Review of Sorrowland
Solomon, Rivers. Sorrowland. MCD Books, 2021. 368 pp, $14.45, ISBN 9780374266776.
In relation to both gender and genre, Rivers Solomon pushes boundaries. Their first novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts (2017), launched them into the literary scene and was shortlisted for several awards. Solomon maintains Unkindness’s queer and Afrofuturist themes in their subsequent novels and continuously engages with African American history. Sorrowland (2021), Solomon’s third and most recent novel, features a cast of queer characters, including intersex protagonist, Vern. The novel follows Vern as she evades a Black separatist commune-turned-religious-cult, the Blessed Acres of Cain, from which she has fled. In the first half of the novel, Vern hides from her pursuers in the woods of a speculative contemporary American South, an unconventional setting for the SF genre. The novel further toys with the reader’s generic expectations, employing tropes and figures traditionally associated with the gothic and the fantastic.
The novel is queer from the opening pages, as Vern gives birth to twins Howling and Feral and does not bother to look at Howling’s genitalia after birth (the sex of the babies is never revealed to the reader). She decides not to gender them, concluding that such matters are of no concern in the woods. Vern and the children’s relationship with the woods may trouble readers in the first half, as Solomon’s initial characterization could potentially stabilize the problematic nature/culture binary. However, the latter half of the novel, which follows Vern and the children after they leave the woods, complicates such a reading. As Vern and the children come into their own, she realizes the naivete of her escapism. Vern’s time in the compound and the years she and the children live in the woods, in fact, leads them to encounter the novel’s speculative United States as strangers. Solomon utilizes free indirect discourse and reading through Vern’s, and later Howling’s, perspectives defamiliarizes the novel’s setting, evoking the same sense of cognitive estrangement common to temporally or spatially distanced SF.
Solomon uses gothic and fantastic conventions that are particularly associated with Southern and African American literature, continuing the push to open SF to the experiences and voices of authors whom the genre has excluded based on race and region. Further, Vern’s ambiguous references to “hauntings” and to a “fiend” stalking her in the opening scenes, evoking the gothic or fantastic, unmoor the reader, making it difficult to place the novel in place or time. These “hauntings” originate in Cainland and appear to follow Vern after her escape. For Vern, they materialize in human form, featuring both familiar and foreign faces, increasing in number and intensity as the plot unfolds. The science fictional nature of Sorrowland is not confirmed until the latter third of the novel, a move that, while not unique to SF, sidesteps the norm and contributes to the novel’s interrogation of genre, particularly as it pertains to Black experience. Vern discovers that her hauntings, and the strange developments in her body that she begins to notice shortly after the birth of her children, are the result of a government conspiracy with Cainland at its center: Cainites are being used for medical experimentation. Joining the gothic/fantastic and science fiction through hauntings displaying the history of violence on black bodies highlights how these genres can both reflect and be limited by an antiblack culture.
Vern is forced out of the woods when the symptoms of this experimentation take a turn for the worse, making her fear she will die and leave her children abandoned as a rapidly developing exoskeleton leeches her body of energy. Once the novel moves out of the woods, the introduction of Gogo, a queer woman of Lakota descent, provides a welcome shift in plot and intensity, the novel’s underlying detective structure becoming more realized with Gogo taking on the role of co-investigator and love interest. Gogo identifies as winkte, a term from her Lakota heritage that is definitionally fluid, pushing against the binary constructs of gender and sexuality in the Anglo world as well as those in fundamentalist Cainland. Gogo enables Vern to not only become more comfortable with her sexuality but also to better understand her changing body.
Solomon thus forges a unique and fruitful link between the novel’s queer and posthumanist themes. Their inclusion of queer and intersex characters and of Black characters with albinism brings to the fore the many ways bodies naturally resist categorization, and this queer lens compliments the novel’s science fictional rendering of posthumanist perspectives. Together they undermine notions of fixity and autonomy and the naturalized, humanist hierarchy placing the human above the non-human. Solomon instead favors the cyborg, the porous being, the process of becoming, the mutual interpenetration of human and nonhuman nature, the rhizome. Vern refers to her developing exoskeleton as her “little passenger,” an echo of the language she uses to explain germs, viruses, and sickness to her children. Vern does not see her passenger as a separate entity threatening her bodily autonomy; rather, she sees it as an organism doing what it needs to do (the same way she views her body’s adaptation to it). Near the end of the novel, she acknowledges that her passenger has turned her into her “true self.”
Sorrowland presents scholars with a case study of how queerness, Blackness, and science fiction intersect. The novelreframes African American history with science fictional tropes, like P Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout (2020), where grave-robbing “night doctors” and Klansmen are likened to literal alien body snatchers, or Bill Campbell’s Koontown Killing Kaper (2013), which extrapolates from the government-made crack epidemic in a darkly funny monster-noir narrative. Foregrounding the incredibly science fictional nature of Black history and experience, Solomon draws a genealogy between the novel’s fictional experimentation and its historical precedents, referencing MKUltra, Project 112, Edgewood, and Tuskegee. These novels together ask: how fictional is science fiction?
Themes such as trauma and collective memory connect Sorrowland with African American literary predecessors across genres, its spectral figures, of course, evoking Beloved (1987). However, Solomon moves beyond the trauma narrative, as these undead are neither psychological manifestations of trauma nor merely tragic figures. Because Vern’s passenger is a mycelium, she becomes part of a subterranean matrix, tied through the earth to the knowledge and experiences of the dead who have carried this fungus.
These are not ghosts to be excised; they are part of an Afrofuturist-networked consciousness, inseparable and codetermining. Solomon‘s play with genre and history provides scholars with fruitful ground, highlighting how their science fictional fungus is just one iteration of this kind of Afrofuturist work. Drawing from and celebrating subversive and/or non-Western knowledges and technologies and connecting Black people across time and space through various engagements with collective memory sits at the core of the African American literary tradition. Sorrowland, as such, can serve as a point of departure in conversations about the ever-evolving definitions of Afrofuturism and SF.