Rivers Solomon’s debut novel An Unkindness of Ghosts is the story of the HSS Matilda, a generation ship socially structured like the antebellum United States. For her whole life, the protagonist, Aster, has been berated and abused because of her stature and manner of speaking. An Unkindness of Ghosts’ characters are an expression of neuroqueer and poses a potential revolution for neuroqueer. In this paper, I will focus on the three main characters Aster, Theo, and Giselle and how their actions represent a neuroqueer revolution.
A revolution requires something to revolt against and the Matilda is ripe for change. It functions mainly around class and gender. While there is no reference to why it was setup this way, there is somewhat of a rationalization. The Matilda is run under a sort of Mandate of Heaven with the Sovereign and everything extending outwards from him having divine right. There are heavy references to Christianity’s influence on Matildan culture. Their destination, while unknown, is called the Promised Land, the upper deckers feel that the lower deckers lack spiritual purity and must be where they are as a result of said impurity. To the guards that police the lower decks, the people there are lower than dogs. When Lieutenant becomes Sovereign, he calls, “a four-legged beast with a snout for a nose, that doesn’t bathe itself” more beautiful than the people of the lower decks (Solomon 242). Their distaste and dehumanization of the lowdeckers, specifically lowdeck women, result in frequent sexual assault at the hand of the guards as a form of punishment. The Matilda shares many similarities with our history, and arguably the world we live in today and these make it a perfect launching point for a revolution.
Aster represents the neuroqueer’s struggle in assimilating to neurotypical standards. Her amputation of Flick’s foot shows us her trouble with social queues and a matter-of-fact way of speaking. Flick’s great-grandmother calls her Insiwa or Inside one saying, “you live inside your head and to step out of it hurts like a caning” (Solomon 23). Similar to how, in Amanda Baggs’s “Up in the Clouds” her “ability to fit words into familiar patterns outstrips [her] ability to understand the words themselves” (Baggs). Many times within the book, we’re shown Aster cataloguing words. While her lexicon is vast from spending so much time reading Ainy’s dictionaries, she lacks the context to use them in and so must add and relearn it each time. When it comes to speaking Aster, “always thought thrice before talking, having said the wrong thing too many times” (Solomon 189). We’re shown throughout the book that Aster, just from her bulkier physique and oddness has been treated as lesser, not there, too dumb to understand what was said to her, even though she understood clearly. Her struggles match Baggs’s and many other autists’ experience when it comes to communicating. Like Baggs, “typical language takes place in the clouds” coming effortlessly to the people around her, neurotypicals, but for Aster, it is a constant struggle to decode what people mean. Because of this degrading of her value as a person, Aster just wishes to have the dignity of a living being. This comes to a climax in the Bowels with Ty and Seamus. The adrenaline wears off from the confrontation, Aster had to fight like many times in her life and she bursts out saying, “Nobody’s allowed to call me names. I’m alive…I’m alive” (Solomon 276). It is her desire to be entitle to basic human decency, the benefit of being alive. Her sister, Giselle, however, performs in a different way.
Giselle performs her neurodivergence in a different way than Aster. It follows more with Dr. Walker’s fifth “definition” of the term. “Being neurodivergent and actively choosing to embody and express one’s neurodivergence (or refusing to suppress one’s embodiment and expression of neurodivergence) in ways that “queer” one’s performance of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, occupation, and/or other aspects of one’s identity” (Walker). She is much more brash and unfettered by others’ perceptions of her. We are told that “Aster’s mind wasn’t as cursed by voices and visions as Giselle’s, but she knew madness well” (Solomon 63). From this frame, we could interpret any of Giselle’s actions as a reflection of her “madness,” but I would argue it is more an expression of her own neurodivergence as well as an extension of her trauma from the guards. Her actions, like burning down Aster’s botanarium are not involuntary to her. In the midst of doing so, she wonders that “Sometimes it’s like I can’t help it, then I think, no, I could help it, I could hold it back, like a sneeze” (Solomon 319). Her lashing out is a response to, from her perspective, being abandoned by her closest friend and sister, Aster. Because of this, Giselle is put up for execution, the second within several days under Lieutenant’s rule as Sovereign. But the system of the Matilda will not be her death. She takes it into her own hands, denying them of further control over her life by taking her own life. Her death, while not the cause of the lowdeckers’ resentment for the Sovereign and the upper decks, certainly serves to ignite the flames of rebellion within the entire lower deck of the Matilda.
Theo performs Walker’s ninth definition of neuroqueer. He as Heaven’s Hands made Flesh is the one binding agent between the decks. Matildans respect and revere the Surgeon and because of this, he is especially suited to affect change throughout the ship. Walker’s ninth example explains one practice of neuroqueer as follows, “Working to transform social and cultural environments in order to create spaces and communities – and ultimately a society – in which engagement in any or all of the above practices is permitted, accepted, supported, and encouraged” (Walker). His less masculine presentation when it comes to Matildan upper decker standards makes him the target of ridicule and even sexual advances from his uncle. From his high station and the circumstances of his birth, Theo is particularly posed to set the Matilda and by extension humanity, on a better path as it returns to Earth.
An Unkindness of Ghosts uses its characters as a means of initiating a neuroqueer revolution aboard the Matilda. Their experience on the Matilda has only been defined by the qualities that they lacked. Their journey and the obstacles they encountered brought them to a sense of self-actualization, realizing that there is no absence, only a different kind of richness unique to them.