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Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith.

February 29, 2012

Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith. Del Rey (2002), Paperback, 416 pages.

Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite is a wonderful adventure novel, full of suspense and insight. It is my new, all-time favorite, women’s fantasy/scifi favorite.

The planet, Jeep, had been initially colonized by people from earth, but a deadly virus killed all the men and many of the women. Although no cure or preventive had been found for the virus, the women who survived were immune, empowered with new sensitivities and capable of reproducing without male involvement. After centuries, the Company, a profit-hungry, interplanetary organization, is again seeking to control the virus, figure out how the women on Jeep reproduce, and exploit the planet for their own gain. A small group of their employees, all women, live on Jeep in hopes of advancing these goals. As the book opens, Marghe, an anthropologist hired by the Company, arrives on the planet, testing a new vaccine. She travels beyond the boundary of the Company settlement and is caught up in a series of adventures that threaten her identity, her life and human life on the planet.

Griffith is amazingly causal about the fact that the world she has created is totally without men. Women do absolutely everything. Nothing is ever said about allegedly female abilities. Lesbian passion is taken for granted. When Griffith writes about towns, all the people we see are women. The women are varied, physically and emotionally. Some have names that indicate racial diversity, but Griffith never pushes that point. Some individuals and even whole tribes are warped and dangerous. Violence and self-defense are definitely part of life, but they are seldom glorified. Hierarchy exists and tribal warfare takes place, but there is no permanent racial or class oppression. Men are simply not present or even discussed or blamed. If they may run the Company, they are never identified as doing so.

In her afterward, Griffith discusses she wants her books to show that women really are human.

I am tired of token women being strong in a man’s world by taking on male attributes…I am equally tired of women-only worlds where all the characters are wise, kind, beautiful, stern seven-foot vegetarian amazons who would never dream of killing anyone. I am tired of reading about aliens who are really women and women who are really aliens.
Women are not aliens. Take away men and we do not automatically loss our fire and intelligence and sex drive.

Yet in the end, the book is a novel that “shows readers other ways to be…that takes them to other places where the air and temperature and myths are not the same.”

Griffith’s plot centers on change, the personal change Marghe and some of the other women undergo and the massive change being forced on all who live on the planet. In Girffith’s hands, change is not simple, pleasant growth but a frightening and dangerous process of letting loose of the known and moving into the unknown. Tension in the book comes from the need to deal with change. Women gain in self-reliance, but they are never in total control. The Company’s ability to destroy them all is ever-present.

As Marghe travels she is forced into dangerous situations and new understandings of who she is. The ammonite, a small stone image, comes to signify, for her, a new completeness. She had brought her own memories and ghosts to Jeep, but she also brought extensive training in yoga and meditation. Like the women of Jeep she can watch and control her own body processes. It’s not magic, but a level of self-control most of us can barely imagine.

Griffith is an excellent writer. The women in the book are surely drawn, yet flexible and able to develop and change. The scope of her vision makes it easy to accept minor discomforts.

I discovered this book on the list for the Gender in Fantasy and Science Fiction Challenge. It is an exciting book and one that I will be thinking about for a long time. Has Griffith really imagined a world that functions without social categories like gender, race and class? Is change really possible? Can the women survive in the future? Can we survive change?

This book gets my highest recommendation.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 29, 2012 9:34 pm

    Ohhhh: I ran right over to my library website to put in a hold request only to find that they don’t have it! I’ll have to do ILL instead, but I cannot wait.

  2. March 1, 2012 12:43 pm

    I hope you like it. Sometimes I worry about whether my enthusiasms are always shared.

  3. March 4, 2012 5:24 pm

    Hmmm. Interesting! From the quotation you posted, it sounds like it’s a response to an entire genre, but it really sounds like it’s at least in part an answer to Herland.

  4. March 4, 2012 7:56 pm

    An answer to Gilman and many other feminist utopias. I was tempted to quote the whole long passage. Griffith’s comments about her aims in writing the book are wonderfully thought-provoking.


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