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Posts Tagged ‘Ammonite’

Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite was published in 1992, but it seems to me to live deeply in the shadow of other works of SF. Not that this is necessarily a problem, of course; building on the work of others is how we progress. On the other hand, Ammonite is so beholden to other, celebrated novels, that it can be difficult to judge it as a book in its own right.

ammonite

At least if you’re inclined to worry about the Bechdel Test (personally, I’m not) this novel will make you happy. It’s kind of inevitable that Ammonite passes the includes-conversations-between-two-women test as, not only is every character a woman, but many of them don’t actually know what a man is.

This is because Griffith lays her scene on the peculiarly unevocatively-named planet of Jeep, where an endemic virus kills all men. Nevertheless, a thriving human colony has been established there for many centuries, although the circumstances of how it got there are left vague. One of the odd things about Griffiths’ milieu is that the general level of technology isn’t obviously very much more advanced than our own, but nevertheless it seems that interstellar colonisation has been a going concern for so long that details of early missions have been entirely lost. A grasping exploitative megacorporation – you know the sort of thing I mean – has the remains of an outpost trapped on the quarantined planet (only the female crew survived) and work on a vaccine is underway.

The protagonist is anthropological observer Marghe, who’s being inserted onto Jeep to test the vaccine and attempt to discover how an all-female population manages to replenish itself. Almost inevitably, Marghe has a few personal issues of her own to deal with, and the struggles she faces on Jeep lead to her a deeper understanding of herself, as well as the planet she is on.

So why is it called Ammonite? Is the secret of Jeep tied up with the mysteries of mollusc biology? Er, no. The reason why doesn’t really constitute a spoiler, but it’s a bit involved. Anyway, I would probably have called the book Trilobite, as it manages to balance three separate strands rather elegantly. On one level, this book is an exercise in world-building, detailing the history and the different cultures of Jeep (there are a few aliens lurking in the undergrowth, but they don’t directly impact on the plot much). The women on Jeep have a tribal society which is, for the most part, informed by Celtic, steppe nomad, and perhaps Mesoamerican influences. Why should this be? I sense it is more thematic than anything else, as Griffith is attempting to establish Jeep in contrast to the patriarchal western paradigm of modern society, and Celtic society has all sorts of matriarchal and counter-cultural associations.

That said, Jeep isn’t presented as any kind of utopia, and in another sense this is a very modern kind of planetary romance, with Marghe having various encounters and adventures with the different native factions: one of the tribeswomen turns out to be an absolute nutter and there is plenty of grisly bloodshed before everything is resolved. There are also various shenanigans involving the commander of the corporate outpost trying to resolve the conflict between her duty to her employers and the fact that said employers have a warship in orbit ready to wipe them out should the virus look like getting off-planet. This stuff was rather to my taste, but then hey, I’m a bloke.

On the other hand, the third strand of the book is a very personal, internalised story about a woman coming to terms with her own identity as a person, rather than as a scientist or an employee. In this sense it’s a character piece, perhaps even shading towards a full-on romance. Griffith is very matter-of-fact in a book which inevitably contains a lot of lesbian characters: no-one is described in those terms, even the off-worlders who would know the word, and no-one treats it as remotely unusual. Ammonite did win an award for LGBT literature, but there isn’t much of an SF spin on this angle, and perhaps this is why I found my own response to the book to be rather muted.

Griffith’s depiction of a complex, monogendered society inevitably (to my mind, at least) recalls Ursula LeGuin and in particular The Left Hand of Darkness (there’s even an astonishingly visceral and vivid trek-across-the-icy-wasteland sequence). But Jeep is less biologically radical than Gethen, and its society less alien. Central to the book as a piece of SF is the Jeep virus, and while I’m not quite prepared to go all the way and say this is just a Magic Plot Device, it does seem to be a remarkably convenient and polymathic little virus: it kills off all men, gives some people who carry it massively enhanced memories and sensory faculties (even to the point of recalling past lives), enables a form of parthenogenesis, and so on. It’s an SF plot device, certainly, the enabling novum of the book, but the consequences of the virus are more emotional and social than biological. This is ‘soft’ SF with a strong emotional spin to it.

And, hey, there’s nothing wrong with that if it’s your sort of thing. Ammonite is well-crafted and structured, and indeed I feel a bit mean for being so lukewarm for it, given that’s mainly because it’s not as extravagant in its SF content as I would have liked, or as traditional in its action-adventure quotient. This book is partly about getting out of the clutches of some of the traditional male-dominated hetero-normative SF tropes. I suppose it does a pretty good job, and it is an engaging read. It’s just that if I had known exactly what kind of party this was going to turn out to be, I might have been a bit less likely to turn up.

 

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