A book review: Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith

26 06 2015


I purchased this book in the expectation that it might be a work of hard SF. As it transpires, in my judgment, it’s not (for reasons outlined below); but that didn’t dilute my enjoyment of it.

I’ve had only passing acquaintance with Nicola Griffith’s writing before this: so far as I know, the only story of hers that I have read is ‘It Takes Two’, from Jonathan Strahan’s Eclipse 3 anthology (reviewed here). Ammonite, her debut novel, published in 1992, won both the Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Fiction and the James Tiptree, Jr. Award for SF / Fantasy exploring gender issues. Griffith’s second (unrelated) novel, Slow River (1995), won the Nebula Award, and she’s achieved other notable success since then as well. To the best of my knowledge, there are no companion novels to Ammonite, though I surmise from its title that her first pro-sale short story, ‘Mirrors and Burnstone’ (which appeared in Interzone in 1988) is backstory to the events that occur in the novel.

Ammonite is an impressively-realised, well-rounded piece of SF speculation: the characterisation is crisp, the worldbuilding is detailed and the plotting is patient and precise. There are aspects of the writing that had me in mind of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, and some of the Culture novels of Iain M Banks, in terms of the sheer immersiveness of the invoked environment; and yet Griffith’s voice is distinctive from any of these authors.

Marghe (Marguerite Angelica Taishan) has elected to travel, as SEC representative, to ‘Jeep’ (the spoken contraction of ‘GP’, which is itself the abbreviation for Grenchstom’s Planet), a virus-ravaged, human-settled world. There have been no men alive on Jeep for centuries, only women, existing in small, isolated communities; the virus, dangerous and sometimes fatal for women, is invariably deadly towards human males. Marghe, a highly-trained anthropologist, has two tasks: one is to learn as much as she can about the sociology of this bizarre and only recently-rediscovered world (with an eye to judging how much of an opportunity, and how much of a threat, Jeep poses to the rest of human-occupied space), and the other is to act as guinea pig for an experimental and possibly-hazardous vaccine, FN-17, that may, and then again may not, successfully inoculate her against the possibly-deadly virus. Her mission is designed to last a maximum of six months, since this is the ‘best before’ date on the final booster dose of the vaccine. And, of course, these missions always go according to plan, don’t they? Always.

It will probably come as no surprise that, though Jeep hosts neither mice nor men, things gang agley, partly through Marghe’s own choices – she takes it into her head to set out north, into inhospitable territory, in the approaching winter, on what promises to be a wild goose chase for the previous SEC representative, missing and very possibly murdered – and partly due to circumstances beyond her control: natural hazards, human hostility, treachery, the weight of history. It is a quest on which she repeatedly risks death. Death, too, waits in the sky, or to be more pedantic, in orbit around the planet: unknown to most of Jeep’s unhabitants (save those of the marginalised military outpost of Port Central), a cruiser, the Kurst, stands ready to sterilise or seal off the world to prevent its hazardous viral freight from ever propagating further afield. Finally, to make matters worse, Marghe’s well-meant anthropological interventions across Jeep have unintended consequences. She may just have set in motion something disastrous …

I may have given the impression, in the above paragraphs, that Ammonite is a recounting of Marghe against the world; but this is not the case. There is a rich cast of fully-realised supporting characters, such as the Port Central military commander Danner, who feels compelled to rebel against her own ordained authority; a perspective contrasting with that of the barbarian leader-to-be Aoife, who appears almost totally constrained by the rules and strictures of her tribe; the hunter Leifin, whose rescue of Marghe masks a mysterious privacy and dark secrets; the malevolent and dangerous Uaithne; the wise and multitalented Thenike, a storyteller who encourages Marghe to discover deeper truths about herself and about the world; the lovers and soldiers Dogias and Lu Wai; and many, many more. Each player is distinct, each action and reaction nicely plausible. It holds together well.

I noted above that Ammonite appealed to me as a possible work of hard SF. I don’t believe that it does so qualify, not because its focus is principally upon the social sciences rather than the physical (although there is a lot of impressive medical and biological detail present), but because it makes recourse to mystical elements which, to my mind, are properly fantastical rather than based in scientific practice. This didn’t, as I say, diminish my appreciation of the story – it helps that the world of Jeep is exceptionally well realised (and populated by thoroughly believable characters) – and I would go so far as to suggest that people whose normal preference is for character-driven hard SF (say, for example, the work of C J Cherryh, Greg Egan, or Alastair Reynolds) would probably find Ammonite to their liking, provided that they’re not allergic to the occasional (fairly sparse) mention of concepts such as dowsing.

And what are we to make of Jeep’s most noteworthy characteristic – a world populated by women? Well, it’s a world populated by women. That, in essence, is pretty much it. If you’re looking for polemicism, you can look elsewhere than in this review, or in Griffith’s book, because (on my reading of it, at least) there really isn’t anything in Ammonite by way of overt gender diatribe. What is in the book is a detailed depiction, warts and all, of a microcosm of distinct all-female communities, not all of which interact positively with each other. It’s a compelling piece of visualisation, and it certainly helps that the story which connects them is propulsive and engrossing. Jeep is an enthralling world, and it’s detailed enough to be worth returning to.




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