One of the beauties of fiction is that multiple writers can start with the same premise or setting, but end up going in wildly different directions. Take Rivers Solomon’s debut novel, An Unkindness Of Ghosts (paperback, digital). Like Sage Walker’s The Man In The Tree, the recent movies Passengers and Alien Covenant, and countless other sci-fi stories, Solomon’s novel is set on a deep space ship heading to a new home. But in talking to Solomon about it, they revealed that the setting is about all their book shares with those other stories.
To begin, what is An Unkindness Of Ghosts about?
Oh, I have such a difficult time with this question because I think people often mean slightly different things when they ask it. When strangers or new acquaintances ask, my long but single sentence pitch is something like: In the low-deck slums of a generation ship on its way to a mythical Promised Land, a healer investigates the suicide of her mother and its connection to the ship’s mysterious voyage. This gives you a little bit of flavor about the world and an inkling about what the protagonist, Aster, goes through.
There are, of course, many subgenres in science fiction. Where do you think An Unkindness Of Ghosts fits and why there?
Oh, I have such difficulty answering any questions that have to do with categorization because once you get me started it’s not long before I’ve bored everyone to death with a philosophical treatise on how genre is meaningless…which is really just code for, “I don’t know.”
That is to say An Unkindness Of Ghosts could find its home in a number of subgenres, or perhaps, like me, might find its home nowhere at all, really.
Before this novel, the speculative fiction I wrote was less sci-fi in flavor and more fabulist, heavily influenced by magical realist traditions. I like to think an element of that survives in the book. Vestigial slipstream, if you will.
I’ve seen it described as space opera, and that tickles me because how amazing and grand and larger than life. “Space opera” connotes such a high level of drama and I’m here for it.
I also acknowledge that there’s definitely a dystopian streak, but only acknowledge that begrudgingly. Not because I don’t like dystopian, but because I question “dystopian” as a valid genre category at all. It tends to privilege the viewpoint of those in power or who are suffering least under the status quo.
When, for example, you are Black and see that your people are being denied medical care and food security, are being systematically slaughtered by the state and imprisoned at grotesquely high rates…and that’s just to start…it really isn’t difficult to see the government of the United States as a brutal regime that needs toppling.
An Unkindness Of Ghosts is fiction, so I’ve taken liberties in the hopes of telling a good story, but I think the quickness with which people describe certain narratives as dystopian says a lot about how privileged their lives are. The only way they can accept the realities being portrayed is if they label it as an extreme that only exist in fiction.
I’ve described the book as steampunk in the past, and even though that’s not quite right it gets at something I’m going for. I think the more broad term is “retrofuturist” is a better fit. I like that. I don’t know if it’s an official subgenre but I feel it fairly accurately describes the vibe. Looking back and looking forward simultaneously.
Your publisher has called you, “…a worthy successor to Octavia Butler.” I’m sure you dispute this, but do you think someone who has enjoyed such Octavia Butler novels as Kindred would like An Unkindness Of Ghosts as well?
Ha! Yes, let me definitely put it on the record that I do dispute that claim, but absolutely, fans of Kindred will enjoy An Unkindness Of Ghosts, I think. There are the obvious points of comparison: portrayals of slavery, a Black woman protagonist — I think they might even be the exact same age — fraught relationships.
But, again, there’s also that idea of mixing future and past. In Kindred, the protagonist is pulled back in time to relive history. I think something very similar happens to my protagonist, though in a less literal way. That’s where the title comes from, the idea of the ancestors or ghosts influencing Aster’s journey as she investigates the living past.
Speaking of Octavia Butler, I know writers hate talking about their influences, but are there any authors or novels that you feel were a big influence on An Unkindness Of Ghosts?
You know what, I don’t hate it at all. I remember when I was a bit younger listening to India Arie’s first album, Acoustic Soul, how so many of the tracks were about paying homage to musicians who came before. She has an entire song dedicated to Stevie Wonder using lyrics from his songs. I remember thinking at that time how beautiful that was. It’s fun to piece together the ways the past built us.
So with that in mind: Alice Walker for sure. I think her writing is really raw, intimate, and unapologetic, and I hope I’ve achieved something similar in An Unkindness Of Ghosts. Zora Neale Hurston. Less her stories specifically and more her way with words. She’s one of the most quotable writers I’ve ever read, and I think she’s criminally underrated. I love that she’s not afraid divert from the narrative to go on philosophical tangents. Nella Larsen, Lorraine Hansberry. I don’t want this to turn into a list of every Black writer I’ve ever read, but, every Black writer I’ve ever read.
Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness was profoundly influential for me, and I think her work as well as a lot of the theory coming out of trans communities contributed to discussions of gender in Unkindness. Doris Lessing’s Shikasta Re: Colonized Planet 5 is under-read but really good. I can’t say the exact way it influenced me, but looking back at it, I can definitely see that it did.
What about non-literary influences? Are there any movies, TV shows, or books you feel were a big influence on An Unkindness Of Ghosts?
Star Trek, absolutely, 100%. Which is interesting, because I don’t think people would necessarily link my work with that franchise. Star Trek is often described as being wildly optimistic about the future, and while I think the original series engages very deeply and smartly with a lot of dark themes in ways that people forget when they’re talking about the show, An Unkindness Of Ghosts is undeniably grittier, more grimdark. But I genuinely get very shaken watching some episodes, especially those dealing with misogyny and sexism, and just, the idea of these people being essentially stuck in deep space dealing with incredibly dark and frightening forces — and surviving despite — all alone.
I definitely borrowed some of the earlier worldbuilding from [the 2004 version of] Battlestar Galactica. For me, that show was all about Kara “Starbuck” Thrace; I don’t think I’d ever connected to a television character so deeply, and I knew then how important it was for me to have characters that felt vibrant and three-dimensional and in-color. I loved seeing a gender non-conforming character be so important. Battlestar Galactica, I think, made a real attempt at being post-gender. I think it was more successful in its attempts to be post-racial — though there were failures of course — but yeah, that just showed me that so much of our understandings of gender relations are informed by our social context. So I wanted to experiment with how a different world might look at gender slightly different than we do.
Now, on your website, you say that An Unkindness Of Ghosts was pitched as a “science fiction meditation on intergenerational trauma, race, and identity…”; you identify yourself as, “a dyke, a Trekkie, a wannabe cyborg queen, a trash princex, a communist, a butch, a femme, a feminist, a she-beast, a rootworker, a mother, a daughter, a diabetic, and a refugee of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade”; and you refer to yourself with the pronoun, “they.” Aside from an enjoyable couple of hours, what do you hope someone like me — a straight, white, middle-age, cis gendered, liberal Democrat male — will get out of reading your book?
Well, most of all I hope it’s a story that stays with you the way that the best stories do. Our favorite books rarely teach us a lesson or reveal some moral, but they do let us untangle something inside ourselves.
One of the lines that has resonated with me most in fiction is the opening of The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which is about a rather well-to-do white cis male classics major; so not exactly my twin. He says, “Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy crack running down the middle of life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”
I first read that book as a freshman in high school, I think, and I still hear those few sentences in my head sometimes. I wonder about the ways the desire for aesthetic and beauty can lead us to self-destruct. So years from now, I hope you’re just having a regular old day and you think a bit about An Unkindness Of Ghosts. Some line that resonated and felt true for you, or a feeling a certain scene gave you.
I hope so, too. Now, a lot of the sci-fi novels I’ve read lately are not stand-alone stories, but are instead parts of a larger saga. Is An Unkindness Of Ghosts the first book in a series or a stand-alone novel, and why did you decide to make it whatever it is?
I wrote An Unkindness Of Ghosts to stand alone. I wanted it to be a complete story in its own right because at the time I was writing it, I was in the middle of a number of book series and feeling so frustrated by the wait for the next books.
That said, I have outlined a sequel for An Unkindness Of Ghosts, but who’s to say whether I will write with so many different projects fighting for my attention? It’s a world that will always be a part of me regardless. Some of it I know like the back of my hand, but some of it I’m still discovering, and it would be fabulous to one day be able to share all of it with the world.
Finally, we talked earlier about movies, TV shows, and video games that may have been an influence on An Unkindness Of Ghosts. But has there been any interest in making a movie, show, or game based on your novel?
My partner and I were recently talking about how a few of our favorite books are getting picked up into television series, rather than films, and how interesting that is. I’d guess part of it is because we as a culture are really into TV right now. We don’t want to throw away characters we love after an hour and a half or two hours. We want to live beside them indefinitely. We want rich, expansive worlds that build on themselves forever and ever. We’re outgrowing film.
That said, [while I wouldn’t] turn down any offers to make it into a series, I’d love to see Unkindness as a movie because where a TV series is an exploration, a movie is an exultation. It’s magnificent and big. It’s cinematic. I think Aster’s story deserves the grandiosity of a film. Something that feels big, exuberant, and final.