Ammonite by Nicola Griffith. Review by Andrea Johnson
Ammonite (n) – a coiled tightly multi-chambered shell of a fossilized mollusk.
This book asks questions and gives theories and ideas on so many levels that I don't even know where to start. Like many other modern science fiction authors, Griffith uses her writing to ask hard questions. Questions that authors of 20 or 30 years might not have been able to get away with.
To start, our main character is Marghe Tiashan, an anthropologist from Earth, sent to planet Jeep to learn more about the human tribes who are living there. A little history of planet Jeep—the "Company" had tried colonizing it a few hundred years ago, and landed a large colony there. When a native virus begins killing off all the males and many of the females, the "Company" abandons their colony. The women survive, discover a way to have children, and over the course of many years they not only divide into tribes with their own religions, histories and cultures, but they forget that they were ever from Earth in the first place. To these tribes, Marghe's group of Earth anthropologists are aliens. Marghe's job is to learn about these tribes, find out how they have managed to have children, and most importantly, find out how the surviving women survived the virus, which killed so many.
Shortly after arriving at the colony base, Marghe decides her best bet is to travel north, where her preceding scientific partner disappeared, and where many of the tribes live. She spends time with two tribes, learning of their mythology and culture. She realizes that none of the people she meets think they were originally from earth. The human natives truly believe their people started on Jeep, and they have a mythology based on that belief. Marghe is able to see where their mythology shows a colony ship, something that killed the men and most of the women, etc. It's amazing how the author creates myths for her fictional cultures, and then has her main character completely de-legitimize their myths.
Through these technologically backward groups, Marghe must learn what to do when the virus comes for her, for it comes for everyone. This world changes everyone who steps foot on it, and once the change takes place, you can never leave. On this planet, if you fight the changes, you die. We all know that change is inevitable. We all know that change is often painful, but that it is also often good for us in the long run. If we know the long-term implications of change can help us, why are we so afraid of it? Every single character in this book is afraid of change. Marghe is afraid of what Jeep is doing to her. She is petrified that once the changes take place, what she is, who she is will be no longer. The colony Commander, called Danner, is afraid of telling her people they are stuck on Jeep forever, she is afraid of becoming a leader in a new light. One of the northern Celtic-ish tribes is afraid of having to change their way of life, they are afraid of moving south with the warm weather. Why is everyone so afraid? Is change really that awful?
Marghe and Cmdr Danner go through some soul searching, needing to realize that when the world changes, when you change, you are still you, your goals are still feasible. Things change, but that doesn't have to mean you change. Reading this book, I wondered who were the author's influences? What authors had she read as a kid? I picked up on the anger of a woman who didn't like reading sci-fi books where women were non existent as three-dimensional characters. I picked up on the Herbert-esque method of taking advantage of another culture's mythology to forward your own goals, and the Herbert-esque concept of women's "other memory" (which a small group of our characters do have). It's obvious that Griffith isn't happy with how women have been treated in science fiction novels. I can agree with her that much of the classic sci-fi she and I grew up with didn't include strong women. She seems to take personal offense at this. I do not.
This was Griffith's first novel (I believe she has a few more out), and as far as first novels go, it was incredible. I loved the story, I loved the characters, I loved being confronted by so many tough and annoying questions that I wouldn't have normally thought about. But I felt Griffith's anger on every page.
Andrea Johnson lives in beautiful southwestern Michigan with her husband, and spends as much time as possible reading and enjoying science fiction and other speculative fiction. She is an administrator and book reviewer at Worm's Sci Fi Haven and an official reviewer at Multiverse.