Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite (1992)

I’ve been quite interested in reading more science fiction in recent months, to make up for my lack of knowledge about the field.  It so turns out that The Orion Publishing Group has released an extensive series called “SF Masterworks” which includes not only famous classics but many more obscure books that I had never heard of.  I first came across the series when I was looking to read Brian Aldiss’ Non-Stop, and since then I’ve grabbed up a number of other intriguing volumes, including Nicola Griffith’s 1992 novel Ammonite.

Ammonite is a fascinating novel about an encounter with a culture which is ostensibly human but also very alien.  It is also a novel that explores gender roles and the meaning of gender, and can be considered a strong feminist science fiction novel.

The novel is set on a planet known as Grenchstom’s Planet, or “Jeep” (GP) for short. The planet was originally colonized centuries before the beginning of the novel, but contact was lost soon afterward and only reestablished in recent years. When the Durallum Company sent new settlers to the planet, they learned why the original colony lost contact: a virus endemic to Jeep quickly kills all men and many women.  The women of the original colony that survived have regressed to a tribal state, and have only limited contact with the survivors of the new colony, who are quarantined and cannot leave the planet.

Into this somewhat stagnant situation comes Marghe Taishan, an anthropologist who works for the government Settlement and Education Councils (SEC).  She is allowed to go to Jeep by the rather authoritarian Durallum Company because she can be used as a test subject for a new vaccine.  But her true goal is to study the culture and the people of Jeep, and answer many questions about them. For example: how has a colony that consists only of women managed to survive hundreds of years? How do the inhabitants of Jeep reproduce?

Marghe has a history with the Company and their brutal methods and is naturally suspicious of them — with justification, as it will turn out.  Upon arriving planetside, she quickly leaves the Company colonists behind and sets out to learn more about the now native inhabitants of the world.  In traveling northwards during winter, she first becomes the captive of a nomadic tribe, and then later finds shelter in a peaceful village. But Marghe’s arrival and actions on the planet have set plans into motion, both from the locals and the Company, and the two worlds will violently collide in a way that will determine the fate of all living on Jeep — and reveal the secret of Jeep’s survival.

Ammonite is an interesting novel, and one that draws obvious comparisons to Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), in that both novels explore concepts of gender through a branch of humanity different from ours. Ammonite leans more towards an exploration of feminism and being a woman, whereas Le Guin’s novel studied in detail the concept of gender. The similarities are striking, though, even with both novels being partially focused on a struggle to survive in a frigid wasteland.  I imagine that Griffith was partially inspired by Le Guin’s classic work.

Ammonite started slowly for my taste, carefully putting together a collection of characters with their own interests and motivations — Company workers on Jeep, natives in different tribes, researchers on an orbiting satellite, and Marghe herself.  But once it gets going, about halfway through, the growing clash between the different factions becomes quite compelling, and the intrigue among the local Company colonists becomes as interesting as Marghe’s struggles themselves.

Ammonite was Griffith’s first novel, and it had a significant impact, winning both the Lambda Literary Award for LGBT fiction as well as the James Tiptree, Jr. Award. She has written numerous novels since then, including So Lucky, which just came out in May this year.  I will definitely be looking up more work of hers to read in the near future.

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