Sunday, April 13, 2014

Ammonite - Nicola Griffith

Ammonite (1992) is Nicola Griffith's début novel. She has produced only a handful of novels since then but they have been generally very well received. I recently read her latest novel Hild, a historical novel based on what little is known about the life of the seventh century saint Hilda of Whitby. Hild is a fascinating book, one of the best I read last year, so naturally I was curious about the rest of Griffith's oeuvre. Ammonite must have made quite an impression as well. It was nominated for the BSFA and Clarke awards and won the Tiptree and Lambda Literary Award. Not bad at all for a début novel.

Centuries ago, on the planet Jeep a virus has destroyed the human colony. It is inevitably fatal to men but the mortality rate among women is only about 20 percent. Slowly a society made up entirely of women has evolved but now the company that sent the colonists in the first place, is trying to regain a foothold. The send anthropologist Marghe Taishan to test a new vaccine and to uncover the secrets of Jeep society. One question in particular is of interest to Marghe. How do these women procreate? As Marghe learns more about Jeep and its people it becomes clear that leaving is not an option. Marghe will have to find a way to protect Jeep from the company's attention in order to save her new home.

I recently read another novel featuring an all female planet: A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski. It was published a few years earlier than Ammonite but takes a different approach in the way that biology and ecology are at the heart of the novel instead of anthropology. If I compare the two, the difference couldn't be greater. Where Slonczewski makes the contrast between male and female absolute, eventually dragging the entire story down to a good versus evil tale, Griffith's story is more subtle. The planet is populated by people who happen to be women, not a utopian caricature in sight.

So how do women get on without men then? Just fine really. Sure, Jeep has had to take a few steps back technologically after contact with the rest of humanity had been lost, but for the most part, life goes on as usual. There is agriculture, trade, a rich cultural life based on story telling traditions and, of course, war. I must admit that looking back on it, this was not quite what I had expected. Ammonite is often mentioned as being a feminist work. I suppose it is in a way but it doesn't really concern itself with male/female relationships or how the absence of one gender would impact the other. Even the main character doesn't really study the planet in that light. She is mostly interested in the puzzle of procreation.

That doesn't mean Marghe doesn't make a lot of observations about other elements of society however. As a trained anthropologist she immediately notices something odd about the language that is used for instance. While the spoken language on Jeep is a form of English, the various tribes and people use vocabulary form languages that were extinct even before their ancestors left Earth. Gaelic she is most exposed to but others show up too in the story. It's a riddle tied into the spiritual life of the people on Jeep, and one that is ultimately tied to the riddle of procreation.

Although, as a scientist, Marghe is supposed to keep a bit of distance between the object she is studying and herself, she quickly discovers this is impossible. The planet has swallowed her whole and even though she suffers terribly at times, the realization that she will never leave it, is something of a liberation. The culture of the peoples of Jeep relies for a large part on oral traditions. News is spread by traveling wise women, who also settle disputes, entertain and, if they are talented in that area, heal. It's a life that appeals to Marghe, who sees both the spiritual side as well as the structure of storytelling from a scientific point of view. Quite a bit of the novel is taken up by her struggle to reconcile her desires with the mission.

Griffith uses the vaccine Marghe has been given to test as a way to ramp up the pressure. She has a six month supply, after that she will inevitably contract the virus and, if she survives at all, be stuck on the planet. Early on in the novel, Marghe struggles against the planet, she works to get the job done as fast as possible and get out again. There is a clear breaking point in the novel were this becomes impossible. I thought the process of struggle, acceptance and embracing her new life was very well done. It does make it a very introspective novel however, not all readers will like that.

Tiptree and Russ are usually considered influences on Griffith's writing, I haven't read anything by either of them but from what I've read about them it seems quite obvious. With all the anthropology in this novel, there may well be a bit of Ursula K. Le Guin in it too. What surprised me was finding a passage in the story that reminded me of the control the Bene Gesserit, a sisterhood from Frank Herbert's Dune universe, have over their bodies. The ability to look inside at the molecular level seems fitting however. Looking inside and examining both the most intimate desires as well as the most basic levels of how the body works are another expression of the introvert nature of this novel. For Marghe who is very aware of sensory input and  feelings throughout the novel, they are almost the same thing.

Ammonite didn't quite make the same impression on me as Hild. It is a very good novel in its own right but Griffith's writing obviously developed over the course of two decades. Jeep is not brought to life in the way seventh century England is. That being said, it is a very solid science fiction novel. It can be read as a response to the feminist science fiction that has come before but it works fine as a social science fiction story as well. I'll be moving on to her Nebula Award winning novel Slow River as soon as I can get my hands on it.

Book Details
Title: Ammonite
Author: Nicola Griffith
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 400
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-11823-2
First published: 1992

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