Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
Published: Grafton, 1993
Awards Won: James Tiptree Jr Award, Lambda Award
Awards Nominated: British Science Fiction Association Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award
“Change or die. These are the only options available on the planet Jeep. Centuries earlier, a deadly virus shattered the original colony, killing the men and forever altering the few surviving women. Now, generations after the colony has lost touch with the rest of humanity, a company arrives to exploit Jeep–and its forces find themselves fighting for their lives. Terrified of spreading the virus, the company abandons its employees, leaving them afraid and isolated from the natives.
In the face of this crisis, anthropologist Marghe Taishan arrives to test a new vaccine. As she risks death to uncover the women’s biological secret, she finds that she, too, is changing–and realizes that not only has she found a home on Jeep, but that she alone carries the seeds of its destruction. . . .” ~barnesandnoble.com
Ammonite is the August book for the Alphabet Soup Challenge at the Calico Reaction blog. This is the first book I’ve read by Nicola Griffith, and it is her first novel. I assumed, from the description and the awards it had won, that Ammonite would explore gender and LGBT themes. It certainly does that, through the all-female planet of Jeep. The goal of Ammonite on this count seemed to be to portray women as individuals, and lesbian relationships as simply relationships.
I was first impressed with the setting of Ammonite, Grenchstom’s Planet (a.k.a. GP, Jeep). Jeep is a fully realized alien world, though most of its current sentient inhabitants are human. Griffith’s descriptions of the sights and smells of Jeep, the alien weather, and the strange creatures are so vivid that you can almost close your eyes and imagine yourself there. Aside from the alien setting, the main science fiction elements involved with the story are extreme biofeedback (controlling one’s body on a cellular level) and genetic memory. I thought it was kind of interesting to see a story based around these concepts, since they don't seem to be particularly popular in fiction these days. Biofeedback abilities and genetic memory are also tied into the Jeep virus, though the science behind the virus comes off as pretty mystical. Altogether, I found the Jeep “virus” a little frustrating from a hard science point of view, but I eventually just accepted the mysticism and went along for the ride.
The human communities on Jeep are portrayed with just as much attention to detail. The idea of an all-female society is not a new one to science fiction, but the usual representations of these societies lean heavily on stereotypical ideas of female behavior. In an essay at the end of the novel, Griffith states that she intended to show that an all-female society would still be a society formed of people who cover ‘the entire spectrum of human behavior’. Jeep has its violent, insular, culture-bound raiding tribes, but it also has peaceful societies based around herding, farming, and/or trade. The many characters, from the violently delusional Uaithne, to the peaceful traveler Thenike, to the hunter Leifin, show a broad variety of personalities and behavior.
Out of all of the many characters, it struck me as a little odd that there was no discussion of the absence of men. I can accept that the colonists of Jeep would, at this point, not really be able to even conceptualize any discontent with the situation. After all, there have been no men on Jeep for hundreds of years—they have no idea what men even are, at this point. However, the abandoned Company representatives, Hannah Danner and her soldiers, were only expecting to be on Jeep for several years. Being faced with the possibility of spending the rest of their life on Jeep, I would imagine that at least some of the young women would be positively devastated. The absence of any distress on this count, from anyone, struck me as a little unrealistic.
While I enjoyed reading about many of the characters, I felt like the protagonist, anthropologist Marghe, had a rather bland personality. She didn’t really seem to have any strong convictions or motivations, and seemed to pick up whatever motivation was convenient for the scene at hand. Since a great deal of the plot concerned Marghe’s journey of self-discovery on Jeep, my lack of a sense of her fundamental character lowered my level of interest in much of the plot. I preferred reading the brief segments about Danner, the abandoned Company leader who was trying to cope with the possibility of never leaving Jeep. However, the simplicity of Danner's faceless Company grated on me a little bit. We’ve all seen this ‘Company’ before, in movies like Fern Gully or Avatar. Its one principle is profit, and it will predictably follow the path to the most money, even if that path includes genocide. Even with the simplistic dynamics between Company and their abandoned personnel, I found Danner's difficult situation to be much more compelling than Marghe's wanderings.
My Rating: 3/5
Ammonite contains an incredibly detailed alien world described in vivid detail. The wide varieties of all-female communities on the planet Jeep are complex and mostly believable, though I was a little surprised that no problems arising from the absence of men were addressed. The future science elements – biofeedback and genetic memory—are not really treated in a scientifically rigorous way, and the reader is expected to accept quite a lot of mysticism. Though many of the characters were quite compelling, I thought that the main character, Marghe, seemed rather bland and wishy-washy. Since much of the book focused on her self-discovery, this did seriously affect my enjoyment of the novel. I was most intrigued by the plight of the abandoned Company personnel, headed by Danner, but a frustratingly small amount of time was spent featuring these characters. Overall, if you’re willing to accept the premises, Ammonite delivers an interesting story.