Ammonite, Nicola Griffith

ammoniteAmmonite, Nicola Griffith (1993)
Review by Kate Macdonald

I think this may have been the first sf novel I read that I instantly recognised as feminist: not stealth, or muted, or sub-conscious. It was Nicola Griffith’s first novel, and if she had never written anything again it would still be stunning: it won the Tiptree Award, the Lambda Literary Award, and the Premio Italia.

Ammonite is an exploration story set on a male-free planet; they’re not even needed for making babies. The impetus behind this novel seems to be, what would a world be like when there weren’t any men? And the answer is, a perfectly normal world, but with only women, which changes all the social dynamics. It’s a very simple premise, but the result is an outstanding novel. The setting and story stay with you, you want to know more, and to have the story continue.

The world is called Jeep – GP – and it was first investigated by the Company, an Alien-like conglomerate Griffith uses as a useful metaphor for authority and interference on a galactic scale. Company colonists were sent down to explore, and a planetary virus killed all the men, and a fifth of the women. Company promptly quarantined the planet, and set up extreme decontamination procedures for anyone who wanted to leave. This includes the complete removal of the subject’s blood lymph and bone marrow: I can’t see that one being compatible with continuing to live. The women that remained maintained the Company settlement for five years, and when the story opens they’re showing unmistakeable signs of becoming settlers rather than a temporary mission because, of course, they can’t leave.

Marghe the xeno-anthropologist is the newcomer through whose eyes we see the story unfold. She takes the one-way trip to the surface to make closer contacts with the natives, because this is the professional opportunity of a lifetime. The natives are human, living in a collection of communities with different social organisations. They originate from Earth, centuries before, which explains their mixed-up lingua franca of different Earth languages. Now, they’re all illiterate and tribal, some are settled and agricultural and some are nomadic and pastoral; most are peaceful, but one tribe is showing very worrying signs of irrational aggression. Times are not so much hard as fragile: a bad harvest or the death of a leader can tip a group into jeopardy, which is why the social trading and allegiance system of trata is essential for communal survival. Marghe is given help by one group, which puts her, and the Company settlement, in a trata relationship. For the first time, the Company settlement has a stake in the planet’s future, they will be consulted, they will be asked for help, they exist. But Marghe is struggling against her innate suspicion of Company, and her loyalties to her own people. Her instincts are to get away from the confines of the Company enclosure and live among the women of Jeep. It helps that she’s a brilliant linguist, so the first hurdle for understanding goes down quickly, and she heads out into this brave new world to see what she can see, and learn as much as she can.

Naturally, she gets into trouble. She strays into a bad electrical storm, she gets lost on the high plateau, she gets captured by the worryingly aggressive nomadic tribe and is forced into servitude to survive the winter, in a tribe that is clearly malnourished and inbred, and is being influenced by a madwoman who thinks she is the reincarnation of the Death Spirit. Griffiths draws on lots of different Earth societies for Jeep’s different social groups, and her depiction of this nomadic tribe with an unpronounceable faux-Gaelic name is pretty chilling. Marghe’s obstinate refusal to just shut up and keep the fire going is infuriating, because it’s perfectly plain to the reader that she has no chance of surviving the hostile environment and the hostile people unless she learns and listens, but Marghe’s own demons are too noisy for her to listen to anything else going on, a lot of the time. Her eventual escape seems like a miracle, and not one that she earned with prudence or caution.

Once she struggles over the winter plain with much suffering and several lost frostbitten fingers, Marge is rescued from delirium by the farmers of Ollfoss, and she recovers her mind and her health in a society that less charitable readers might snoot at as being a feminist hippy commune, and lose interest in the novel at this point, but it worked for me. I really like the depiction of a society where children are shared between parental groups (see Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake), and where different skills find different outlets. The village Marghe comes to live in seems like an ecologist’s dream of comfortable subsistence living, with hot tubs, communal gardens, a gong-banging pavilion to echo the electromagnetic pulse of the planet and a very sensible trading ethic. Making things is very important for these people, but the things that are made are not always tangible. Marghe falls in love with Thenike, a travelling story-teller, arbitrator and wise woman, and finds that her anthropologist’s training has given her these skills too, so she can become part of the native economy herself. Their travels put them in touch with news, and with political developments, which come to a head when the terrifying wild tribe of the north starts to raid southwards, killing as they go. The parallel plot, of what the Company settlers are going to do to avoid being blown up by the military cruiser parked in orbit to keep an eye on them, and how they’re going to fit into this world, comes to a head at about the same time. The plotting is very skilful, since the book ends with plenty of loose ends but also with the most urgent plot problems resolved and sorted. It’s all very satisfying, and leaves you wanting much, much more of this world and its richly imagined life. This is one of Griffith’s major strengths as a novelist: her worlds work at all levels, and embed themselves deeply in the reader’s imagination.

You may be wondering about how this all-female society breeds. How are the children conceived, if there aren’t any men to do what human insemination requires? Well, it’s all in the mind. The virus enables women to tweak their own gametes and the gametes of their lovers, when they go into a sex-related trance state, so that children (girls) can be conceived as an act of love. This seems perfectly plausible, if you’ve got the ability to work on your own biofeedback, as a kind of meditative extension of yoga or t’ai chi. You can do pretty much anything to your own biology, once you know what you’re doing and have the mental whatnot to tweak the cells. Anne McCaffrey used this idea too, in her telepathy short stories, Pegasus in Flight. Forget about the science, embrace the concept.

One of the consequences of there being no men (though there are male animals: the virus is apparently not a male-hater, just a man-eater) is that society runs itself differently from how we know it. This is the utopian aspect of Ammonite, exploring how a society could develop following only female interests. There are no hierarchies: that’s the most obvious factor. Group leaders lead through common sense, and put the tribe first. The mystical element to how these societies operate does affect their social practice: if you can look back along the generations and see how your great-great-grandmother did something, or dealt with a particular problem, then that naturally throws a wild card into the otherwise logical process of gaining experience and learning how to manage a tribal meeting. It would be like having the lives of all your ancestors on tap for a special consultation, taking the place of written records and archive-keeping that most human societies develop.

Without hierarchies, there is a strong focus on fair treatment, equal treatment, and no-one taking advantage of anyone else. Open discussion of disagreements resolves problems, and nobody seems to be angling for personal power, or gain. There are exceptions: the madwoman who wanted to lead the tribe to a bloody killing swathe over the planet was deranged, a result of too much inbreeding. Leifin, the woman who saved Marghe from the winter plains, shows signs of not only developing capitalist tendencies – an obsessive pursuit of trata for its own sake, and trading advantages beyond anything she actually needs – but also hunting for pleasure as well as for the skins of the creatures she kills. This is another of the enticing loose ends that Griffith leaves open: Leifin is hunting goth, a mythical creature whom most people think is an invention, but whom Marghe has seen, and whom Liefin has killed for its pelt. Marghe suspects the goth of being one of the indigenous inhabitants of the planet, a true alien, and also an intelligent one, who made the standing stone circles, and still survives in the forests. This takes the story back to a different level, where we can start questioning colonisation in all its forms, and look more searchingly at the Earth-imported human women who now act as natives. This is a novel of unfolding imaginative invention, it’s rich and packed, and definitely worth rediscovering.

This review originally appeared on

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

Ammonite, Nicola Griffith

Ammonite, Nicola Griffith (1993)
Review by Martin Wisse

Nicola Griffith is a writer I’ve heard a great deal of but so far had never read anything by. Ammonite was her first novel and immediately made a strong impression on publication, winning both the James Tiptree Award and the Lambda Award. As these awards confirm, Ammonite is a classic feminist science fiction novel, straight in the tradition of writers like Ursula Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness), Joanna Russ (The Female Man) and Sheri Tepper (The Gate to Women’s Country).

The world created in Ammonite is also a classic feminist science fiction trope: that of a world without men. In this case, it’s the colony world of Jeep where an alien virus killed off all men and a large percentage of women, leaving the survivors to rebuilt their societies on a one gender basis. How they’ve managed to do so is the central mystery of Ammonite, which is partially a puzzle story and partially a leisurely planetary romance as our protagonist, anthropologist Marghe Taishan, travels the planet in search of answers. Marghe is working for SEC, the government agency that was set up to safeguard the interests of indigenes of rediscovered colony worlds like Jeep from exploitation by the Company, which has a monopoly on space exploration and which whom Marghe has some unpleasant history…

Marghe was brought to Jeep to test a newly developed vaccine while establishing contact with the natives and finding out where they came from, what their origin is. This she hopes, might shed some light on what the virus is and how the women reproduce without men. She decides to travel north, as all the clues she has so far point that way. Her travels will bring her into contact with a wide variety of cultures and societies, many of which are barely aware of the existence of the Company’s colony.

In a parallel secondary storyline the colony’s commander, Hannah Danner, has come to realise that the existence of the virus means they’ll never get off Jeep, except in the unlikely circumstance that a vaccine can be found. She also knows that there’s a military ship in system with orders to do everything necessary to prevent the virus from leaving the planet. Therefore she starts to make the colony self-sustaining, as well as integrate it in the planet’s trade networks.

These separate plot threads are important, but mainly as excuse to showcase the world Griffith had created. Jeep is a fully realised world and the civilisations encountered by Marghe make sense, feel real. Nicola Griffith’s goal was to create a world populated solely with women without falling back on clichés about what such a world would look like. No “seven-feet-tall vegetarian amazons who would never dream of killing anyone, no “aliens who are really women or women who are really aliens”, but “the entire spectrum of human behavior”. She succeeded quite well in this, due in great part to the matter of fact way in which she presents her world. Because Griffith trusts her readers to understand the setup, she doesn’t constantly points out that “holy shit these are all women” and how strange this is. This makes the fact that all but one minor character are women just as normal as the far more usual opposite situation; nobody thinks it strange if a science fiction story features only male characters.

As for the central mystery of the story, why the virus killed all men but only one in five women and how a female-only, low-tech society manages to reproduce, it’s solution isn’t quite hard science fiction, even by the stretchable standards of much hard science fiction. It’s somewhat mystical and if you’re allergic to new-agey woowoo, it might make you itch. Then again, Ammonite is quite clearly not meant to be a hard science fiction problem-solving story. The focus lies elsewhere, on presenting a believable female-only world, on Marthe’s personal growth and her rediscovery of herself as part of a community.

Nicola Griffith writes brilliantly, especially considering this is a first novel, and in a style that makes you want to read on even when the most exciting thing she’s telling you about is the planting of the new harvest. It’s not often I discover a new first rate science fiction author, and I’m a bit miffed with myself for not having discovered her earlier.

This review originally appeared on Cloggie.

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