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Ammonite, Nicola Griffith

ammoniteAmmonite, Nicola Griffith (1993)
Review by Alix Heintzman

In Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite, we find a world without men. If you’re imagining a serene society ruled by wise matriarchs, or a planet of space-babes waiting for Kirk to rescue them, then perhaps this book is not for you. Because Griffith’s world is different. Her book is about reworking the familiar ploys of science-fictions past and making them wonderfully new. It’s classically science fiction, in that it pushes irreverently against the boundaries of classic science fiction.

The first few pages of the book are filled with enough airlocks, sliding doors, and food dispensers to satisfy the most rigid sci-fi fan. An anthropologist named Marghe is in space, preparing to descend to the planet Jeep. Jeep, we learn, was once colonized by the Company for its valuable resources. But then a virus swept through the settlers and killed all the men and most of the women, and the Company abandoned the project. Five years later, they’ve developed a vaccine and returned. Marghe is the scientist who will be simultaneously studying the natives – human women who have survived the virus for centuries and somehow managed to reproduce – and testing the vaccine. She descends into a classically colonial scene: a militarized Company base surrounded by a vast unknown planet full of preindustrial natives.

At this point, the tone shifts. Marghe leaves the safety of the base and heads north, searching for the Company scientist who disappeared before her arrival. The elements of classic science fiction fade as Marghe travels through a premodern world of nomads, sailors, farmers, and pastoralists. Her anthropological journey quickly morphs into a scramble for survival. She’s kidnapped by the Echraide, a violent indigenous clan, escapes into the tundra, and gets adopted by a friendly coastal village. Along the way, several crises build: the Company seems likely to destroy the planet if the vaccine fails, but the success of the vaccine would lead to full-scale colonization and the destruction of native lifeways; the Echraidhe start a genocidal war, which threatens the Company base and the rest of the planet; and Marghe’s own allegiances shift and evolve, in a complicated but familiar process of “going native”. All these crises fit together in a stunning and powerful climax: Marghe standing alone on the grassy plains, between two lines of advancing soldiers, telling a story. It’s an intricate plot, which improves with the second and third reading.

Ammonite is filled with tried-and-true science fiction themes, but none of them lead to the places you’d expect. The idea of the women-only world, in particular, is an old and treacherous device. In the 1950s, planets controlled by women were a fun way for male science fiction authors to talk about how terrified they were of female agency. Matriarchy led to creepy hierarchical societies that hated individualism, violent Amazonian cultures that cannibalized men as a hobby, or maybe just groups of love-starved women in Outer Space. Then second-wave feminism arrived and started generating woman-only utopias. No war! No violence! Equality, vegetarianism, and peaceful negotiation as far as the eye can see.

But, as Griffith says, “I am tired of reading about aliens who are really women, or women who are really aliens.” And so Ammonite plays a sly trick on us all. The headlining plot device, a planet without men, turns out to mean nothing at all to the hearts and minds of the characters. Jeep is not a homogenous planet of bitter women, or a bloody jungle filled with Amazons. It’s a planet with peace, war, pettiness, greatness, bravery, and fear. Because “Women are not aliens”.

The idea that a planet of women would function suspiciously like a planet of humans has met with skepticism. Bloggers and reviewers have claimed that she’s ignoring “the thousands of years of Darwinian selection that developed gender roles in the first place”, and that “human gender roles are clearly defined by nature (as they are in chimps)”. And that’s the sound of several generations of feminist scholars rolling their eyes. The intertwined myths about biologically-determined gender roles, the natural origins of patriarchy, and the oppositional differentness of men and women are clearly alive and thriving. Stories like Ammonite are still necessary.

Colonial encounters are another common device in science fiction. For about half a century, white male characters have been busily exploring (and exploiting) foreign planets, whose alien populations are variously racially constructed. Sometimes the encounter is a violent struggle against dehumanized others, sometimes it’s a righteous crusade to save the downtrodden inhabitants, and sometimes it’s a thrilling tale of the white interloper going native. These are essentially the same stories that the British told about South Asia and Africa, and Americans told about Native Americans, except with a few more spaceships. They’re stories told from a position of cultural supremacy.

Marghe’s journey fits perfectly within the colonial mold. She’s the rational, scientific white woman bravely pushing past the colonial frontier into savage territories. Then she’s kidnapped by violent and possibly insane natives, and slowly loses her grasp on her own civilized identity. That’s more or less the plot of every Dr. Livingstone-I-presume adventure story from the British Empire. But it’s an intelligent colonial adventure, where the natives are given history, complexity, and agency in their lives. The Erideche, Marghe’s kidnappers, aren’t just bloodthirsty savages. They’re a dying culture coping with a harsh climate, who have turned in desperation towards millennarian cultism. Their story borrows from the South African Cattle Killing, and has an internal logic that’s usually denied to hostile natives.

These are the larger, and most successful, pieces of Ammonite. There are other layers. Marghe’s own psycho-spiritual journey is central, and several secondary characters are involved in similar personal evolutions. These are absolutely convincing transformations, but phrases like self-awakening and self-discovery make me picture obnoxiously cheerful, skinny women talking about meditation. But, ultimately, even the cheerful yoga-mat-carrying types of women are not aliens. They would be welcome on Jeep.

This review originally appeared on The Other Side of the Rain.

For more information about this book, please see the entry on kwerey.com.

The Crossroads of Time, Andre Norton

TheCrossroadsofTimeThe Crossroads of Time, Andre Norton (1956)
Review by nawfalaq

This morning I finished The Crossroads of Time by Andre Norton (1912 – 2005). It was originally published in 1956. The edition that I read is the ACE 1980 version.

Chapter one is a really good example of how to get the reader engaged in a book straightaway. Instead of giving us a long lead-up or background, we meet the main character in a hotel room. By page two, we meet a gunman, and by page three the main character is a bit of a hero. Hello, Blake Walker – your life is about to change. Thanks for rescuing Agent Kittson.

Anyway, after reading the first chapter, I basically knew that I would be in for a penny, in for a pound, so to speak. Blake Walker is thrust, by his having been a bit of a hero in the hotel hallway, into a new paradigm in which he learns that travel between his world and parallel worlds is possible. He learns that there are criminals who are intent on traveling betwixt worlds in order to cause mayhem and distort those worlds’ natural progression of history. Blake also learns that there are psi’s – persons who have advanced mental capabilities such as telepathy and telekinesis, etc. In fact, Blake may actually be a psi. So much for going to art school…

Overall the writing is fast-paced and the story tends to feel like an action thriller. There is some science fiction in here – but only as a background skeleton to the story itself. For example, not a whole lot is detailed out on how/why some of these scientific items operate. They just do.

Unfortunately, there are some flaws in the book. For example, chapter four. I have no idea what happens in that chapter – and I read it thrice. I just could not figure out what happened. Sometimes, writing “action” scenes is tricky. At least comic book writers have help from their artists to help show you what is going on. Another thing, the title…. well, since this is not time travel (Cf. Quantum Leap), but rather traveling laterally across a variety of parallel worlds, I feel that the title is misleading. It is not the crossroads of time. Finally, other than Blake and Kittson, the other characters kind of blend together and are not really all that distinct or memorable. I know this is a short-action piece, but maybe a little more distinction between characters would have helped the novel not seem so jumbled at points.

In any case, I am glad I read this. I had fun. It was a decent read. But I wish it were a little bit better. As I understand it, there is something of a “sequel” as well, though I do not own it. A good read for someone who just needs a little science fiction and does not want to invest too much into a story. I admit, I’m probably being a little bit harsh with this one.

This review originally appeared on AQ’s Reviews.


Darkover Landfall, Marion Zimmer Bradley

darkoverDarkover Landfall, Marion Zimmer Bradley (1972)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Marion Zimmer Bradley (1930-1999), most famous for her Arthurian fantasy novel Mists of Avalon (1983) from late in her career, published countless SF works starting in the late 1940s. Her first novel The Planet Savers (1958) introduced readers to the massive and complex Darkover sequence of works — by far her most famous and iconic contribution to SF.

Darkover Landfall is a somewhat routine adventure (with a good dose of social commentary) which, according to internal chronology, is the beginning of the vast Darkover series. Although I cannot speak for the rest of the sequence as this is the first of Bradley’s novels I’ve read, I found Darkover Landfall a problematic and inarticulate novel despite the always seductive colonizing an alien world premise.

Sometime near the end of the 21st century a colony ship is thrown off course due to a gravitational storm and crashes on an unknown planet. The original destination was an already established colony. However, the new planet they find themselves stranded on, Cottman IV, has yet to be even surveyed and contains inhospitable mountains, mysterious natives, frequent forest fires, strange clouds of mind-altering pollen, and few useful or easily accessible metals. Over the course of the novel, both the crew and the colonists are forced to reconcile themselves to a difficult new life where rescue is virtually impossible. However, this new life will be a much more primitive one due to the lack of natural resources.

Imbued into the standard colonizing a new world plot are often successful attempts at social commentary (at least in the first half of the novel): for example, themes related to the “Terran Bill of Rights” that governs society on Earth: “No law shall be made or formulated abridging the rights of any human being to equal work regardless of racial origin, religion or sex” (p17). Rafael MacAran, one of the main characters, is forced to abandon his traditionalist/sexist views of women after he is ordered to take along female scientists on his survey trips despite his hollow protestations: “I asked for men on this trip. It’s some mighty rough ground” (p17). He of course tells himself that “he is no male chauvinist” (p15) but takes along men who are physically unable to make the difficult journeys across the mountain ranges.

There is also a running commentary on the effects of overpopulation on Earth and how the social positions that were created by it have to be abandoned in the new colony. Bradley postulates that in an overpopulated future where birth control is easy to access and universally accepted, “a wave of feeling had made abortion completely unthinkable. Unwanted children were simply never conceived” (p60) (her discussion does not include rape). Women have children only when they want to. However, on alien planets, according to Bradley’s biological extrapolations, the fertility of women is lower and this choice has to be addressed.

This biological principle the novel adheres to, i.e. fertility is lower for women on alien worlds due to mysterious planetary effects, segues into a very troubling theme: does the individual woman or her male dominated community control her uterus. Bradley’s answer is straightforward — the community. Considering how most of the novel is concerned with pointing out the hypocrisy of sexist men, such a stance strikes me as bizarre. Camilla, the second in command of the colony ship, is forced to acquiesce to societal demands that she deliver her child — remember, there’s no birth control…

This is further compounded by a periodic flare-up of a mind-altering pollen cloud that causes everyone to have massive orgies. In short, pregnancy results whether a woman wants to get pregnant or not — not only does she have to keep the child, she has to refrain from any physical labor while she is pregnant! For example, “Colony women have to be pampered” (p100) due to the potential infertility, stretches of low fertility, and the potential health defects of the fetus (caused by working?). In short, the egalitarian Terran Bill of Rights referenced above has to be abandoned. In Earth societies where a lack of medical advances (in the current day and the past) made pregnancy extremely dangerous to the mother and child, the mother is still forced to work in order to provide for her family. This would definitely be the case on a resource poor planet! Not only is Bradley’s extrapolation of the role of women in a low-technology colonial society poorly researched, but is also socially regressive.

As Bradley’s fellow SF novelists Vonda McIntyre and Joanna Russ pointed out in articles on the novel, her discussion of the role of the female colonists — who are mysteriously the only gender whose fertility is decreased by the alien environment — is often frustrating. Russ’ early complaints even categorized it as antifeminist… I have not found any indication that there was a satirical intention on Bradley’s part.

Also, the fantasy-imbued world — for example, fairy-like aliens who live in the woods and strange telepathy enhancing crystals — will not appeal to everyone.

Vaguely recommended for fans of straightforward pulp SF adventures imbued with a good dose of social commentary. Although neither the plot nor the commentary is altogether successful.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.