Ammonite by Nicola Griffith

On the planet Jeep there are only two options: change or die. A virus centuries ago wiped out all of the planet’s men and altered their women, who survive somehow reproducing despite the lack of males. Anthropologist Marghe Taishan is sent to the planet to find out the secrets of their society, and to test out a new vaccine which will allow Company to exploit the planet for its natural resources. But she soon finds that she is changing, and the women of Jeep are much more than they seem. A profound and moving novel, Ammonite stands in the tradition of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Joanna Russ’ The Female Man as an evocative study of the role of gender in society, and what it means to be human.

This was not Earth; this was Jeep, a planet of alien species, a place where the human template of dual sexes had been torn to shreds and thrown away.

Or . . . that’s how it was sold to me. At least, that’s how it seems that it has been sold, ever since it’s publication in 1992. But it took me some time to fathom while reading and since finishing the novel why Jeep needed to have had its men eradicated. There are hints: Company cannot come to the planet (and exploit it) because they are men and the will not survive (although the virus kills about 20% of women, too); the virus represents the male in society, it is destructive and kills (this one does not hold up at all through the narrative of the book). What I have ultimately settled on is that Griffith is aiming so show that a society without men could work – it is imperfect, stone age in its technology, but it works. Having found a way to reproduce without men the human race goes on, and it is not that unfamiliar. But further speculation has made me think a little further: perhaps, perhaps, Griffith has taken a world like, say, Middle Earth (or perhaps more likely Gethen) where the default is male (the use of the male pronoun in Left Hand) and only when a character’s sex matters is that particular character female. Except that Griffith’s default is female – there are no men. And for most of the characters, it doesn’t really matter. What can’t a female character do that a male can?

In that last instance, I used the word “sex” carefully. Because I think that is, really, what Ammonite is about – the quote above from page 56 of the recent Gollancz Masterworks edition seems to reinforce that. The virus has wiped out everyone with a Y chromosome; it does not care about gender identification. This, is feel, is really the fault at the heart of Ammonite and The Female Man – having removed one of the sexes, rather than replaced the binary concept of gender as in The Left Hand of Darkness or, uh, reality, the situation becomes about biologically determined characteristics rather than culturally defined concepts.

But then again . . . Ammonite is sold, as I suggested above, on the basis that it has profound things to say about the sexes, and it won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award for precisely that. But after about three chapters there is no real discussion of sex or gender. There are possibly three mentions of something male (although I can only remember two of those, off the top of my head). Non of the female colonists think about how they might miss men, whether male family members or the male member, even those dissatisfied with the way that things are going on Jeep. In fact, it is either implied or shown that several of them have engaged in same-sex relationships. To take a non-utopian approach, Griffith could be showing how easy it is to have a science fiction novel where lots of the characters are female (indeed, all but one of the speaking characters). Slightly more troubling for me is that she is showing that society could exist perfectly well without the male. And I actually find myself convinced.*

Beyond this major issue, Ammonite is a serviceable SF book. Occasionally suffers from telling-over-showing; we do not see the action from a varied enough perspective, and Griffith has far too much faith in the conviction of Marghe, the main character, which is not entirely warranted. There are, I feel, a few too many loose plot ends, threads started unnecessarily which disappear or are never resolved. I’m willing to let this slide as it was a first novel, although that seems a little patronising. The natives are not alien, and they work as humans who have learned to live on this planet, in these climates, with this virus, without men. The colonists seem to be coping well with those things too (except I really do feel they could have spared a thought for the last one). It is both enjoyable and food for thought, although not quite as much food as I was hoping.

* Since finishing the book I have listened to the In Our Time podcast on Modernist Utopias, which mentions that most utopias are reductive (something has to be taken away from society to make it perfect); through that I learned of Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, perhaps the first example of an SF story about a land occupied only by women (Amazons notwithstanding, of course); and discovered this page on Lesbian utopias on Wikipedia. Of course, Ammonite never uses the word lesbian (fair enough, none of them are from Lesbos) but there it is on that Wikipedia page.

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3 thoughts on “Ammonite by Nicola Griffith

  1. Was Ammonite written from a feminist viewpoint? Is it a reaction against the dominance of men in SF circles, do you think? Or is Griffith simply “writing what she knows”, as it were? It sounds kind of interesting but for me “there is no gender” is far more interesting than “sisters are doing it for themselves”.

    I listened to that In Our Time about utopias. Before listening I thought about the utopias I know of, but couldn’t think of any. They all seemed dystopic to me. The podcast kind of confirmed that with the ‘reductive’ argument. Very interesting. What would you get rid of?

    I recently read Sparks by David Quantick, which was a deeply flawed book but amusing and passed the time, but it’s (loosely) about a secret society that explores alternative worlds in order to find the ‘perfect’ parallel universe (it’s actually about a loser who gets dumped). I think you might enjoy that.

    • It’s certainly playing with gender and theoretically a feminist work; as for “writing what she knows”, the lack of any concept of the possibility of men being sexually attractive/desirable did lead me to check on Wikipedia if she prefered ladies (I’m not proud of this deduction), which she did. Fair enough, I don’t get what’s sexually attractive about men either, hence how I dress and take care of myself. So perhaps there is a part of “writing what she knows”, but it is also exploring the possibility of a society without a binary concept of male and female.

      I only noticed this after I wrote the review, but she could be criticised for the statement “template of dual sexes” – that isn’t what we have on earth. Even in the case of biological sex (as opposed to culturally constructed gender) there are some with both and (apparently very rarely) some with neither secondary sex characteristics. Anyway, that’s not important now.

      There is another IOT on Utopias generally, I think, which points to s decline in utopian thinking after the Nazis and USSR spoilt it for everyone. Utopias aren’t very interesting to read about though, so they are more the product of philosophy (Plato’s Republic, Thomas Moore’s Utopia) than fiction, which tends towards dystopia. Although my understanding is that Brave New World is ambiguous. On which note, if you can find my copy of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed the subtitle of that is “An Ambiguous Utopia”.

      • Parthenogenesis (I can’t remember the ending to The Midwich Cuckoos! Reading fail!). I suppose in all-female species what it means is that there is no y chromosome. It’s a long time since biology GCSE. But some species that reproduce through parthenogenesis still produce males. Fascinating stuff … http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parthenogenesis

        I started listening to my audiobook of A Brave New World again last night. Huxley’s ‘utopia’ really does make me shudder. Pre-destination, pre-conditioning, the lack of free will … although he definitely has a point that happiness comes from “loving what you have to do”. I should think that any utopia is ambiguous, as (if you ask me) happiness is only achievable through ignoring the suffering of others. (I think I’ll read me some Plato later!).

        Did you watch Utopia the other day? http://www.channel4.com/programmes/utopia/4od

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