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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Review: The Dark Knight Rises

Two preambles: I plan on keeping the first part of this entry spoiler-free, but the second half (where I will give a warning) probably will contain a few references to specific moments. Also, this blog will probably be a kind of “one of two” in that I might post some thoughts about the whole Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy later in the week. That will also probably contain spoilers for the whole thing.

I enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises. But there were some problems with it, too. Unlike The Dark Knight there was no central performance which could blow you away; on the other hand Christian Bale is at his best in the series and Anne Hathaway is great, but somewhat underused. I always love Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but again I felt that he could have been a bit more developed. The best performance is probably that of Tom Hardy, in terms of ability to show his stuff (especially given the limitations on facial expression) and to have a character who is well-developed. Marion Cotillard also does justice to an important character whose role must be mostly confined to the boardroom.

The story has its ups and downs. As perhaps is likely in a film of this length it sags a little around the 1.30-2.00 mark. But it starts well and I would say ends well. It is less episodic than the previous Nolan Batman films, which I actually think is a weakness as at times the story feels stretched a little. Something which is mildly spoilerish that I want to say now is that this is perhaps the most rewarding to readers of comic books – The Dark Knight is similar to The Long Halloween, but I’m not sure that you gain anything in the film by having read it. On the other hand, The Dark Knight Rises may well be more satisfying to those of us who have read The Dark Knight Returns, and who understand where some of the features of the story come from.

That word, satisfying, is important. This has been called the end of the series, and it has to feel as such. In some ways it is the third part of a trilogy – as satisfying as Return of the Jedi I suppose. But others who saw the film with me were not impressed, and so I don’t want to speak openly and say that it will definitely satisfy you. I enjoyed it. But there are a couple of places where I feel we could have had more.

Now I am going to get spoileriffic. Not only for Dark Knight Rises, but also a couple of comic books too. You have been warned!

Let’s start with the thing which I found most disappointing about the film: Batman has sex! We’ve never seen this in a Nolan Batman film before, and personally I felt it was a bit weird. From his obsession with Rachel Dawes in the previous two films to his anguish over his parents and the whole Batman thing, you could almost believe that this Bruce Wayne was a virgin. But I think the thing which most dissatisfied me, and perhaps wrongly, was the realisation I had watching Casino Royale over the weekend: Batman doesn’t do guns, and he doesn’t (in Nolan’s universe) do sex; he’s not James Bond. Although there’s also probably the fact that if he was going to have sex with anyone I’d rather it had been Selina Kyle.

The five month siege of Gotham also seemed really farfetched. Why on Earth would the League of Shadows bother with this five month-long experiment in unevolved anarchy only to blow the city up anyway? Were they hoping that Bruce Wayne would come back and save the day? I suppose it could have been to make sure that he saw the city suffering, but I don’t really buy it.

On the other hand, I absolutely loved the misleading story about Bane being Ra’s al Ghul’s child and the final reveal of Talia. As an occasional comic book reader, sometimes, this should have been something which I would spot, but I didn’t and I was very impressed that I’d been misled on this point. Also, I really liked the Robin reveal too – we’d all been thinking it, but to include it in that way was a nicely cheesy reference to the character which could have taught the writers of Smallville a lesson or two!

I quite liked the end, although I admit that I had been expecting something similar. Adapting a couple of elements of the ending of The Dark Knight Returns (how do you dispose of a nuclear bomb without Superman? what end for the Dark Knight?) but really giving Bruce Wayne the clean slate he needed – and the implied relationship with Selina Kyle which some of us at least had wanted – was a nice touch. Perhaps it was a little too neat, and perhaps a more cynical view might have thought Bruce Wayne dying would have been a better ending, but I liked it this way. After all, an end to the legend of the Dark Knight is new territory, Batman having died (as far as I know) only twice, once faked and once actually trapped in another dimension or something. There were no guidelines to follow, but a lot of fans to please. It felt like an ending. Not the most satisfying, but good nonetheless.

Review: Nelson edited by Rob Davies and Woodrow Phoenix

I want to start by saying that Nelson, a Black Slate Books publication edited by Rob Davies and Woodrow Phoenix, is an interesting idea, but I don’t want to come across as too negative on this point. I enjoyed it quite a lot, although the format has some limits. There isn’t really a plot, but there is an idea. That idea is that, through a series of short comics written and drawn by different UK comics artists, a picture of a life could emerge. Each of the fifty-four contributors contributes a year, from 1968 to 2011, with an additional February 29th every leap year.

While I wouldn’t say the quality fluctuates, often the interest can. Also, as there was a five-page limit for each of the contributors, some of the parts feel too short, and limited in scope, despite the life-long scope of the whole endeavour. There are themes which span her entire life, some of which shift into the background and some which emerge much later on. Characters come and go, and while I recommend reading it quite slowly (to get an idea of the time passing) it is also a good idea to keep checking back or making sure you remember who is who.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the comic is the portrait of the eras through which it spans. Nel grows up in the 70s, goes to college in the 80s, and is a mature(-ish) adult in the early 00s. This part is one of the more interesting for me, because some of the historical events which I can remember have their place in the story. For the earlier sections it is interesting to see how attitudes change, and how the social history of Britain could have affected an individual.

The biggest problem is perhaps the lack of a story. Themes are picked up by some artists, dropped by others, and can disappear completely. Of course, over forty-four years this can only be expected. Events of a person’s childhood both may and may not continue to affect their lives forever afterwards. Friends grow apart, and come back together.

As I began: it is interesting. It is affecting and effective, too. With a little more time I think I will want to explore these artists a little more (those who I don’t already know, as I love Bad machinery). Definitely worth a look!

Review: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

I mention my girlfriend a lot in this blog lately, but that’s because in the last four months she’s had a profound effect on my life. This is only a minor effect, but she recommended The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell to me several times, ultimately as a book asking similar questions to the film Prometheus, but which actually engaged with those questions. I have been reading it for a little over a week. For the girlfriend, it was the last book she called in sick to work to finish. I thought that my equivalent was staying up late to finish a book, as I dutifully did last night until about 12:30 (it’s late for me these days!) but then I also failed to go into the library to do work today, so I guess that I do both. A plot summary can be read on goodreads. It is about a Jesuit mission to another planet; the review below contains mild spoilers. It is also a fairly raw review with little meditation on the story besides what I did while reading, and a few minutes afterwards.

First, my problem with the book. The alien societies, while in some ways very different to our own, had too many remarkable similarities. They were capitalists, which highlights a distinct problem with this world that we can’t envision a way of life which is complex and yet different to capitalism besides communism. Even The Dispossessed only manages anarchism, rather than envisioning something entirely different to our own experience. The closest a science fiction book has come to achieving this in my opinion is Embassytown by China Miéville, a book which I already feel like re-reading even though I only read it last year. This theme will be discussed a lot more in my forthcoming second Prometheus blog, which should appear tomorrow.

The next point is one of ambivalence, which will depend on your own subjective experiences of reality to interpret. I believe that, had I read The Sparrow as a teenager, perhaps before the age of twenty-one, it might have made me feel Catholic and believe in a god for a little bit longer. This was the effect of the film Dogma (which I now find to have a fairly juvenile answer to the question of belief, but there you go). I think in many ways it fairly represented the challenge of faith under fire and showed how compassionate and good some priests can be. It mentions but does not explore the darkness which can come from celibacy, or perhaps motivate it. This may simply be a product of the time, but personally I would say that sexual abuse by priests is an issue of the church not of the faith. It is man, not god, who is responsible; thus it is not a concern for this book. Furthermore, I think this would be a very different (and not substantially improved) book had it been written after September 11th 2001. We cannot complain about what the book does not discuss, but in what it does discuss I find many reasons and justifications for faith.

I enjoyed all of the characters, especially Emilio Sandoz, although I would understand how much more difficult the book would be if you didn’t like him. Some of the others fall into the background when they reach Rakhat, which is a shame. But I did not find a single one of them unlikable. In general, I would say the book is a bit better in the build-up to the mission rather than when they are on the planet itself; however it is well paced with revelations and reflections throughout. I would suggest that my (very mild) disappointment with the mission itself is that I did not find the aliens to be as alien as I had been led to believe that they would be; rather much of it seemed like some less developed Earth societies. But this is perhaps because I have focused on the similarities rather than the quite horrific differences. There are a few differences in evolutionary path which make all the difference, and I suppose that is what should be emphasised.

So there we have it: an excellent book which should be food for thought for both the religious and the atheist. I would recommend it to most of the people I know and despite the qualifier I can’t think of a person to whom I would not recommend it. I would be especially interested to hear from anyone who has read it while questioning their faith and the response which they had to it.

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

I thought that The Amazing Spider-Man was a throughly enjoyable film. That’s perhaps the most important thing to say, first of all. I liked Andrew Garfield in the title role. I think he was a suitably teenaged Peter Parker and while people I know have described him as a prick I felt that it was necessary to the role for him to be that much of a prick. Slight spoiler alert, but we don’t see much of the mature Peter Parker in this film – he has barely come to terms with his uncle’s death (that’s not the spoiler) by the end of the film; all we see is the spoilt kid exploiting his powers, then the moody kid upset at the injustice of the world and burdened with the guilt that will make him the hero he is, in the end. Spider-Man is a bit of a prick, and a joker.

Martin Sheen’s performance as Uncle Ben was of course a highlight, although I had been expecting a little more from him; Sally Field was incredibly underused as Aunt May, something which I can only imagine will be rectified in future instalments. This did, however, give a little more time to the Stacys, who are an important part of the comic book version of Spider-Man sadly done very poorly in the previous film series. I liked Gwen, although there was little to distinguish her as a character from Mary Jane Watson, and her father, although a little underdeveloped, was also fairly likable. I wish a little more had been done to develop his role before (mild spoiler) you discover that he’s Gwen’s father, and his justification for going after Spider-Man had seemed a little bit more real. But there is much in Peter and Gwen’s relationship which holds true for a teenaged couple, which is what we were led to expect from a film by the director of (500) Days of Summer. Which I haven’t seen.

The action was less impressive than the relationships – many of the fight scenes felt a little like adverts for the video game. I wasn’t impressed by the CGI, and prefered the scenes when Spider-Man was more obviously a guy in a suit. It is worth saying now that I saw this film in 2D. But it was passable, at least as good as Fantastic Four or the previous Spider-Man films, if not up there with the current Batman series or Avengers Assemble.

Finally, a few words on the problems in the film. While I don’t think the film was a serious offender on many counts the lack of non-white characters, the minimal roles for the female characters, the focus on the interaction between Peter and Uncle Ben, and his missing father (his mother barely receiving a mention), and the obvious greater importance for father/son relationships over mother/daughter (or even father/daughter, with little time spent on Gwen’s relationship with her father either) are easy targets for complaint. Arguably the loss of the father figure is a strong theme in the Spider-Man series, especially in this film. But it’s an overworn theme in any case, and much more interesting things could have been made of it. I suppose the point is that I enjoyed the film, but it didn’t try particularly hard to do anything special with the themes; we might have expected a little more from so sudden a follow-up to the previous series of films.

It is inevitable that this new Spider-Man film will be compared to the previous series of Spider-Man films, only just ten years old. I think that a suitable comparison is between the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher Batman film series and the more recent Christopher Nolan series (sixteen years from Batman to Batman Begins); the former is an increasingly camp, stylized comic book adaptation which ended on one of the worst travesties to have been put to film, while the latter is a darker, more serious attempt to bring the hero to the screen. Now, I didn’t think Batman Begins was brilliant, although I enjoyed it very much, and if forced to compare it to The Amazing Spider-Man then the latter certainly comes out worse. But the point is that the new film is trying something very different, and that is important and worth investigating. I have high hopes for the inevitable sequel, and hope that it can be as good as The Dark Knight.

One final point is the unfortunate fact that, as Sony have made a new Spider-Man film, this unfortunately means that the rights for the films are unlikely to fall back into the hands of Marvel; this means that Spider-Man will remain separate from The Avengers and we won’t see him written by Joss Whedon any time soon.