosts, most notably the ghost of her mother, that bring her that greatest hope of a better world of immense freedom, where the structures and narrative of the ship doesn’t define her, and her companions, as characters of sin that deserve what’s going on with them. Another ghost is the ghost of the old world that their ancestors knew about, that old planet that they left behind to find the promise of another world. That ghost travels through Aster as well, but also through other members of the ship as well, giving them a semblance of what is possible beyond the ship. However, on the other hand, ghosts can be immensely unkind in subtle ways, either by the absence of memories, or by the reinforcing of those old narratives over and over again, sort of haunting the minds of the prisoners of the cave because that’s just the way things ought to be. We see both the latter and former affect Aster . First, by the absence of her mother, and thus any real memories of her, giving her the self-status of a perpetual, unidentified orphan. And, second, by the ghosts and stories of the endless monarchy of the ship that perpetuates the status quo. As Aster says to Theo after her punishment, “‘kings. Lots of kings. Kings for days’” (pg. 306). Understanding what she meant, Theo replies by saying, “‘It is the kingdom itself. Any kingdom’” (pg. 306). That, in fact, summarizes what the novel is about in its entirety, about how systems can stay incredibly present by the stories told about them, and how change requires the entire upending of those systems to be permanent and true.
Which brings us to the promise of a return to a habitable planet for the people on the ship, for Aster herself. That promise, and that hope, doesn’t subside, even after the immense punishments that she faced by the hands of the Sovereign and his Order. Rather, it burns evermore, especially when she’s able to let her companions know what the name of that planet is, and what her mother worked so hard to reach: Earth. It was the story of a return to Earth that caused a great amount of hope in everyone, and which caused everyone to believe that a better world was possible. As Seamus, someone who knew Lune and her plan, narrates to Aster,
“‘Your mother…believed in a world off this ship. She got me to believe it too…My mother’s mother…used to tell me something her mother’s mother used to tell her. A fact they passed down…Landside, the sun was bright and heavy on her back; it tickled her skin and woke her when she lay too long on the dirt. The rays touched you, hot beams of light and heat that stroked your skin like a meema’s hand against her baby. Bright and yellow and sometimes white. Not like the baby sun that grows the food — but thick in color like turmeric or soured milk. That’s what she said. And she would douse me with kisses and warm breath and say, this is how my nanny told me it was, and this is how you’ll tell your grandbabies’” (pg. 277–278).
It was a story of Earth that lived on in memories, and which was the ultimate goal and aspiration for Aster’s mother, that inspired hope in everyone. It was that story that caused everyone to once again feel joy, and to plan a genuine rebellion against the Sovereign and his Order. And, through that fact, we see that Rivers Solomon wrote both a love letter, and a scathing critique, about Earth itself.
When comparing the ship to Earth, it’s quite interesting to see the differences between them, but through those differences, we can see what they represent in their entirety. The ship is a metallic structure that is rigid, which doesn’t change, and which doesn’t allow for freedom of movement among the lowerdeckers. The heat of the artificial sun cannot be felt at all corners of the ship, causing a coldness to spread over all the people on the lower decks. The Earth, however, is alive, allowing for ample freedom of movement, with the heat of the sun being able to be reached indiscriminately, and which is very much real. The ship, however, mirrors the actual societies that committed wholescale destruction and injustices to people labeled as “others”, while the Earth, our planet, is what we miss out on when the narratives of oppression become too strong to change. The hollow experience of the ship was, and is, the hollow experience of the narratives that were told to us, and are told to us now. The structure of the ship, in my opinion, then represents the structure of systems that are so ingrained that they make it impossible to imagine better futures. Which means that the hope from stories needs to culminate in narratives that can genuinely liberate people. In fact, that hope for the Earth in the novel, caused the intense riot that kills the Sovereign near the end of the novel. That hope for the Earth also caused Giselle to go out in a way that she chose, finally untouched by the guards, and for Aster to reach that planet, and to finally bury Giselle under the heavenly dirt of the Earth itself.
“An Unkindness of Ghosts” by Rivers Solomon is a book that I very much enjoyed, and it was also a book that was incredibly impactful. Solomon masterfully created a narrative that outlined axises of oppressions in a way that showed how they were interconnected, and how they could be incredibly stringent also. On the other hand, they also showed how narratives and stories could offer a capacity to change the structure of a system, mostly by providing hope that could inspire people to action. Those actions, and that hope, might not be entirely linear in their progression, with hope for change waning at certain points, which was how Aster felt throughout the novel also. There could also be extremely violent reactions to those actions also, causing the prospect of change to be incredibly precarious. Nevertheless, that hope is still there, no matter how unkind the ghosts of the past and present are. Which points to something that we can all think about: don’t ignore the stories of the past, but don’t let them stop you from imagining better futures.