Ammonite by Nicola Griffith – Classics of Science Fiction


Ammonite by Nicola Griffith – Classics of Science Fiction

Ammonite by Nicola Griffith is one of the books from the Classics of Science Fiction list I hadn’t read. It’s on that list because of these citations:

Otherwise Award
2001 200 Significant Science Fiction Books by Women, 1984-2001 by David G. Hartwell
2003 The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn
2004 Feminist Science Fiction and Fantasy by Cynthia Ward
2005 ISFDB Top 100 Books (Balanced List)
2012 Science Fiction the 101 Best Novels 1985-2010 by Damien Broderick and Paul Di Filippo
2014 Mistressworks by Ian Sales
2016 SF Masterworks
2016 Sci Femme: The Reading List edited by Shannon Turlington
2016 Goodreads Science Fiction Books by Female Authors
2016 Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction: A Basic Science Fiction Library
2019 The Best Sci-Fi Books of All Time – Penguin Random House
2019 100 Best Sci-Fi Books of All Time – Reedsydiscovery
2021 Worlds Without End: Award Winning Books by Women Authors
2022 The 50 Best Sci-Fi Books of All Time – Esquire Magazine

Ammonite won the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Science Fiction and Fantasy in 1993. Nicola Griffith has won the award three times and been nominated six times. Ammonite also won the Otherwise Award (originally, the James Tiptree Jr. Award) in 1993. It’s a well-respected novel, critically and academically acclaimed.

Interestingly, I didn’t think of Ammonite as a lesbian novel even though all the characters are women, and some of them are in relationships. I listened to the Audible edition, and Griffith makes a statement about the novel in an afterward where she says she didn’t want Ammonite to be a women’s utopia, or an Amazon adventure tale. She wanted her characters to be normal ordinary people, and that’s how it worked out. Sex wasn’t emphasized in the story, and I didn’t really think about gender roles while reading it.

I thought Ammonite was a straight-ahead science fiction problem story. Human explorers discover Grenchstom’s Planet, nicknamed Jeep, where all the males and many of the females die from a virus. They discover that the planet had been previously colonized by humans, with various tribes of women now living on the planet apparently not remembering they how they got there.

Marghe Taishan, an anthropologist volunteers to test a vaccine against the Jeep virus, so she can go down to the planet and visit the various tribes. Each tribe has a different culture depending on the geography and weather of their location. I pictured it pretty much like North America before Columbus, or early civilizations in the Himalayas.

There is a parallel story about a military unit, again all women survivors, which has a base on the planet. They hope to return to Earth if the vaccine proves successful. Marghe has reason to believe that the Durallium Company that commissioned the explorers will destroy all the humans no matter what happens with the vaccine because they fear the Jeep virus will spread across the galaxy. (I thought of the film Aliens, and the phrase, “nuke them from orbit.”)

I had problems with the novel. Problems unique to me. If you read about the novel at Wikipedia, you’ll see it’s highly regarded. I’d compare it to The Left Hand of Darkness and A Woman of the Iron People by Eleanor Arnason. And the science fictional setup reminds me of “The Longest Voyage” by Poul Anderson from 1960 which won a Hugo award in 1961. For most readers, Ammonite should be an excellent tale.

Ammonite has a great setup for a science fiction story. But here’s my problem. That’s about all the science fiction we get. Most of the story is about Marghe struggling to survive among various native societies of the original colonists. It’s fictional Margaret Mead. I’m sure this kind of extended worldbuilding is what modern science fiction readers love, but I’m discovering I prefer shorter novels with a higher concentration of science fiction.

The extra length gives Griffith a chance to describe female only cultures and deal with cultural differences. This didn’t feel like science fiction, but fictionalized substitutes of our own world’s tribal customs.

Griffith doesn’t pontificate like a lot of bad science fiction writers, so we don’t have to wade through long speculating info dumps. Griffith works by throwing Marghe into various situations where she must quickly learn to survive. The story reminds me of the movies Little Big Man or Dances with Wolves. Both of those films were about plains Indians, but on Griffith’s cold world, I pictured cultures like the Innuit in North America, or nomadic people from historical Tibet or Mongolia.

Reading both “The Longest Voyage” by Poul Anderson and Ammonite in the same week is what inspired me to write this review. In both stories, a planet was colonized by humans in the distant past and then forgotten. Then these planets are rediscovered by a new civilization of star-faring humans. They discover the old humans have forgotten they ever traveled in space. In Anderson’s story, the forgotten colonists evolved their civilization to about the time of our 1500s. But in Griffth’s world, the colonists have evolved into tribal societies like we saw in Canada, Siberia, Mongolia, and Tibet before the voyages of Columbus.

Like I said, the story is compelling, but feels long, especially after several years of mostly reading science fiction short stories. When I got into science fiction in the mid-1960s, most science fiction novels were 200-250 pages and often less. Ammonite is 416 pages. By comparison, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) runs around 280 pages in most editions. Science fiction novels have only gotten longer on average since 1992.

Science fiction used to be fast paced, with lots of far out ideas. The evolution of the science fiction novel has been towards extending its length by evolving the complexity of plot and character. I assume this chunkiness is what younger readers prefer. They love dwelling in elaborate world buildings efforts to older science fiction’s thrill rides. I just don’t enjoy these longer novels, but if you do, this shouldn’t be a problem with Ammonite. But I also wonder if the aim of science fiction has changed, and it’s not really about the number of pages. Have I lived long enough that the appeal of science fiction has mutated?

Griffith increases her action midway through her novel, but then switches back to slow pace with Marghe learning about a second society. It’s at this point that Griffith gets into the psychological development of Marghe’s character. In the four Philip K. Dick novels I read before Ammonite, Dick went through dozens of plot twists and characters in less than half the number of pages for each of those novels. Dick’s approach is to throw out a science fictional idea every few paragraphs, while Griffith gave us all her science fiction at the beginning and then coasts for hundreds of pages with character interactions. And like I said, Griffith’s science fiction framework is an old idea. The story is really about Marghe becoming more evolved spiritually.

About two thirds of the way into Ammonite, the plot quickens again as the military base becomes threatened on two fronts, but again switches back to Marghe’s story which is much slower. However, this is where we learn how the female only society makes babies.

Most of the book is less about science fiction and more about imagined tribal cultures and New Age spiritualism and healing practices. There are a couple of women characters who like killing both people and animals. I wondered if Griffith was saying even women can have male traits, or that male traits aren’t exclusively male. I’ve always thought if there were only women, there would be no war or vicious kinds of hunting.

I’m not picking on Nicola Griffith for writing a longer novel. Most modern science fiction is getting longer and longer. New writers recycle an old science fictional concept, adding long complex plots. They spend their time developing an interesting cast of characters. It’s more about story and storytelling than science fiction. There’s nothing wrong with this. And modern science fiction is often better written than older science fiction. The trouble for me is I got hooked on the amphetamine type of science fiction.

I don’t know if I can fairly review modern science fiction. I wonder if my taste in science fiction suffers from arrested development. I wonder if I’m stuck in 1950-1979 science fiction, music, movies, and other pop culture.

Ammonite was a pleasant read. It was a somewhat compelling story. But it didn’t excite me. And I have no urge to reread it, which is my main indicator of a great novel.

James Wallace Harris, 1/27/24

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