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Monday, January 22, 2018

An Unkindness of Ghosts and Let's Just Call It a Day

A scientist, Aster had learned something Giselle had not: decoding the past was like decoding the physical world. The best that could be hoped for was a working model. A reasonable approximation. That was to say, no matter what Aster learned of Lune, there was no piecing together the full mystery of her life. There was no hearing her laugh or feeling her embrace. A ghost is not a person. - Solomon Rivers, An Unkindness of Ghosts
The domain for www.howiesbookclub.com renews at the end of each April. It doesn't cost a lot to keep it going, but I think I'm going to let it lapse. I'm not sure if I'll still keep writing blog posts, but when I consulted my Stranger Things brand Ouija board, the demons that the warlocks at the Hasbro lovingly bake into every batch of flimsy cardboard and cheap plastic planchettes told me that it's probably the end of this particular era. Who knows? This may be the last post you ever see. If so, I hope you have as much fun as I did. Also, we're finishing up with a pretty good book so there are worse ways to go.

I don't know where it comes from, but I've always had this feeling that if people could just see inside my head, everything would make sense to them. Sometimes I manage to spin words around a thing in a way that seems more or less foolproof, and when whoever I'm arguing with doesn't immediately change their mind, I assume it's because they weren't really listening. I imagine that's part of why people tweet or make facebook posts or write blogs. If only you'd read the way it works in my head, this thing would be solved and then we could all move on to the next problem.

When I watched Zootopia, I thought "this is going to solve everything." I really thought that. It made one billion dollars and was the second highest-grossing movie that wasn't a sequel or based on a book ever. It makes such a subtle point that you're lulled into having a good time and then holy smokes, you just got hammered with social justice. It makes such a good argument and does it so cutely I don't know how you argue with it. And so many people saw it.

Imagine my surprise when enough Americans voted for a man who said that Mexican immigrants were all rapists and where men were still getting stabbed on the bus for standing up for Muslim women who were being bullied. Refugees from some of the most war-torn countries ever were turned away in airports. My face was like wha-

That sounds ridiculous, but also I can't figure out why. There are books and movies that change the world. Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring is credited with leading to the outlawing of DDT as a pesticide. The Marylin Monroe and Clark Gable picture The Misfits changed policy regarding feral/wild horses in the American West. Casablanca helped turn the American people from isolationism to supporting the war. Listen, am I comparing Zootopia to Casablanca? Of course I am, and not just because both heavily feature a Shakira song (note to self: Google before publishing to make sure).

At some point this blog went from being a chance for me to talk about the books I was reading to a platform to kind of outline the way I see the world. I think there's been some growth on some of that and I hope to keep growing and learning, but for now I think I've pretty much covered it. I've noticed that I'm repeating myself often, even using the same articles to back up my points. A couple of people have told me that they read a book because of my recommendation, which feels good, but for the most part it seems like a few years of very hard work little to show for it.

I think we're ready to move on from this kind of thing; the thinkpieces that everyone races to write to put the newest headline in context. I must have read six articles just today about how I should react to the Aziz Ansari news that by now you're probably already bored with. The thing is, I already reacted to that news. I read a few articles that supported my opinion, then hate-read two that didn't. It didn't change my mind at all. It's the same thing I've always suspected these articles to be, whether they are about why men don't like the new Star Wars, or whether it's OK for a sitting president of the United States to call other countries shitholes without understanding our country's role in how they got to be that way. They are a script for us to memorize and regurgitate when we get to work, or get into online fights, or chat about during dinner.

Like going through the seed catalog and imagining a garden, sitting down and writing these posts or long facebook rants that get comments like "here, here" or "well said, may I share?" makes me feel good sometimes and absolves me from getting my hands dirty. I could order every beautiful heirloom tomato in that catalog, put them in a drawer, and never plant a one. Then, while eating a boring BLT with tasteless grocery store tomatoes, I could grumble about how it's society that gives me these red waterbags when I asked for some flavor. I could write a thinkpiece about it.

It's time, I guess, to admit something that I've always kind of known. Thinkpieces don't put heirloom tomatoes in BLTs. Actions do. That's what An Unkindness of Ghosts is about. Actions, I mean. Not BLTs. Anyway, just read. This is the last one. You'll survive.

"Zero BLTs!" - Howie's Book Club

On paper, the character of Aster could be easily dismissed as the most PC character ever to be found in fiction. She is black, intersex, and probably somewhere on the autism scale. Instead of being a handful of cliches, though, she's deep and complex and funny; even if sometimes her humor is unintentional. Aster is a passenger on the HSS Matilda, an ark in space built to escape a dying Earth in search of another habitable planet. The Matilda is massive, with multiple labyrinthine decks surrounding a center filled with rotating crop fields and a nuclear reactor known as Baby Sun.

Somehow in the time since the ship departed several hundred years ago, the same kinds of people who would say something like "I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another.... Our families were strong, our country had a direction," found themselves in power. We don't know how long they've been in charge, but it has been long enough that most folks don't know any other life. If ever there was a democracy, it has been replaced by some kind of succession-based monarchy/theocracy. The sovereign is selected by God and his will is His, that kind of thing. Surprise! It's super racist.

Aster is on Q deck where it's almost always dark and the power is regularly restricted, leaving the residents with no heat. Guards patrol everywhere and do everything you'd expect small-minded people with no oversight would do. Aster, already struggling to belong anywhere because of analytical brilliance paired with a basic inability to decipher social cues, also straddles the two most distant social classes. Aster is essentially a slave, but also the assistant to the ship surgeon, one of the highest ranking members of the ship.

At first I thought that not fitting neatly into the mythical this-or-that sex binary was also a metaphor for being stuck between worlds, but I don't think that's the author's intention. It's just who Aster is and she is unashamed. I bet most real life people want a rare physical condition to be a defining character point, and this fictional one probably doesn't either. Aster, like most of the women on her deck, is the product of repeated and horrible trauma. Nobody wants that to define them, either, but usually that's not their choice.

Anyway, there's lots of stuff going on here, but essentially we're looking at a science fiction treatment of the antebellum slavery South. If you're on the top deck, or even one of the mid-decks, you're whte and things are A-OK. Even if you're in a middle deck and white, at least there's someone who has it worse than you, which is almost as good as being rich. You're on a thrilling adventure through space and you're probably not in a particular hurry to get to where you're going. Like Sara Miller, the real-life white Mississippi woman whose words appeared in this blog a while ago, you love the annual festivals and feasts but don't spend a lot of time worrying about the backs of people upon whom your entire life is propped.

A world that is unbearable for so many multitudes cannot continue, even if it's comfortable for a few.
Aster didn't mean it. As much as it frustrated her, she understood the logic of Giselle's psychosis. Everything dies, so exert control by burning it away yourself. Everything will be born again anyway. There's no such thing as creation, merely a shuffling of parts. All birth is rebirth in disguise. 
This book is so well-constructed you could use it as a text for how to build a novel. Nothing is introduced without being paid off in some way, even from the first page. It would almost seem coincidental, but there's a good reason for it. It's full of perfectly fired Chekhov's guns. In one case a literal one.

It's also relentlessly brutal because guess what; An Unkindness of Ghosts isn't really about a ship in space. If you're going to write a sci-fi treatment analyzing American slavery, it's going to be gnarly as f. It has to be. It would be irresponsible to delve into this kind of thing otherwise because while the very concept of enslavement is evil, it only touches on the depravity that was not only prevalent during that era, but actively and systematically protected by every level of government. Trying to talk about slavery as an abstract concept without dealing with rape, abuse, neglect, torture, and all of the rest of it is like when hotel staff just wipe the glasses out with a towel and put the paper back on top. It looks cleaner, but the nasty stuff hasn't gone anywhere.

I'm curious if multiple arks went out in multiple directions, each one morphing into its own new society over hundreds of years. Was this the natural progression based on the future society that existed before the ships took off? Or did a pluralistic society with a few weeds lurking in there eventually get corrupted? Or is this the natural tendency of humans when left to their own devices? Those are pretty good questions. There are an infinite number of possible outcomes for the other ships, some may be beacons of human innovation and paragons of equality, but the HSS Matilda isn't one of them. At least not yet. With someone like Aster aboard, anything seems possible.