Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts

Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

Something has gone drastically wrong aboard the generation ship Matilda .  Centuries after it left the uninhabitable Earth, the ship seems no closer to its destination, if there is in fact a destination at all.  Society has become stratified, with the darker-skinned humans confined to the lower decks, called “Tarlanders”, and treated like servants at best and often like animals.   Those on the higher decks justify this with their religion, which puts straight white men above all others, who are sinners.

An Unkindness of Ghosts

Aster is one of the few medics available to those below decks.  She’s something of a genius, and has been allowed to study under/assist the ship’s most esteemed doctor, the Surgeon.  (She knows him as Theo.)  That doesn’t excuse her from backbreaking work in the field decks under the whip-wielding overseers, though.

Recently, the Matilda has been suffering a series of blackouts for the first time in a quarter-century.  Lieutenant, Theo’s cruel uncle and de facto ruler of the ship, has decided that the lower deck people are somehow overloading the power and cut the heat to that part of the ship to “conserve energy.”  The oppressed are suffering, and Aster has been called to amputate a child’s gangrenous foot.

After this gruesome task, Aster returns to her secret botanarium where she grows medicinal plants and performs scientific experiments.  Her childhood friend and confidante Giselle is there and being contrary as usual.  More surprisingly, the Surgeon arrives.  Theo needs some of Aster’s special steroids for his post-polio pain symptoms, and also her help.  The Sovereign Nicolaeus, official ruler of the ship’s people, is dying of a mysterious illness, something Theo has never seen before.

Not having any great love for the ship’s government, Aster turns Theo’s request down.  But then Giselle reveals that she’s been reading the journals of Aster’s long-missing mother Lune, and cracked some of the code they were in–Lune had the same symptoms as Nicolaeus during the last series of blackouts, twenty-five years ago.  Is there a connection?

Aster is a protagonist very different from most I’ve read, being gender ambiguous (but using female pronouns) and having some form of neurodivergence.  The latter is both a strength and a weakness for Aster; it gives her insights that others might miss, but also makes understanding subtleties of language difficult for her to parse.   Metaphors are hard for Aster to grasp, thus her failure to notice that the anomalies in Lune’s journal entries were deliberate.

Most of the book is told in tight third-person following Aster, with three first-person chapters where other characters inform the reader of things Aster is unaware of or not present for.

The storyline largely consists of Aster reacting to other people’s actions; until near the end her few attempts at being proactive backfire.   Theo (who has many secrets) and especially Giselle (never stable, but having gotten worse after much abuse) are far more active, but are mostly off-page doing their things.  The vile Lieutenant seems to relish making life more complicated, deluded by his self-justified mindset.

Matilda‘s society is a pretty clear metaphor for the American South during slavery and Jim Crow (mixed together as needed) and this can come across as heavy-handed from time to time.  We get very little background on how it turned out this way, although one bit of history suggests the social stratification was there from the beginning.

Content notice:  rough language, implied rape, physical and mental abuse, and torture.

The conclusion drastically changes things; there is room for a sequel, but the society will not be the same.

Overall, a mixed bag.  An interesting protagonist and unfolding of events, but often heavy-handed and some key elements seem to be there simply to create the desired metaphor.

Note:  I got this book through PageHabit, so my copy has author annotations on Post-it notes inserted throughout.  This was an interesting extra dimension, but my financial circumstances make it unlikely I’ll order from this vendor again in the near future.

 

 

Book Review: The Book of Van Vogt

Book Review: The Book of Van Vogt by A.E. van Vogt

In 1972, DAW Books was a brand new publishing company started by noted speculative fiction editor Donald A. Wollheim.  Its mission statement was to publish quality science fiction books that had not previously appeared in paperback.  (As opposed to reprinting old books with a new title, as often happened in the paperback market.)  For their fourth publication, Mr. Wollheim reached out to A.E. van Vogt for a collection of old and new stories, trusting to name recognition to sell the book.  I mention this because the inside front page is devoted to this information rather than a teaser for the contents.

The Book of Van Vogt

There are seven stories in this collection, starting with a brand new one, “The Timed Clock.”  It’s set at a dinner party, and the host tells the tale of how he became his own grandfather.  Is he playing a joke on his guests, or does the clock in the hall have special powers?

“The Confession” is a weird story about a man who can’t quite remember why he doesn’t meet his girlfriend any more, or why he took a menial job sweeping floors when he used to be quite wealthy.  And he has visions of a future where things are better, but it’s impossible to see how he got from here to there.  Could it have anything to do with the hypnotist whose stage act he participated in?  An ambiguous ending.  Content note: attempted rape.

“The Rat and the Snake” is set on the homefront during World War Three.  Mark Grey loves feeding rats to his pet python, especially hearing their tiny screams.  But the availability of rats has dried up due to rat-catchers being drafted and pet stores put on rationing.  Mark finds a government research station filled with lab rats, and doesn’t question how easy it is to get inside and steal some.  Poetic justice ensues.

“The Barbarian” is a reprint from the 1940s.  In the far future, the Linn Empire rules Earth, and has successfully conquered Mars and Venus.  But now a new threat arises from Europa, a barbarian horde that looks as though it will sweep aside the decadent empire.  Clane Linn, a priest-scientist and acting leader of Linn, is the only hope of dealing with Czinczar.  Czinczar is far more intelligent than the title of “barbarian” would imply.  Clane is despised by many in the empire (including his late uncle, the former leader) for being a “mutant.”  We never learn the extent of his mutation, except that his clothing is designed to conceal the shape of his shoulders.  He is, by 21st Century standards, the nicest guy in his government.

“Ersatz Eternal” concerns three men who have crashlanded on an alien world.  One of them is insane, but that may make him the best suited to survive in this new environment.

“The Sound of Wild Laughter” concerns Marie Hazzard, a physicist who has been in a loveless (and sexless on her part) marriage with the philandering and maniacally jealous Carl Hazzard for over a decade.  She is briefly relieved when Carl dies, only to learn that his brain has been kept alive and able to communicate.  The situation winds tighter and tighter, as Dr. Marie must deal not only with her semi-deceased husband, but three greedy men who think they know what really happened.

That story is heavy on the misogyny, most directly from the noxious Carl, but also from the other men trying to manipulate Marie–and she has some internalized misogyny to deal with as well.  There’s some dubious consent sex.

And we wrap up with “Lost: Fifty Suns”, reprinted from the 1950s.  In the very far future, descendants of humans who fled to the Magellanic Cloud centuries past learn that the government of Earth has now reached their galaxy.  While the representatives of Earth claim now to be more inclusive of genetic minorities, they will not stand for there being an independent star nation anywhere in the universe.

The Earth ship issues an ultimatum:  Either the civilization of the Magellanic Cloud reveals itself and surrenders, or the Star Cluster will come looking for them with planet-destroying weapons.

This is especially relevant to Captain Maltby, as he is secretly the hereditary ruler of the “Mixed Men”, a new genetic minority that arose from crossbreeding different strains of humanity.  Gifted with strange powers, the Mixed Men tried to take over their galaxy’s civilization, only to be beaten back by force of numbers.  Some of the Mixed Men think this is a golden opportunity to make a deal with the Earthlings to become local satraps, while many others want to use the ultimatum to pressure their own civilization into giving them back civil rights.  Captain Maltby must try to decide what is best for his people, and convince them to accept it.

We also get to see the viewpoint of Lady Laurr, commander of the Earth ship.  Her crew has already been on this mission of mapping the Magellanic Cloud for ten years, and was looking forward to going home when they stumbled on evidence of the Magellanic civilization.  While their technology is highly advanced, they’re still looking for maybe fifty inhabited star systems out of millions of suns; it could take another decade to locate the Magellanic civilization provided this ultimatum doesn’t flush them out.  Lady Laurr faces legal mutiny if she doesn’t get results quickly.

The ending has one side’s efforts and infighting go all for naught.  Somewhat surprisingly, this story passes the Bechdel Test.

Of the stories, I liked “The Rat and the Snake” best; to the point with no faffing about.  “The Sound of Wild Laughter” goes on too long and has too much misogyny that isn’t challenged for my tastes.

If you like van Vogt’s stuff, this isn’t his most famous work, but is pretty representative.  Those who are new to him might want to try Slan or The Voyage of the Space Beagle nstead.

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