Nicola Griffith
Ammonite Cover



My speculative fiction challenge this year is to read more books which explore LGBTQIA+ themes, have strong non-straight characters or are written by authors who do not identify as heterosexual. I have started this year with 'Ammonite', by Nicola Griffith. It's my first time reading Griffith and she has cropped up so often in lists of books I think I may enjoy so I was really looking forward to this. Perhaps my enthusiasm set unattainable high standards for this book because after reading I am left with the feeling it was only 'okay'.

'Ammonite' is hailed by some as a feminist classic. It is set on a world initially colonised by humans where a virus eliminates all males. The planet is abandoned and the inhabitants forgotten about (who in the meantime have learnt how to reproduce). Generations later, corporate interests reinvestigate the planet and attempt to colonise again with a quasi corporate defence contractor sent to set up base on the planet with a view to seeing if the planet can be exploited again. The story begins with an anthropologist sent to the planet to learn more about the (now considered) indigenous population and also to test a vaccine against the virus on the planet. The implications being that if the vaccine is successful the planet can be recolonised (and I assume, men, representing corporate interests can take over).

Most of the reviews and commentary will focus on the absence of men on the planet. Griffith wrote this book in response to the treatment of women in science fiction as largely subservient to men, or as little more than sexual objects framed as titillation. She also addressed the canon of 'women only planets' in science fiction as either being pacifist utopias (she mentions vegetarianism more than once in her critique which bugged me to be honest) or warlike Amazonian type figures. I've seen the tropes and I think I know where she is coming from, even if I have not directly read any of the fiction she is alluding to.

Her aim with this book is to show women not as homogeneous or as a caricature of 'gentle peace loving maidens' or some kind of dominant war tribe but more like, 'in a society where men did not exist we would have the whole range of human emotions, behaviours and outlooks'. I think she is saying women are just as likely to have the range of political and social views we have now. In short I agree with her, I am not sure gender has ever disposed us to political viewpoints but I do wonder if when we consider the impacts of patriarchy, that much of that 'range' of opinion comes from hundreds of years of gender based oppression in the West. In some ways what 'Ammonite' says is, 'if patriarchy did not exist' then we would experience little different in terms of the breadth of outlooks.

I guess that is what makes the book a little confused also, because in some ways the book does fall into some simplistic tropes when it considers the different tribes that live on the planet. There are warlike 'norse' / 'celt' type tribes in the frozen North, there is a vague coastal economy with some kind of currency, and of course we have the short sighted, insular off world colonists, but most of the tribes seem very similar and there is little to differentiate from them.

What I find interesting about most of these tribes is that they tend to be pastoral, they all tend to work to principles of mutual aid within social or family units and between tribes. I haven't read any reviews referring to this as anarchic in outlook but it is definitely there. They have clear dispute mechanics in the absence of law and there is little suggestion there is private property or wage slavery. If I was being critical I would suggest this book has both the tropes Griffiths said she wanted to avoid with this and the (dare I say Bolshevik) war like Northern tribes! I would also say that whilst wanting to avoid the tropes of utopia there is a very strong Gaia theme throughout (I mean come on the planet eliminates men who would exploit them upon landing!).

I am being really wary of getting into spoiler territory but the setting is possibly the most interesting thing about the book. As I mentioned, I was interested in the crafting and depiction of the tribes on the planet. I also think since this book is pitched as 'no men', Griffith succeeds in making that notion almost invisible. One never notices the absence of male characters. Because of that I am not sure there is much of a feminist critique here and that may disappoint some. What I did like, and what I think is a key theme of the book is the impact of colonisation, and how a planet can defend itself. It's clearly there and it's what I liked best - we think we are reading a book about one thing but it is really about much more.

I do have some criticisms however, despite the themes. The pacing is off, the book took such a while to get interesting and I felt it was a slog to get through at times. It picked up in the last half to last third but even at the end it felt like there was a chapter or so tacked on that wasn't needed. In terms of story, there really wasn't much going on at all. Much of the book was the main character basically doing stupid things or travelling around. Finally I didn't care for the characters at all - the main character feels quite unsympathetic throughout and whilst there is a long cast of tribes people and colonisers only a couple of the characters stick out as being indistinguishable from the rest. Certain plot points feel too easily pulled together to the point I felt I didn't care.

Some good ideas in here, but not a book I particularly enjoyed or I could recommend.