Change or die. These are the only options available on the planet Jeep. Centuries earlier, a deadly virus shattered the original colony, killing the men and forever altering the few surviving women. Now, generations after the colony has lost touch with the rest of humanity, a company arrives to exploit Jeep–and its forces find themselves fighting for their lives. Terrified of spreading the virus, the company abandons its employees, leaving them afraid and isolated from the natives. In the face of this crisis, anthropologist Marghe Taishan arrives to test a new vaccine. As she risks death to uncover the women’s biological secret, she finds that she, too, is changing–and realizes that not only has she found a home on Jeep, but that she alone carries the seeds of its destruction. . . .
Ammonite is an unforgettable novel that questions the very meanings of gender and humanity. As readers share in Marghe’s journey through an alien world, they too embark on a parallel journey of fascinating self-exploration.
Nicola Griffith has won the Washington State Book Award twice, the Nebula Award, the James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award, the World Fantasy Award, Premio Italia, six Lambda Literary Awards, and others. She is also the co-editor of the Bending the Landscape series of anthologies. Her newest novels are Hild and So Lucky. Her Aud Torvingen novels are soonn to be rereleased in new editions. She lives in Seattle with her wife, writer Kelley Eskridge, where she's working on the sequel to Hild, Menewood.
nicola griffith is one of the best writers out there and if you haven't read her books you should. the only book of hers that left me cold was the third aud torvingen novel, Always, and the reason it left me cold is maybe similar to the reason why i found that this book, Ammonite, lost some steam 3/4 of the way through (it got it back before the end!).
let me start with saying that this is griffith's first novel. it's an absolutely phenomenal first novel -- the writing is perfect, the pacing is perfect, the characters are perfect. where another author might spend words explaining, griffith gestures deftly with a word or a sentence, and you are all set and, occasionally, blown away. i admire this. i admire the precision and focus of her work.
i also admire that she writes books about people who happen to be women who happen to love other women. this is not "women's fiction" or "lesbian fiction" any more than Mrs. Dalloway is women's fiction (or lesbian fiction!). her characters are complex and rich and tough and tender, and she manages to build entire worlds (in this case, literally) in which very real people experience the full gamut and complexity of human emotions and dramas -- those traditionally assigned to men and those traditionally assigned to women.
as a sci-fi author, griffith is up there with the best. both Ammonite and Slow River are top-notch sci-fi novels, from writing to story to characterization.
Ammonite is about a planet far off into the wide wide universe which is entirely inhabited by women. there are still men on our green planet earth, but they can't go to this faraway planet (the earthlings call it jeep) because they will contract a virus that will kill them. women contract the virus too but, unlike men, have a chance to survive it. a sinister "company" is dying to get its greedy paws onto the planet and its riches, but until a cure for the virus is found this is a no go plan. there is a little bit of gender dig in this, cuz of course if women can survive the virus they can also run things for the company. female earthlings, it must be said, consider their chances to survive the virus very very low, so there's that, but one cannot but perceive the company as distinctly male.
let me point out that the novel does not have a single male character, in any role at all, however tiny. i don't think men are even mentioned. no other author comes to mind who has tried this with such resounding success (Charlotte Perkins Gilman tried something of the sort in Herland -- which does have a couple of (entirely clueless and ridiculed) guys -- but the novel, though interesting, does not reach griffithian levels of mastery).
i think griffith puts to sleep the question of whether a world run by women would be a gentler world. the answer is a definite no, in all respects.
the crux of the book is the us vs. them conundrum. jeep is populated by its own people (some variation of early human settlers), but until our heroine gets on it, no contemporary earthling has even thought of entering in any sort of conversation -- cultural or economical -- with them. these distinct communities/nations are treated pretty much the way herds of bison would, which is of course horribly reminiscent of the various colonial "discoveries" effected by europeans in the rest of the world (if you haven't, read Laila Lalami's The Moor's Account, a sobering report by an enslaved african accompanying a spanish expedition into the "west indies" of the ways in which european discoverers felt that entire villages, cultures and people were theirs to name, pillage, and dispose of). this is not to say that the earthlings who are currently on the planet (they are all military) are abusive to the natives. they simply find no reason whatsoever to start any sort of exchange with them. and of course the watchful eye of the "company" hovers overhead.
the book is the story of how marghe, our heroine and a linguistic anthropologist, decides to get to know (some of) the locals. it's well done and engaging and fun and brutal, the last of which won't surprise you a bit if you have read any griffith at all.
it seems to me that griffith is at her best when she does women in danger. when her troubled women get cozy and safe her writing grows slack. i saw this in Always and in a small part of this book. fortunately, the cozy doesn't last long and we go back to true blue griffithian writing, of which i, for one, can't get enough.
I enjoyed this from first page to last, and it’s different enough for a five. I like its attitudes: for one, how it takes a spanner to our sacred biology. Here a virus enhances our senses and by accident grants us more control over the body. Bring it on.
The story is of an anthropologist who learns the wisdom to go native. Its theme, I’m told, is change, and I can see that: change to escape extinction, on a personal level (the main, among others), or a cultural (a group of horse nomads on the planet becomes destructive/self-destructive because their way of life has ceased to fit their environment), or biological. The main already has taught herself exercises to school her body functions, and she is still traumatised from the time she had her face rearranged – even though she looks unlikely at first, closed-up and scientific, she’s just the one to make the leap of identity, lead the military remnants out of the compound, into the risks and gains of the new. I cared about secondary cast (Aoife) and thought bit parts deftly portrayed (Twissel). For much of the novel I forgot about its messages and had a romp with the adventure. The writing, besides, has a lovely way with descriptions.
Although my copy doesn’t have the author’s note (bummer) I see around the traps that she wrote this, or began to write this as an experiment, in that it only has women in the cast. As Ursula Le Guin said, “But a lot of books, like Moby Dick, eliminate one gender, and yet nobody thinks anything about it.” Women readers grow up used to this – I’m a major fan of Moby Dick – and identify with ease with male characters. But I guess you need science fiction to get aboard a whale ship of women. I choose to see as half-humour, half-homage, the plot whereby she kills off the men with a virus, as Joanna Russ had to do on Whileaway to study women on their own. Men once eliminated, she just goes on as usual, she doesn’t note their absence, they’re not discussed, the book’s not about them for better or for worse. If it was an experiment, then it did its job on me. Four or five times I forgot that we only have women on the planet: a bunch of sailors, a draggle of kids; I pictured males for a moment, and then went, oops. I’m ashamed to say it may have been the rowdy sailors or the bratty kids that popped up a male image in my head. Which means the book wasn’t wasted on me, I needed the exercise. I see that Griffith was moved or provoked to write this by the state of the portrayal of women in speculative fiction in the early 90s. I wasn’t paying attention at the time. What I did notice, though, was that the feminism we had perfect faith in when I was at university – namely, that there are no innate differences between the sexes, there is only socialisation – vanished without much of a trace that I saw in my society; even on campus people embraced their gender distinctions, and the world was never so pink and blue. It’s been a sore puzzle in my life – that change – so if she felt the need to pull out Joanna Russ at them again, I can understand.
On my way to work through all the nominations for SF awards throughout the years, I finally ran into this little feminist speculative gem from the early '90s.
Upon finishing it, I'm struck by a few notions that feel rather obvious to me but maybe aren't for angry feminists in the SF field before the '90s.
Put simply, women are regular people full of all the same flaws as anyone and the whole point of this novel is to underscore that point. After all, there aren't any more men on this extra-solar planet thanks to a nice virus, and all the crap that befalls all of them is entirely on the women's own shoulders.
No men to complain about. All the superstitions, revenge-baiting, sex-drives, sweet carings, knowledge-lovings, murder, and barbarity is all their own.
As for me, I'm like... okay? So what? The message always seemed pretty obvious. People are all f**ked up. And yes, I include anyone of any gender or orientation. We're all the full spectrum of f**ked up.
So, I guess kudos for being fairly early about it, except I'm used to Alice Sheldon and Mary Shelly and a ton more, besides.
The adventure in this novel is still pretty good. It's about culture and discovery and it's pretty emotional. As an SF, I was pretty invested in the weird bits of the virus and the deep look into the adapted cultures and the way they reproduce without men. This part was rather interesting.
It's a first novel, and it has some of the weaknesses I associate with first novels: it jumps through time a lot, and those jumps aren't always telegraphed adequately; some of the descriptions, while each individually quite beautiful, ended up feeling repetitive when taken as a whole. But most impressively, it already displays a great deal of the maturity and style that I loved in Slow River. Even in this first novel, Griffith's voice is assured, her characters are well-drawn, and her themes are delicately presented yet rigorously worked out.
Griffith's style is quietly exquisite, understatedly lyrical (in contrast to Catherynne M. Valente's muscular lyricism or Patricia A. McKillip's ornate lyricism or Peter S. Beagle's cooly intellectual lyricism)(and what is with my favorite authors and all their middle initials?) in ways that seem all the more surprising because this is a science fiction novel rather than a fantasy novel. This is Griffith's description of Marghe's landing on GP:
The doors cracked open and leaked in light like pale grapefruit squeezings, making the artificial illumination in the gig seem suddenly thick and dim.
Wind swept dark tatters across a sky rippling with cloud like a well-muscled torso, bringing with it the smell of dust and grass and a sweetness she could not identify. . . She sniffed, trying to equate the spicy sweet smell on the wind to something she knew: nutmeg, sun on beetle wings, the wild smell of heather.
Okay, so maybe that passage wasn't so understated. I delight in that sort of passage in fantasy novels, where I expect magic; I delighted in it in Griffith's Slow River, which is SF but in the more "realist" vein, practically Mundane SF. Here, in this near-planetary romance, it took me aback as it should not have, and I am grateful to Griffith for reminding me that there can be so much beauty in the alien.
Part of the reason Jeep is so beautiful (in a stark fashion) is that we see it mostly through Marghe's perspective, and Marghe is a woman deeply attuned to both the world around her and to her own body. She looks outward and inward, and Griffith paints that dual focus with an incredible eye to detail that made the book startlingly visceral. I have been thinking lately about (female) SFF characters' relationships with their bodies, and the way that Marghe is so firmly sited within hers made the beatings, the starvation, and the sex come alive on the page. (Also it really sends the message: Jeep's a tough place!) The way that that character trait completely informs the way Marghe reacts to and advances the plot is just another sign of Griffith's immense skill as a storyteller.
But the thing I am most struck by is how perfectly the jacket description captures this book -- it is a book all about change. It's about characters changing, and it's about societies changing, and it's about the way those changes amplify or counteract each other, and then it's about everything changing again. It's not a book for people who like tight plots where every question raised is answered by the finale -- the finale just raises more questions about the future of the characters and the world. Instead it's a book for people who like history, who like to explore the hidden ways the past shapes the present and who are drawn to those turning points where the smallest decisions by individuals have the power to dramatically alter the fates of whole societies.
I thought I would like this book more than I did -- it's the kind of story I normally like (science fiction, feminism, what's not to like?)
My main problem was that the main characters behave in ways that don't really seem consistent with their roles and backgrounds. The anthropologist Marghe seems generally clueless about different cultures and what motivates people. She lands on this planet and immediately heads off into the wilderness without any idea at all of what's out there, what she might try to accomplish, or what dangers might exist. The commander Danner worries that people don't like her enough, and has no insight at all into the people under her or the planet they live on.
I just couldn't get caught up in the story, and it seemed to drag on interminably. The final confrontation between the Company outpost and the native cultures seemed overly pat and not at all plausible.
I did like some of the details about the subcultures -- the viajeras in particular -- and I think I would have enjoyed a story that was just about the world and its cultures without the "Company conspiracy" part of it.
Men are no more on the planet Jeep. Marguerite Angelica Taishan is dispatched to investigate the women of this world and the virus that eradicated the other sex. She soon finds herself embroiled in tribal politics and on the defense against a world that makes victims of the unwary.
Ammonite is a Queer, feminist romp through a future in which only the willing can survive.
I really loved this book when I first read it (way back when). It was written in 1992 and I'm happy to say that I think it stands up to the test of time. While I didn't love it quite as much as I remembered, I'm finding very little to criticize about the original story. And sometimes I wonder about my younger self when doing a re-read so this was overall a very positive experience for me.
Marguerite Angelica Taishan is an anthropologist. She studies people but doesn't really connect with them. At the start of the story she has chosen to travel to the Company "owned" planet of GP. The Company is sending her there as an SEC representative but she is also a test subject for a new vaccine. GP is already populated by various female only tribes. The indigenous population is why Marghe is willing to make the trip -- even though there is a very real possibility that she not will live long enough to return to Earth. The planet itself has dangers in the form of people and weather. The purpose of the vaccine is to prevent a viral infection which killed all of the men the Company sent to GP and some of the women too. It may not work.
World building is important in scifi novels and I thought Griffith did a credible job. There's a bit of the feminist fascination with pre-industrialized societies, but given that our science and technology have not yet allowed us to create a happy and sustainable co-existence with the planet and its other lifeforms, a bit of romanticizing the past is forgivable. Most of the societal structures will be familiar to students of history. There are hunters, gatherers, farmers, herders, fisherwomen, traders, and so on. To make the story a bit more otherworldly the language on GP has bits of more ancient Earth languages. The shows up in words like "wirrel" which sound like "squirrel" with a silent 's' and a Scottish accent (more on that later). The women of the planet also have some "magical" abilities like advanced healing powers and the ability to community trance and access ancient memories.
The pacing is mostly perfect. Once Marghe arrives, she immediately sets out on a dangerous journey, largely on her own. Griffith gives her some back story to justify her distrust of the Company security forces and then we are off to the races. After her escape from the Echraidhe, the story slows down a bit. Now Griffith focuses on Marghe's psychological journey from isolated individual to someone with multiple ties to the community and other individuals. My single criticism is that I felt this part dragged a bit. Marghe faces some challenges but they are very anticlimactic compared to her time with the Echraidhe. But fear not, Marghe is gaining skills and "leveling up." She will need to put everything she knows in to the dramatic climax of the story in Chapter 18.
And it's a good climax with a very satisfying ending. Griffith thinks women are people and not virtuous paragons. Not only is her view realistic, but you need conflict if you want a good story. My electronic copy had a final section where Griffith talks about her philosophy etc.
Those of you who like an epilogue will appreciate the 2nd half of Chapter 18. Griffith sets all the characters on their new paths, and wraps up some of the open questions about the Company characters and the equipment surrounding the planet.
There are several good secondary characters I would have liked to have learned more about. Commander Danner in particular grabbed my attention more on this reading than on the first.
For this "read" I mostly listened to the audio book narration by Gabra Zachman. The audio recording itself was excellent but I struggled with some of the voices. Because of the language Griffith gives the women in the different tribes to use, Zachman voiced them with what sounded like a Scottish accent to me. And this should have been good but I found it kept pulling me out of the story. Hopefully if you check out the audio version, you will enjoy all the voices.
I also struggled a little with the voice of Thenike. She sounded considerably older than Marghe. It might be because that voice was more gravelly and maybe there's some ageism going on in my head. But I've checked the text and I don't think the story is written with a large age gap.
And I should mention that while this felt like a romance to me in the 1990s, you should not read it today with that expectation. Yes Marghe and Thenike become a couple and are having children but compared to the flirting, heat, and overall sexual tension in most of the romances I've read, this paring could be an arranged marriage. I don't think Griffith intended for it to be an erotic story so I can't fault her for that.
Overall, this is a great science fiction story exploring the question of our place in the world, both individually and in groups. It has strong female characters, good pacing, good world building and you can listen to it while being transported to another time, another place.
Synopsis: Ammonite follows anthropologist Marghe Taishan as representative of a government agency to planet Jeep. The planet has been colonized centuries ago, but contact was lost, but should be recolonized now. A military expedition has been sent there, but soon, all of the men and many women died of an unknown virus.
Currently, the planet is under quarantine. The expedition made contact to the former colonists, now native to the planet. They all are female but can reproduce somehow.
Marge is sent to the planet primarily to test a promising vaccine for the virus, but also to study the natives. Her studies must be concluded within half a year, that's how long the provided dosis will last. Just arriving, she sets out to a freezing northern wastes of the planet.
A second narrative thread interrupts the main thread from time to time. The expedition fears to be extinguished by a hidden battleship above the planet, because the government fears a pandemy. Espionage, paranoia, and the struggle to bond to the natives bring a lot of tension to their commander Danner.
The Echraidhe, an aggressive nomadic tribe, capture and enslave Marghe. Among them is Uaithne who believes of herself the prophet of the apocalypse. Marge learns to survive the harsh environment, sharing the fate of the malnourished and inbred tribe. She decides to flee if possible in the middle of winter, surrounded by a large desert. On her way through Blizzard, loosing several fingers to the frost, nearly dying from hunger, a farmer from Ollfoss rescues her from certain death.
She recovers in the hippy commune of subsistence farmers which is a complete contrast to the nomadic tribe: Hot tubs, village gardens, and a hut with a gong echoing Jeep's electromagnetic pulse. Marghe discovers the nature of the natives' mysticism, their rituals of "deepsearch", their rich storytelling tradition, and how they reproduce without men.
Before that, she has to change.
Review: This is Nicola Griffith's first novel, and has been highly praised and well received as soon as it's been published. It won the Lambda Literary Award, which is for LGBT+ topics in speculative fiction, and the successor of the James Tiptree Jr. award, which cares for gender in speculative fiction.
Now, don't fear, this is not a combative feministic novel, I never felt overwhelmed by all the female characters filling each and every role. It's true that the novel investigates how a culture without men would work. It doesn't care a bit about non-binary or transgender but just presents that highly interesting native culture with its own structural power systems. I can't even say if the native females should be regarded as lesbians at all, because they have forgotten about men, and gender isn't really a topic.
There is a lot of Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness vibe in this novel, up to the point where I sometimes couldn't distinguish the literary style from the famous predecessor. I can't possibly make a higher compliment for this narration, and Le Guin herself ennobled it by calling the novel "a knockout". It features the same tranquility spiked with high peaks of action, alternated with philosophical and anthropological reflections. One of them rattles Marghe deeply:
"These places you go, the people you find, do you come to care for them? Or do you only study them like strange shells you might find on the beach?"
This conversation brings a pivotal point for Marghe's character. She has survived so much, given up all her technological advances to be with the natives. Now, she really changes, goes wild and native. This is the core of the novel, reflected by its genius title Ammonite, an empty shell which Marghe once possessed and defined her, as opposed to all the living people around her who she studied.
The novel works at all loves: starting from the interesting plot full of tension, tying up enough threads in the end to count as a closed narration. The many distinctive characters, not only main protagonist Marghe, but also the expedition's commandant Danner, the native tribe women and Marghe's wise lover in the hippy commune. Add to that all the fascinating aspects of the natives' culture, including their way of defining trades without money called "trata", their mystical traditions, and their common sense leaderships.
If you are a fan of Ursula Le Guin's SF novels, you will love this anthropological work. Everyone else will love the emotionally rich and engaging storytelling. It is truly a SF Masterwork, as published in Gollancz's series.
This book started well but, for me, ran out of steam a little during the middle and never fully recovered.
It was an interesting premise and I was gripped by the story for the most part. An anthropologist (Marghe) seizes and unique opportunity to study a people on a planet that was colonised hundreds of years ago but which contained a virus that killed all of the men (and some of the women). Their colony survived due to the remaining women somehow gaining the ability to have children without men. Now the "company" wants to exploit the resources of this planet if only they could find a cure for the virus so they allow Marghe to visit the planet in return for her testing a new experimental vaccine.
As Marghe travels to towards the legendary landing point of the first colonists she becomes more and more embroiled in the lives of the peoples she encounters, less able to distance herself emotionally as an observer should do, she begins to gain an understanding of the true nature of the virus.
Nicola writes with an easy going prose that is easy to engage with and constructs convincing and interesting characters. But for me the story became less interesting once she had reached her destination. Okay, the mechanics of how life without men could continue does become explained but the emotional side not so much. The women all just seamlessly become lesbians without any explanation for this being made explicit to the reader. Okay, maybe us men just aren't as indispensable as we'd like to think. But I would have preferred just a little more explanation as to how such a transition might have come about.
I would definitely read something else by this author though. Probably Slow River.
Exploration of a technologically regressed human society without males, with a shrouded means of procreation the central mystery of the story. By the author's careful setup, the anthropologist main character is forced to take large risks, leave civilization, and step into the unknown, in order to learn about the inhabitants of planet Jeep and uncover their secrets and the true nature of the virus that killed over half the population, and to which she carries a possible vaccine.
Nicola Griffith did an awesome job of world-building, from the orbital mechanics of Jeep to its climate zones and seasons, to inventive flora and fauna, and even a bit of geology to enrich the setting. The writing is graceful and brings planet Jeep vividly into the imagination and the travails and changes of the main character into reality.
There is a mystical aspect to this book that links it strongly to themes introduced to science fiction by Dune, but delved more explicitly, or more scientifically, here. As an avid Dune fan, this won big points with me.
Two possible flaws jumped out at me, both minor: the author seems to have greatly underestimated the likely storage capacity of a wrist computer, and the unqualified use of the word "bird" for animals that clearly could not have been very bird-like, except that they flew and had some kind of song. Neither one of these things affected my enjoyment of the book, which was a page-turner if I've ever read one. Plenty of room for sequels.
Such a great concept, completely wasted on a self-centered and immature protagonist. I got to 70% and couldn't take any more when the 30-something year old protagonist, after , starts whining about how she's going to be , boohoohoo. That was just the final straw in a long line of thoughtless, selfish behavior coming from this woman.
The vast majority of this character's actions are what I would expect from an immature teenager, not a mature woman. This could have been an interesting characterization, however she's treated like a Mary Sue, never getting called out on her stupid behavior. And when she . I couldn't stand her.
There were a couple plot inconsistencies that bugged me, but I was fine with over-looking them, until the protagonist got on my last nerve.
So I went into this more than a little worried that it would be an ode to essentialism, but it turns out that this is as non-essentialist as a story about a planet of women who are in tune with each other and nature can be. Griffith presents here the radical idea that a planet inhabited only by women would be... pretty much like any other human population. There are good people, bad people, peaceful societies, violent societies, honesty, cheating, etc. I cannot commend Griffith for this enough.
_Ammonite_ is set on Jeep (Grenchstom's Planet = GP = Jeep, eh?), centuries after a plague wiped out all of the men and most of the women of the original colony. "The Company" (often just referred to as "Company" in what I found to be a very annoying affectation) has sent a new expedition to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of opening the planet up for exploitation again, only to fall victim to the plague once more. The story follows one Marghe Taishan, an anthropologist sent after that last expedition by the SEC, some sort of governmental organization which isn't the same as Company (see how annoying that is?) but might as well be. Anyway Marghe is going to try to reestablish contact with the natives and test a new vaccine against the virus. Once there she has some misadventures among the various tribes of the planet and there's some sort of looming thread regarding a spaceship Company has stationed there and then some other looming threat of a marauding group of nomads, but this is mostly just a story about Marghe finding a home (and, subtextually, of a woman becoming aware of the shared history of other woman-identified women and forging a place in such a community for herself). It's notable also, I think, that the words "lesbian," "gay," "homosexual," and so forth never appear in this book. The characters have sexual or romantic relationships with other women, or they don't, and no one's sexuality prior to coming to this all-woman planet is commented upon.
So socially/politically, I can absolutely get behind what Griffith is doing here. The actual plot and characters, though, never really grabbed me - and I'm not even exactly sure why. This was Griffith's first novel, and I'm definitely interested in reading her other work.
There are interesting ideas in this story, from the single gendered population on the planet Jeep resulting from a 100% infectious-to-men virus, corporate greed, finding oneself through living a simpler, more committed life, etc. Though I mostly liked this book, I got bogged down in the last third or so of the book, and kind of stopped caring where the story was going.
Much like Marghe, this book felt like it wasn't sure what it wanted to be when it grew up. There was a lot of beautiful ideas and some incredibly constructed sentences in a plot that had be going back to previous scenes and characters I wanted to shake.
CONTENT WARNING: (just a list of topics, no actual spoilers)
Things to love:
-The world. Oh, it was so cool! You could feel how the light of the two moons would look. The names of the months were lovely. The blend of all the different cultures, the foreign critters, the landscapes, just stunning.
-The society. It was amazing how even with all females, we got to see the whole array of humanity. Griffith says, gently and kindly (and sometimes violently) that women are people and do all the things people do. I did like that there were some subtle changes in the whole population, like how big community was to them, and that seeking mediation was the first instinct over fighting, with the exceptions of the group called "crazy". When there aren't enough of you to survive without help, violence does veeeery little to help you. In contrast, social behaviors can mean survival, and I think that was picked up very well. Of all the preachy things in the book, this was not it. Women, family structures, lovers, it was all very "ordinary" feeling in the sense that it just happened and no one bothered about it.
-The descriptions. There were a few passages that felt Le Guin-esque to me. I could almost feel the solid poetry of her in some of Griffith's writing and was amazed that she got that close to packaging word with mean, feeling, and experience in her first shot at a book.
-The supporting cast. Aoife, Thenike, Gerrel, Lu Wai and Letitia were all great. They felt the most like people, or at least characters I could understand (except for their attachment to Marghe and Danner) and appreciate. Thenike's professional abilities were really cool, and I loved the dynamic between Lu Wai and Letitia.
Things that aggravated me to hell:
-Marghe. (Why was this the nickname chosen?? I went with the pronunciation Marg, heavy emphasis on the "arg!") I really couldn't stand her. Impetuous, unprofessional, always seeing herself as the victim when she made absolutely shit decisions and acted on them of her own free will. All of her decisions were completely irrational and I am angry that anyone listened to her. Speaking of which...
-Danner and the Mirrors. Danner was contradictory and emotional in the irrational way, not the way that values human life over "normal" levels of casualties. The whole spy plot, how it was handled the way the trata was dealt with...just end to end this is not the work of a leader, or at least not one I care to read about as one of the heroes. The Mirrors, too, were weirdly ill-equipped. They'd been here for years and yet knew nothing. They heard people talk about war and didn't pay it heed. For a group that scared the tar out of Marghe, they seemed pretty oafish to me (with exceptions listed above.)
-The plot(s). They all seemed pretty random and at various points in the book felt like they became discarded for something else the author wanted to explore. I'd have liked a lot more consistency and a strong thread that ran through. It felt very scattered and did not help me latch onto the world or characters. Seriously, what was up with the goths?
-The back third. It really just devolved after a certain point. Basically when Marghe started to "find" herself, I just got more and more lost. All of the moments obviously meant to sound epic felt to me discordant.
-The "virus." Nope. That's not how any of this works. Nope, nope, nope. It'd have been better if it wasn't attempted to be explained, or if there was a more alien explanation. This one gave me a headache.
It's been on my TBR for a long time, and I'm glad to have read it, but even gladder that it's over now. If you're looking for a novel exploration story that reminds you that humanity exists wherever you'll find humans, maybe give this one a go. If you really are set on having a plot and motives you can follow, I'd suggest moseying on.
I admired more than loved this book. It’s filled with fine writing, truly fascinating ideas, and a vividly created world full of evocative flora, fauna, and societies. At times I just wanted the emotional lives of the characters to get inside my heart and gut a little more. There’s no question that it’s an important work. I’m curious to read more of Nicola Griffith’s novels.
Una din cele mai neobișnuite lecturi ale ultimilor ani, cu o idee de societate veche, dar totuși nouă și interesantă, și cu o execuție care mie mi s-a părut mult mai reușită decât în cazul câștigătoarei premiului Nebula, Slow River. Personajele sunt diferite și bine executate și, chiar dacă acțiunea trenează de multe ori, fiindu-i luat locul de trăirile sufletești ale personajelor și de metaexperiențele lor transcedentale, nu prea ai de ce să te plictisești. Una din marile cărți ale SF-ului mondială, ajunsă, iată, și la noi, la 23 de ani de la apariție. O lectură proaspătă, totuși, care se autosusține și la peste două decenii de la apariție. Recenzia, pe FanSF: http://wp.me/pz4D9-2j6.
I really enjoyed this book. It was quite different to most other SciFi/Fantasy books in that all the characters are genetically female, but there is nothing in the book about gender roles. No women doing ‘men’s’ jobs. The characters are simply people – of all physical types and temperaments, doing all kinds of jobs. Some characters are good, some bad, some wise, some ignorant, some with open minds and some bound so tightly by tradition. After the initial surprise, you stop noticing that there are no male pronouns – at all! Jeep is a planet that The Company wants to exploit. It has been cut off from ‘civilisation’ for centuries, and is seen as ripe for picking. Unfortunately, any male (and a percentage of women) who land on Jeep, contract a virus and die. Marghe – an anthropologist – is sent to Jeep to study the ‘native’ society and to test a new vaccine against the virus. If it works, it could open up the planet for everyone The Company wants to send – it would also likely destroy Jeep society. If the vaccine does not work, then neither Marghe, nor any of the female Company workers on Jeep, will ever be allowed to leave the planet. Marghe suspects, that they are all here to stay, regardless of the vaccine efficacy. The gated Company outpost on Jeep is run by Commander Danner. She would like Marghe to stay close by, but Marghe feels she needs to go right into the middle of the land, if she is to fully understand Jeep. In particular, she wants to learn how the Jeep women have managed to procreate, and therefore make a thriving society for generations, without men. Jeep society is very tribal, and – apart from the Company compound – quite medieval in its lack of technology. Life is hard and brutal out on the land and Marghe is soon doing things she never thought she would need to, to survive. But, some of the Jeep tribes need to embrace change too, before they die out with their hide-bound, traditional ways. “Marghe had asked Thenike why the Echraidhe were so inflexible, so bound by tradition. ‘Because they are so few … All their memories interlock and look down the same path to the same places. Each memory reflects another, repeats, reinforces, until the known becomes the only. For the Echraidhe, it’s not real if it can’t be seen elsewhere, in their mother’s memory, or their mother’s mother. For them, perhaps there is no such thing as the unknown’” Memories have a much greater significance on Jeep than elsewhere, and the virus has altered more than just the morbidity of the Jeep women. They are able to sense and manipulate things hidden from off-worlders. As Marghe learns more about Jeep tribal society, it becomes clear to her and Danners, that they – and all the Jeep women – must work together if any part of them is to survive. The book is beautifully written, with very vivid descriptions. When Marghe is trapped in a blizzard, you shiver and freeze along with her. As Marghe recovers from the virus, her senses are opened, and at the same time mixed up in what could be described as synathesia: “Outside something sang, a long call that started out yellow, dipped in the middle to blue, then rose to scintillating gold and orange, as though the caller had decided that it was not, after all, sad.” This is not ‘Chick-Lit’, and is not necessarily aimed at readers identifying as female. This is seriously good SciFi/Fantasy that has human beings at its heart, and will appeal to all who love speculative fiction. Highly recommended
An anthropologist goes to study a world colonized centuries ago which Earth lost contact with, and whose entire population, due to an indigenous virus killing off every male, is entirely female. As she explores the local cultures, she slowly becomes immersed in their tribal mythologies and conflicts. As is its due, this novel seems to be held in high regard and rightfully so. Any worthy sci-fi finds its value in asking big, simple questions. Ammonite's big questions are: what does it mean to be human when you're studying humans who are basically aliens; what is identity anyway?; finally, what does it meant to be human when half your species (the part you need for procreation) is dead? The novel succeeds at answering these questions, but not forthrightly. It is a very thoughtful, deep-thinking novel, very much a focus on character, especially the main one who becomes so steeped and immersed in the weirdness of the "former" humans that she becomes an inseparable part of both their belief system and their cycle of procreation. I don't want to give any more away than that. There's plenty of good sci-fi weirdness, more questions arise than are answered (also a sign of good speculative sci-fi), and a healthy focus on apolitical issues of gender in a fight for survival and evolution. The fact that everyone on the planet is a lesbian is never even mentioned. What in other hands may have become a shrill polemic instead becomes in Griffith's a fine work on the ever-changing nature of what it means to be a human being. And then some.
Ammonite is one of those books I’ve been waiting to read my whole life. I’ve always been a character focused reader (and viewer) and I loved, loved, loved getting under the skin and into the hearts of the people in this book, into their motives, their confusion and anger and fears, dilemmas, hopes and wishes, the whole colorful palette of what it means to be human. I have never read something so intense, so emotional, so deeply intimate. It felt very internal. Simply an astoundingly impressive piece of storytelling and I’m grateful to have discovered it. Ten our of five stars.
This is the second book I've read by Nicola Griffith, the first being Hild, which I thought was one of the best books I read in 2014. I believe that she also wrote a couple of books in a crime series, and I've got a copy of her Slow River at home. I'm interested in reading more by her.
This is her first book, I believe. It's her exploration of women in fiction and how they are (surprise!!) just people, with all the variation of any portion of humanity. Moral and immoral, brave and craven, loving detached, sailors, herders, storytellers, farmers. Whatever.
I already know that women are people and people are women, so this was not a stretch for me. The writing in the book was good, and if occasionally there was a description that was a bit too florid, much of the writing was quite smooth and evocative. There's a big fixation with sky descriptions that I never thought were that good, and kept happening over and over and drew me out of the narrative every single time as I tried to picture these skies in my head.
What this book reminded me most of was the Darkeover Renunciate series by Marion Zimmer Bradley. In that series, people from earth touch down on another planet and discover that it has already been colonized long ago by people who have gone native. It's the same sort of thing as the Pern series- all fantasy trappings but science fiction bones. The Renunciates are women who have rejected the very patriarchal Darkover society and live apart, ignoring the traditional gender roles.
This felt like one of those sci-fi with fantasy trappings books. Only instead of women choosing to live apart from men, a plague has come which has conveniently killed all male colonists and soldiers, forming a woman-only society. How do these women reproduce? That question will be answered in time.
So, we've got a sort of laboratory for an author to examine women without gender roles. Some of the people on this planet are sailors, some are farmers. Some have gone extremely primitive and insular in order to live in one of the harsher environments on the planet. It's a beautiful world, with dwellings of rich wood, pearly stone, and hand-made weavings. It's a place I'd love to visit, assuming of course that I didn't catch a plague and die.
So, the plot is that an anthropologist, Marghe, is assigned to the planet both to study its people and to test a vaccine that might allow further colonization. There's still a small encampment of soldiers left from the last ship that touched down, who can't leave the surface because they are now carriers of this deadly virus. Marghe felt a bit like a wish-fulfillment character to me. She did occasionally have emotions of anger, doubt and fear. But the book is esseintially her hero's journey. She must find and know herself. Eventually she takes the new name Marghe Amun (from ammonite), meaning "the complete one". I found this new name rather pompous and Marghe does seem to see herself as more real than any of the people she meets. She's an observer, and even after she makes a conscious decision to allow herself to connect to people, she doesn't seem to truly consider their needs- certainly not before her own.
This is what I didn't like about the book. Marghe was not a sympathetic heroine to me. She was a catalyst who didn't seem to quite understand the effect she had on others.
The other thing... loss should have been a huge theme of this book. So there are no men on the planet. There's still a group of soldiers who have been through a plague that killed more than half of their company. No one thinks about those who have been lost through the entire book, except for one brief moment. Surely some of these women would have had meaningful relationships that they have lost. The soldiers just seem so present-centered and so eerily prosaic about their stranding. There doesn't seem to be much of a morale problem, the commanding officer hasn't really re-evaluated her mission, and there's no mention of how truly horrible it was to lose so many people.
The women who have been living on the planet for centuries are a different story. They've never known any men. However, the book does bring up a mechanism that these women use to see the past. It seems odd that they never wonder about these men. And as far as breeding animals goes, there's not a lot of detail but it does seem like the animals have two genders. Wouldn't these women notice that they create life differently than every other creature on the planet?
This is an examination of gender that doesn't take into account some of these details, and I think the novel would have been richer if it had explored those issues. It's okay to miss men, even if they can't survive where you live. It's also okay not to miss them, but this giant blind spot made the characters less fully realized.
So, it's a beautifully written book, and Griffith does a good job painting a unique world. But the character she used to explore it wasn't my favorite. I think the idea of exploring woman-only society is interesting. But men weren't cut out of the story in a way that would keep them from being missed and remembered, and that lack of attention makes the story more of a fantasy than a considered exploration of the idea.
Anything written by Nicola Griffith is the bastard daughter of a cold shower and a slap in the face. Ammonite is no exception and my reading was way overdue... but well... no wonder it is always so hard to pick one of her book, harder still to put it down, and will takes weeks before my stomach settles down.
Enticing world building, ambivalous characters that are unique but still universal, a coming out of grief story mingled with a deep philosophical discussion about what it means to be human and what it means Other or to become other.
This is one of those frustrating books that is loaded with potential, but ultimately falls short of greatness. Griffith sets out to write a book portraying women as people, rather than as some sort of two-dimentional alien creatures. (I know this is her goal because she states as much in an afterward.) The tone of the writing has a similar quality to Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Anne McCafferey - its that distinct quality of voice that late 80s feminine sci-fi can have, that I haven't really found elsewhere. It took me back to my younger years, exploring the genre for the first time. The writing was solid, the world-building was descriptive and lush, and the stage was all set to be sheer brilliance. For the first quarter of this book I thought it might become a favorite. But as the book continued it became clear that Griffith wasn't going to dig as deeply as I hoped she might.
There is an opportunity here not just to show that women are as complex and varied as men, but to also explore the differences between the two conflicting cultures portrayed in this book. The natives (for lack of a better word) have lived without men for hundreds of years. The newcomers recently lost over half of their compliment, and all of their men. There is an opportunity to compare and contrast these people and their cultures. There is also an opportunity to explore grief. The newcomers have lost the lives of colleagues, friends, and lovers. The natives are losing their old viewpoints, and in some instances, their way of life. And Marge has recently lost her mother. These are some fantastic themes, and they either fall by the wayside, or in some cases are never even touched. There are many more threads throughout the book that I expected to come to fruition that are dropped, and some that are left dangling at the end as though expecting a sequel. I was consistently disappointed by what fell by the wayside.
So ultimately the question becomes whether or not Griffith delivered on her goal to paint realistic and human women. After all, she passed up so much fertile territory to get where she wanted to go - did it pay off? And that is where I'm not really certain I can say either yes or no. While this book is entirely peopled by women, and they are all varied in their motives and morals, I never really felt any of these women were fleshed out more than at a very surface level. There was so much care taken to avoid tropes, cliches, and other pitfalls with these characters that many of them felt flat, and most felt very simplistic. Ie: This is the character that is lively and reckless. This is the one that is serious and stoic. This is the one that hunts. This is the one that sings. Etcetera. None of them felt like living breathing people. Marge, the main character, did get considerably more development. Unfortunately, the farther the book progressed the more I disliked her. The book however, and those around her (including herself), seemed to find her remarkable despite her actions often showing us the contrary.
Okay, so it sounds like a pretty grim review. I know. Here's the thing though: I did enjoy it. I think if I had read this when it came out I would have had a very different experience. It is well imagined, and uniquely feminine (some times to better effect than others). I think this book suffers from 1) not aging as well as it might, and 2) being Griffith's first book. I think if she were writing it now, from a more seasoned place, this book would be brilliant. It's for this reason I want to read some of her later works. So do I fully recommend this one? Not so much, even though I am glad I read it. If you can approach it with the right mindset, that this is very much a work of its time, written by a young author, you might really enjoy it.
Ammonite started off really promising. I enjoyed the first part of the book and was interested in seeing the story go along. The concept of the book: a world with only female characters rang a bell as I previously read Jane Fletcher's Celaeno series. It seems this book came first, though, and rightly so. Perhaps it's not fair comparing a book to something that might actually have been inspired by the book itself, but let me make this exception for a moment. Ammonite succeeds in creating a believable scifi world where this strange concept actually works. I enjoyed the setup and enjoyed how well developed the cultures on this long abandoned world seemed. Unlike the Celaeno series where the scifi feels like a way to get out of creating something new, the scifi works here and doesn't end up limiting the created world. So for about 40% of the book, I was enjoying myself.
And then... I don't know. The story disconnected. What was an interesting, grounded scifi story suddenly turned into the soul quest of the main character. There is, of course, nothing wrong with a character rediscovering herself. Absolutely nothing. Books should have character development, but I suddenly felt like I wasn't reading the same book anymore. The romance that was introduced didn't come natural to me. It was suddenly there and the author's writing style seemed to take a dive right about the same time and I simply had no desire to continue reading.
I can only explain this by adding some spoilers here.
Overall, it's a shame. This book really started out well, but it failed to stick with its own design. Delaying tying the two plots together meant that I lost interest as Marghe's soul searching failed to be appealing. I'll give this two stars, because it did start out strong, sadly the effort was wasted. A shame, really, because I could very much appreciate just how little of a fuss there is made about the sexuality in this world.
I kept expecting, or maybe hoping, that this book would turn out to be science fantasy rather than science fiction. The science is wishy-washy at best, just plain bad at worse.
It begins with bad virology and bad vaccinology. Just a few examples; the virus is so resistant to everything that once it gets inside a room there is no way to decontaminate and render that room safe. There are no such viruses anywhere. If the virus is that resistant, there is absolutely no way that a human body, encouraged by any vaccine, could control it. It's far easier to kill a virus outside of the body--you kill with bleach or other methods that the human body would not survive. The vaccine isn't a vaccine. It's built like a vaccine, but vaccines don't need to be taken constantly or they stop using. They building resistance, and then being exposed to the virus itself will act as a natural booster. This vaccine works more like a prophylactic antiviral/antiretroviral--which given the story would work better since the side effects of those can be attrocious.
And the clincher: the virus is not specific to life descended from earth life. Viruses are made of dna/rna as it has evolved on earth; they lack replication mechanisms so they require life that uses genetic material the same way to piggy back. Terran viruses would not be replicated by non-terran cells and vice-versa.
And then the wishy washy stuff, like using electro-magnetic fields to heal the body, or the ability to see the cells of the body and control them individually. I could forgive that were this a book of science fantasy (or pure fantasy) but it become clear at the end that the author tries to present these as realistic possibilities--and even clearer in the afterward.
This book has such a classic set up - corporation tries to exploit planet but discovers long-lost human colony and a virus that kills all men, proceed to abandon the expedition forces. And then an fascinating entry point to the story - a representative with some emotional baggage arrives to test an experimental vaccine and suss out what can be sussed about the colony women. I loved that this it a story that mirrored an individual's journey towards change with community change. It tackled some heavy themes like grief and PTSD. A well-told tale that reminded me a lot of Le Guin, with some very sweet queer love. All the characters felt unique and developed and I appreciated that the cultures of the different groups on the planet were not monolithic. It didn't explicitly tackle that gender isn't about biology, but I can *almost* forgive it for being published back in 1992.
...Ammonite didn't quite make the same impression on me as Hild. It is a very good novel in its own right but Griffith's writing obviously developed over the course of two decades. Jeep is not brought to life in the way seventh century England is. That being said, it is a very solid science fiction novel. It can be seen read as a response to the feminist science fiction that has come before but is works fine as a social science fiction story as well. I'll be moving on to her Nebula Award winning novel Slow River as soon as I can get my hands on it.
In 2013, I read this author's amazing novel, Hild. It is one of my all-time favorite novels. Set in seventh century Britain, it tells the story of the girl who would become Saint Hilda of Whitby after serving as the King's seer in her youth. Historical, feminist and utterly gripping.
The long-awaited sequel, Menewood, will be published in October. Meanwhile I went back to Nicola Griffith's debut novel.
Ammonite is an assured example of speculative fiction. All of its characters are women. Set on the planet GP, the women from Earth are representatives of the Durallium Company, there to oversee the Company's mining operations from a hovering space station.
A deadly virus had killed almost of the original colonists but anthropologist Marghe, recently arrived to test a new vaccine against the virus, is sure she has found the key to her life's work. She goes down onto the planet hoping to uncover the secret of the native's resistance to such a devastating disease.
What she finds, amidst native feuds and treacherous weather, is a race of women who were so changed by the virus that they could reproduce without men! OK, so that sounds very Ursula K LeGuin but Nicola Griffith takes her own path to create a distinctly original combination of queer sci fi mixed with fantasy.
I was a bit confused by the beginning chapters but the world-building and character development were sound enough to carry me to the point where all I wanted to do was read the book. And think about and wonder how viruses change us all.
I'm not going to spend a lot of time on this review because I am definitely not the intended reader for this novel, as it's super SFF, which is normally just a giant "No Entry" sign for me. But I was curious about it as it's set on a planet that is hostile towards men, i.e. there is virus that kills all people, but men don't stand any chance of survival if they get it. I mean, if that isn't an enticement for me to read, I don't know what is. ;) But it's way too much SFF for me. It was honestly painful at times, taking me a full week to get through--I had to force myself to keep coming back to. The length didn't help. But if SFF is something you do like and you want something women-centric and/or queer, then this might work for you. It wasn't uninteresting; it just didn't excite me to read.
Ammonite is simultaneously trying to be an in-depth character study and a science fiction adventure, but it’s far more successful at the former compared to the latter. The characterization in Ammonite is good, while much of the larger plot, when you step back and consider it, either doesn’t make sense or smacks of author Nicola Griffith having characters behave in ways for the sake of the story conforming to a familiar narrative arc.
On a planet called Jeep (unrelated to the car company) a mysterious virus kills all male humans and causes severe sickness or death, as well as other symptoms, in all females. The Company, the heartless megacorp of the future, wants to exploit Jeep, but the virus has kept them at bay, and the Company personnel who were previously deployed to the surface have been quarantined. Now, a potential vaccine for the virus has been invented and anthropologist Marghe is sent down to Jeep as a guinea pig for this new treatment.
Marghe is a complex character, having been shaped by her family, her education, and a brutal assault in her past. Ammonite is at its best when focusing on Marghe or the other major character Danner, as well as their mindsets as they work through the struggles of the alien world they inhabit. They both ultimately make journeys of self-discovery and find a place in their new environment, which are satisfying arcs. The depictions and development of these major characters are Ammonite’s main strength.
There is another side to Ammonite, though, a sci-fi thriller side wherein Denner and her quarantined personnel have to deal with heartless corporation, spies, and native tribes (while fighting others). This is largely boilerplate stuff, which is potentially fine, but here Griffith has made pieces of the narrative internally inconsistent or nonsensical in order to give this thriller all the standard pieces: a villain, a threat, and a climactic showdown with all the major characters. For example, consider the rise of Uaithne into the leader of the Echraidhe tribe. The tribe’s whole problem is that they are so bound by old traditions that they are dying out, and the narrative depicts Uaithne as using the nihilism this pending extinction creates to take control of the tribe and have them serve as her murderous warriors. But, in order for Uaithne to rise as the leader, the Echraidhe allow her to bypass the traditional line of succession. See the contradiction? If the Echraidhe were so chained by tradition, Uaithne couldn’t rise to power, and if they weren’t so chained, the wouldn't have that tradition-created-nihilism to exploit. But the plot needs an antagonist, so this is ignored.
There are several other examples, along with things that just came out of left-field (they’ve been on Jeep for years, but only realize that storms disable their advanced weaponry just before the climactic final showdown, when a storm just happens to occur?), which cumulatively made me conclude that Griffith was more concerned with forcing the narrative to comply with a typical dramatic structure than she was in writing a narrative that logically followed. And I'm not even touching upon the fact that the narrative bends over backwards to allow Marghe to run out into the alien world unprepared and prioritize her role as anthropologist over her role as vaccine test subject, even though the latter would clearly be of greater importance to the situation presented.
There’s more to talk about, of course—Jeep is an interesting setting, the entirely female character roster is a rarity in science fiction, there’s some obvious sequel setup—but it’s the character work that stands out the most to me in Ammonite, and, while not the best I’ve found in science fiction, it’s solid. I just wish these characters were in a slightly more satisfying narrative than this one. 3/5.