Ammonite by Nicola Griffith. ★★★
Ammonite is a science fiction from the early 1990’s that takes place on an all female planet. I found the beginning very promising, but I ultimately wanted more from the book.
The planet of Jeep is home to a virus that kills all men and a large percentage of women. Centuries later, it has been rediscovered by the greater world. Marghe Taishan is an anthropologist sent down to Jeep to learn about the women living there and to test a new vaccine. She also hopes to learn the answer to the greatest question of Jeep: how do these women reproduce?
There was another plot thread in Ammonite following Hannah Danner, the commander of the Company forces. The Company (no other name given) hopes to colonize Jeep if the vaccination succeeds. However, Danner suspects that they will destroy their base if it doesn’t and abandon their employees on planet.
Initially, it seemed like this potential destruction would be a more driving force. However, the threat’s so vague that the tension eventually peters out. The pacing fell off dramatically by the final third of the book, after Marghe is no longer in a direct survival situation. It then focuses almost entirely on Marghe’s inner life. Unfortunately, I found Marghe really bland. None of the other characters were much better.
I also eventually realized that I’d seen this plot before in science fiction. Have you ever seen James Cameron’s Avatar? It’s usually what I use to describe this type of plotline. Protagonist from culture synonymous to our culture goes to native planet and leaves old life behind to follow native ways. The only big twist here was that the “alien” culture was all female. Ammonite was also very heavy on science fiction mysticism, which I can be ambivalent about. Sometimes it works, sometimes it just feels silly. This wasn’t one of the better usages I’ve seen, although to be honest I’m not sure how else I expected the “only women” aspect to be explained.
Obviously, the big draw of Ammonite is that it’s a feminist science fiction novel taking place on an all female planet. While I’m glad that it didn’t go down the “women are all peaceful nurturers in touch with nature” route, I didn’t find it’s examination of gender to go much beyond “women are people.” Yes, great. But I’m guessing that if you’re the sort of person who wants to read a feminist science fiction novel, you’re probably already on board with that message and are looking for something a bit more complex. To be fair, there were a few instances when Ammonite would mention words like “sailors,” and I would automatically picture men, so perhaps it is more relevant than I’m assuming here. It was written in the 90’s, so I really shouldn’t be expecting it to be up to date with feminism in 2016 (for instance, everyone was cisgender). However, it still ends up feeling dated.
In the end, I found Ammonite most relevant as a piece of genre history. There was some interesting thematic material about the need for change, but I have a hard time connecting to a book based purely on themes. I need some connection to either plot or characters, which I didn’t feel in Ammonite.