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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Do you remember the first time?

A couple of things have prompted this blog, which is about authors’ first novels. Primarily it is a combination of reading Endless by Matt Bone and the fact that my girlfriend’s first novel is currently being edited for release in January next year. But a second prompt came from the author Sam Sykes, whose work I have never read and whom I do not follow on twitter, but the publisher Gollancz re-tweeted this a few days ago:

[View the story “A message to independent writers” on Storify]

Now, I don’t agree 100% with the sentiments expressed in these tweets. As Sykes himself confesses, he hadn’t found his voice by the time he was published. And there is a reason, for example, that I “publish” this blog rather than keeping a diary or something which would be private, rather than public. Even though only a few people look at it the response of the public, of people I don’t know, can generally be very interesting. Sometimes it can be offensive or rude, but those can hopefully be ignored. But some of the most constructive criticism you can get is from people who will be blunt, because they don’t know you. And in this way, you can improve.

The idea that a first novel should be very good is in some ways an anathema. After all, it is the curse of many bands that, after an exceptional first album, the second just cannot live up to the hype. Arcade Fire suffer from having an excellent and well-loved first album despite their later success and I firmly believe that by most other bands Neon Bible would be regarded as a classic and one of their best; for Arcade Fire it is sidelined, hidden away, simply because it could not live up to Funeral. Fortunately, The Suburbs was magnificent enough that it challenged the first album for greatness. A better position to be in, however, is that of a band like the White Stripes who, as far as I can tell because I wasn’t really paying attention at the time, had two fairly OK albums, and then two magnificent ones a bit later on. As Sykes argues, the first books often don’t have a voice. If you emerge with a voice fully formed, then all you will attract later is complaints when you try to change and develop it.

To apply this to novels, the first author who springs to my mind is, as ever, Ursula Le Guin. Her first novel, developed from short stories, was Rocannon’s World, a fairly good science fiction/fantasy novel which, as she would later comment herself, is not as good as what Gene Wolfe does with similar concepts. The ensuing trilogy, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions is fine, but much of what is done with these books – the ethnographer on a strange planet in Rocannon’s World, the permafrost of Planet of Exile – is picked up again and developed in The Left Hand of Darkness, an undoubtably superior book. At around the same time she began the Earthsea series, and again we see improvement as the trilogy goes along, but personally I feel that the trilogy as a whole shows a lot more competence as a writer because she had grown more, learned by doing, and reached a better point in her skill to do what she wanted as an author. Should Rocannon’s World have remained unpublished? Of course not! Then the series may not have developed, and we would not have Left Hand nor The Dispossessed, and the world would be a more impoverished place.

A counter-argument perhaps emerges when a first book is phenomenally successful, or belongs in a series which becomes phenomenally successful and relies on reading every volume. I’m thinking of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling. I don’t think I’m going to be expressing too controversial an opinion if I suggest that Stone is not the best of the Harry Potter books (it’s Harry Potter and the prisoner of Azkaban) but it has to be good enough to fit with the standard of the rest of the series. And I would say it does, perhaps because in the latter part of the series the books become too long and perhaps were less successfully edited. But here I would suggest the problem is more Arcade Fire, and the series has to be considered as a whole rather than as individual parts. The “second novel”, therefore, is not Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets but The Casual Vacancy. Comments on the internet are already being bitter about the success of the well-loved by all ages Potter and the fact that Rowling can’t write anyway so it will be rubbish blah blah blah; these are people who will never be pleased. But even for those who devoured the Potter books as children, writing something different after such a long time poses difficulties, and it might be a lot easier (if not necessarily better, or more successful) were the first series not to have attracted the attention which I did, and if there were less pressure and fewer assumptions about how the book needs to be.

I think I will have some more thoughts on this topic in the future, when I have read King Rat, China Miéville’s first book, which is unlikely to be as good as The City and the City. As a concluding thought I would perhaps say this: when my literary intentions were greater, and I was reading about the publishing industry, I kept on being told that most authors have an unpublished first novel. Others, for example The Flood by Ian Rankin, are published but sink without a trace only to find a new lease of life when the author finds success elsewhere, such as in the phenomenal Rebus series. The first is not the most important. It is important, as a foot in the publishing door if nothing else. But, really, the follow-up is much more important. Showing that you have longevity, and can keep on going – that’s what you want in an author.

The Dispossessed

Ursula Le Guin – The Dispossessed

“You ask questions like a true profiteer,” Shevek said, and not a soul there knew he had insulted Dearri with the most contemptuous word in his vocabulary; indeed Dearri nodded a bit, accepting the compliment with satisfaction.

The Dispossessed is the fifth novel by Ursula Le Guin in what is known as the Hainish Cycle to some, to others as the Ekumen, although it is chronologically the first (slightly before The Word for World is Forest). It was published in 1974, in which year it won the Nebula Award, and in 1975 it also won the Locus and Hugo Awards. Le Guin herself comments on what these awards meant to her in this blog, although it is only one paragraph, quite low down, and this was not the first time she had won them, having previously achieved the Nebula/Hugo double for The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969. Other blogs by Le Guin are available here, I have read a few of them. The Dispossessed is the thirteenth book I have read by Le Guin, all in the last two-and-a-half years, and it is my joint favourite (with The Tombs of Atuan). This makes it one of my favourite books of all time. I bought it second-hand when I volunteered in the Oxfam bookshop in Aberystwyth in the first half of 2010, so I’ve been waiting a while to read it. I’ve previously written about The Left Hand of Darkness in this blog. While fantastic, I now prefer The Dispossessed.

The Dispossessed is set on the twin worlds of Anarres and Urras, known as Tau Ceti to the Terrans (people of our earth). These planets are populated by a race of human-like creatures which indeed call themselves “human”; the similarity is down to the origins of the human species across the universe in the Hainish Cycle, which is that the Hain colonized the universe, some of which (such as the Gethen in Left Hand) are either probably or certainly the result of genetic engineering. Urras is a world not unlike our own, a patriarchal society with a capitalist economic system. Anarres is the habitable “moon” or twin-planet of Urras, on which lives an anarchist society who chose to leave Urras about two-hundred and fifty years before the time in which The Dispossessed is set. The story revolves around Shevek, a physicist from Anarres, who choses to take up a professorship in a university on Urras when he feels that the society of Anarres is repressing his work.

The subtitle of the book, according to Wikipedia at least, is An Ambiguous Utopia. Anarres is presented as a far from perfect society, oppressed by jealousy and distrust, especially of Urras and the people living there. While there is no ruling system, the foulest insult is to be called a profiteer or propertarian, and egoising is terribly immoral, elements of bureaucracy have sunk into the libertarian structure of Anarres. On Urras, Shevek is presented with the luxury of single rooms, food to waste, and a servant class. He is kept strictly separate from the working classes. But compared to the arid wasteland of Anarres, Urras is beautiful bountiful, and there is plenty to go around. Urras is the most earth-like of all the societies which Le Guin has created,* with its capitalist and socialist societies, the walls which divide them,and the way in which the people of Urras act to one another and to Shevek.

As the novel progresses the perfection of Urras fades and the true freedom and fairness of Anarres becomes clear, I think that Le Guin wishes us to realise how true freedom does lie in the anarchism of Annares. There is an underlying theme that perhaps the Annares are so cut off from Urras, so afraid of someone going there, because they think that, perhaps, it might actually be better. It appears that the people of Annares think this too. Ultimately it appears that the flaw in originally allowing the Anarresti to create their colony, as it has become a symbol to those who might share their ideas – not only on Urras, but to the Hainish and Terran people who have encountered the Cetians as well. And why not? – it is wonderful to think that, somewhere out there in one of the billions of earth-like planets we now know to exist just in this galaxy, one of them has managed to form a working, anarchist society.

He tried to read an elementary economics text; it bored him part endurance, it was like listening to somebody interminably recounting a long and stupid dream.

As I was reading so much of this book this afternoon while invigilating a mock exam, I began to think of exam questions which I could set on The Dispossessed.** The only one which I have come up with is “Which is more important to Ursual Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: physics or politics?” Le Guin makes several interesting comments about physics in the book, such as the limitations Einstein’s earth-based humanity had on his perspective of the universe, compared to the much more substantial Cetian physics (which is more advanced than the space-travelling Hainish and Terrans, somehow…). The structure of the book, which begins with Shevek’s journey to Urras then recounts in alternate chapters his life up to that point and his time on Urras, is based on the principal of simultaneity, questioning the linear perspective which we have on time ourselves (although both times are told, in themselves, in order). I enjoyed both Urras and Anarres, so I was perfectly happy with this structure, but I am not sure that I could take any great meaning out of it. All I will suggest is that Le Guin’s previous use of the Ekumen/Hainish universe has been to create stories based on Taoism, which as far as I can tell had been abandoned in this book.

The politics, however, were of great interest to me. I consider myself to be phenomenally left-wing, identifying as anarchist on my Facebook profile at least, in person I will tend towards socialism. I have never read any socialist or anarchist literature besides fiction.*** I also cannot stand economics. Perhaps it is not for the best that my anarchism is based on Le Guin and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, but when people tell me that V is an “ambiguous” hero, or that Anarres is an “ambiguous” utopia, I have to disagree. V’s only failing is that he kills, Anarres may not have much to support life, but having wealth in abundance has not made Urras a more equal society – has not made earth a more equal society. On Anarres, it takes a famine to lead anyone to starve:

He had fasted sometimes when he was working because he did not want to be bothered with eating, but two full meals a day had always been available: constant as sunrise and sunset. He had never even thought about what it might be like to go without them.

So far, so like my middle-class English life on Earth. But the passage goe on to the very heart of the issue:

Nobody in his society, nobody in the world, had to go without them.

It is an anathema to Anarresti society that anyone should eat while another one starves, and this is a planet with practically nothing. It is not even the famine, but a train derailment which leads Shevek to miss his meals. When he comes to Urras there is plenty to go around – and yet there are people with nothing. When we come to earth there is plenty to go around – so why do some have plenty, and others have nothing?

* In the books which I have read, of course.

** Shevek would surely disapprove: “He was appalled by the examination system, when it was explained to him; he could not imagine a greater deterrent to the natural wish to learn than this pattern of cramming in information and disgorging it at demand.”

*** I have been told by left-wing friends that my views seem most akin to anarchism, in that I believe order should be based on mutual consent and respect, that authority should be earned through experience, and my general opposition to government, although this latter is partly down to the lack of a party in this country that I would consider supporting.

The Right Hand of Light

This year for Christmas I only received one book: Brave Story by Miyuki Miyabe (trans. Alexander O. Smith). However I also got a Kindle, which gives me access to loads of books which can then be carried around in a scarily flimsy magic box much smaller than your average book (although also without a lot of the idiosyncracies inherent in a physical object). I’m not yet ready to write about my thought on ebooks verses real books, by the way. No, this preamble is an introduction to a blog on the basis on which I considered writing several times in the empty months when I didn’t use this blog: based on notes in my journal about books I’ve been reading. Because while I have my magical book box and Brave Story rearranging my room has left me in the mood to re-read one of the books taking pride of place on my shelf: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. (Also this article on the Guardian website).

This mood is particularly stupid as despite the fact that one of my stated aims for this year was to read the last of the Ekumen* books to which I have access I haven’t read The Dispossessed, which might be the best, and since finishing Left Hand in January I have only managed to read The Word for World is Forest, in October. On the other hand, in my diary I did say that Left Hand “will probably need re-reading quite a bit”. The urge to re-read will be resisted, however, primarily on the basis that I don’t want to have to take it back to Oxford and I have too many other things which I’m already reading. I think I will try to next year, but I have given an impression of how good I am at sticking to these intentions I think.

I began 2010 by reading the Earthsea books and I think that I intended to end it by reading the Ekumen – this I suspect was putting too much expectation into Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusion. They were, after all, some of Le Guin’s earliest works, and the Earthsea books, a later series, should have built upon this whether consciously or otherwise. The plots of the Ekumen books tend to (with the exception of City of Illusion thus far) centre on anthropological research and the explorations of either ethnographers or colonizers on new worlds with other human-like populations (after the universe was originally colonized by the Hainish, hence their place in the title of the saga/cycle). In contrast, the Earthsea books (especially A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, which is my favourite of Le Guin’s books which I have read) are simply based on ideas about cults and rites of passage which come from anthropological research, which makes them much better. Left Hand, written I believe at around the same time as Atuan and so perhaps it is unsurprising that I consider this her best streak, successfully combines the two, as I believe much of Le Guin’s feminism is based on what I think of as “feminist realism”**, which is the identification and study of women’s role in history and their importance in social evolution, as opposed to feminist ideology, which is the motivation to change things to produce equality between male and female. I’m a bit too tired to fully explain this, but I hope it makes sense.

Several of my comments on that first “trilogy” (although it isn’t really anything of the sort): Rocannon’s World isn’t brilliant, but it is a first novel and so perhaps I should not be so harsh; Planet of Exile is a big improvement but is “linear, with no great idea of any geography that didn’t involve straight lines” (or, as I put it on 6th January, “a bit Joe Abercrombie”); City of Illusions is exciting if you study a post-apocalyptic society (as I tend to consider the Early Iron Age). If you happen to be reading this as a guide to reading Le Guin’s books, then I do recommend reading these three before reading Left Hand as set-up, but they are not as impressive as individual novels as the Earthsea books. Perhaps the most interesting comment in my diary about Illusions is “not killing is not the same as having reverence for life, the latter is much more.” I can remember these issues in the book a little, and I think that it is the seed of a higher purpose to science fiction literature which Le Guin really came to encompass in the later Ekumen books.

I said in January that I thought that Left Hand read like a conscious reassessment of the previous Hainish novels, mimicking the ethnographer on an uncolonized planet of Rocannon’s World, the journey and Taoism of City of Illusions, and the harsh winter of Planet of Exile. This is another way in which I find that the background of these three novels increased my enjoyment of the later work.

The Left Hand of Darkness has been described by Le Guin as “a thought experiment”. In their articles about the book from the past couple of years the Guardian have refered to this in quotation marks (um, as I just did) but I think this is peculiar. Surely all great science fiction could be described as a “thought experiment”? Perhaps it can be described as Le Guin’s first real science fiction novel, while the first three “Hainish” books are more like future-set fantasy (reading them I came to understand how Le Guin could possibly think Gene Wolfe did what she did only better – he does better than the “Hainish”, not than Earthsea!). The Word for World is Forest and I imagine The Dispossessed follow on from this. And one of the features of Left Hand, the planet which has never had a war, is explored much more saliently in Forest.

“So The Left Hand of Darkness turns out to be a book about duality and oneness, the self & the other, and the role of the male and female within that. The title comes from a telling phrase: “Light is the left hand of darkness, darkness the right hand of light.” Genli draws a Yin-Yang and tells Estravan that it’s him.” Thus was my judgment on the book when finishing it on 15th January. I didn’t have a lot to say, and I’m not sure that i can build on it now. I commented while reading it on how I wasn’t noticing the issues with which I expected the novel to deal, until I came to the section where Genli and Estravan travel across Gethen alone and isolated, which I called “the nub” of the novel. This is one of the areas which I would like to reassess by re-reading the book – I am sure that there must be more build up to this, but that it was too subtle for me to notice.

The earliest comment I made, which I did not make particularly elaborately, is that I like Le Guin’s use of the first person. Comments have been made about the use of the male pronoun in Left Hand to describe the Gethen even though they have no fixed gender – I am a little bit sceptical about genderless pronouns myself*** but surely there is a point that Genli is supposed to think of the Gethen as basically effeminate men who become women during their reproductive cycle sometimes, so surely “he” is the pronoun which he would use? This is perhaps one way in which Le Guin uses the first person to great advantage without apparently realizing, if her introduction is anything to go by. As I said in January: “I’m already beginning to see how I’ve been affected by Genli’s perspective, the judgement of the Gethen as if they were male but occasionally female, rather than a oneness.”

I need to re-read Left Hand, and while I am unlikely to do this immediately I think I will post more thoughts when I do. I would suggest that The Word for World is Forest is not as accomplished a work as Left Hand, showing more similarities in style to the earlier Ekumen novels, while being more thought-provoking and suggesting that more thought may have gone into it. It was also relevant to my thesis, a bit, as I had read a little about the society which Le Guin mentions in her introduction (but I can’t remember the name of, damn!) which was without war – she discovered it, apparently, after the original short story was written. It is the question of the innate nature of warfare – is it learned behaviour? Do the Athshe only practice war because they have seen how Terrans do it? It is good, but while the question remains fundamental it seems somehow less relevant than the gender issues of Left Hand.

I compared the Hainish Cycle as a whole to Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (probably a better anti-Vietnam War novel than Forest) but I imagine this is a common element to pre-Star Wars hyperdrive science fiction – the difficulty and time span of getting around, the limitations of distance, the issue of relativity. This was a feature I loved last year when I read Forever War and had never experienced it before. I followed Left Hand with Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, an altogether less comprehensible work apparently written in response to Left Hand. My first comment on it in my diary is that these two books together left me very underwhelmed by the female characters in volume 1 of the comic book The Walking Dead (“Lori explains that she ‘couldn’t have made it to Georgia without the help of big strong man Shane who protected her and knew what to do which she didn’t because she’s a woman and they can’t cope on their own.’ Uh, that’s not a direct quotation exactly, but it might as well be.” 16th January 2011). Female Man lacked plot, but was overflowing with theme, it appears. I condemned it as “of it’s time” suggesting that the “present” woman, Joanna, feels quite “past” now, as Jeaninne is intended to in the novel. [aside – the plot of the novel is that three versions of the same woman from different periods of time meet one another. Or something. That’s what I read somewhere, it’s not clear in the book]. Ultimately I believe my conclusion is that Left Hand is much better, if only on ground of lucidity.

* I believe it is generally the case that this series of books is called the “Hainish Cycle”; however Le Guin herself, in I believe the introduction to The Birthday of the World, says that she calls them “Ekumen” or something – I don’t have the book with me to check. This seems a bit odd, as the term Ekumen isn’t in use in the original three books or two of the other three novels. Then again, this FAQ on her website shows that she doesn’t really think of them this way anyway, so why should we? I call them the Ekumen Cycle out of habit. It’s probably not important.

** I think it’s important to point out at this juncture that these quotation marks are intended to indicate that I am quoting myself, not because I believe the term feminism belongs in quotation marks. It doesn’t, it’s brilliant. Not that I think quotations make things not brilliant. But it looks like I’m being sarcastic or ironic or something. I’m very worried about tone in written works on the internet.

*** This is a bit too long to put in brackets so I am giving it a footnote. I think the English language desperately needs a genderless pronoun. But when discussing Left Hand in the opening meeting of the Oxford University Speculative Fiction Group (OUSFG for short) this term the discussion of extra gender pronouns came up, and a work of Charlie Strauss (which I have not read) which includes nine (or something). This strikes me as a. excessive and b. too far beyond reality to be as relevant as Le Guin’s work. The proposed genderless pronoun which I have picked up from other OUSFG meetings is, I believe “xe”. I understand that some people object to the female honorific “Ms” because it is too difficult to say (it isn’t, but whatever), so “xe” is hardly likely to catch on (I think it’s pronounced “ze”). The point of this is that if we don’t have an acceptable pronoun in 2011, what was Le Guin supposed to use 42 years ago?