Although 1992’s Ammonite1, winner of the Lambda and Tiptree awards link], was not Nicola Griffith’s debut, most of her short fiction to that date had been published in David Pringles’ Interzone, which, despite efforts on my part, I have never been able to find on this side of the Atlantic (not even the issue in which my work turned out — to my surprise—to have appeared). For people like me, for whom Pringles were unpalatable snacks in tubes, this novel would have been the first time we encountered Griffith. It was a strong debut.
At a time far enough in the future that the descendents of settlers on habitable exoplanets are called natives2 , the general framework of civilization on Earth is a familiar one: giant exploitative corporations work hand-in-hand with a thoroughly compromised government. As anthropologist Marghe Taishan discovered to her personal injury, crossing the corporations is a good way to earn a savage beating.
Despite her brush with death at the hands of the Durallium Company’s representatives, Taishan jumps at the chance when the Settlement and Education Council offers her the opportunity to do fieldwork on Grenchstom’s Planet, aka GP, aka Jeep. Jeep is a closed world with a unique mosaic of native cultures and any dedicated anthropologist would give a limb to study it.
Of course there is a catch. The reason Jeep is closed is because Jeep is home to a virus that kills a large fraction of the women exposed to it and all of the men. This was discovered only after the Company had planted a base on Jeep. Now the unfortunate men who took the assignment occupy plots in the base graveyard while the surviving women are trapped in what may be an eternal quarantine down on Jeep.
Taishan has a secondary assignment that the Company and its employees no doubt see as even more important than her cultural survey: field-testing an anti-viral that is supposed to confer immunity to the virus. Whether it will work at all is an open question. Even if it does, there’s a very real chance the Company will decide to quietly dispose of Taishan rather than allow her to potentially return as a Typhoid Mary to the settled worlds.
The fact that there are human natives of the planet strongly suggests that there is some way for an all-female low tech population to reproduce, but how exactly that works is a mystery to the civilized people of the Milky Way.
Taishan only hangs around the dirtside base long enough to establish the secondary characters (who get their own little plot, which I am not going to discuss). Then she heads out to commit some really badly thought-out field work. The first community she encounters are the Echraide (whose name, I think, literally translates as horse riders). Taishan is lucky not to be killed on the spot, or even slowly tortured, but being forcibly adopted into the clan isn’t any fun. The Echraide aren’t just technologically backward nomads, they’re a slowly dying community of technologically backward nomads. A dismal situation is made much worse by high-ranking warrior Uaithne, a psychopath who believes that the best way to deal with likely doom is to embrace it as bloodily as possible.
Taishan manages to escape the Echraide. Despite some challenging weather, she makes her way to Ollfoss, which might seem a small town to us but is a major urban center for Jeep. Ollfoss’ inhabitants are much less stabby than the Echraide and much more open to the sort of interviews an anthropologist needs to do. It is a center of learning for Jeep and thus a good place for Taishan’s study.
There are just two catches: Taishan’s limited supply of antivirals is running out and there is no reasonable way for her to make it back to the base before they run out. Even if she could reach the base in time, it might not matter. The death-seeking Uaithne is leading her desperate people on a campaign of murder and looting; unless something can be done about Uaithne’s rampage, there may not be a base to go back to.
Few alive now alive remember the 1980s, the decade when Griffith first began working on what eventually became Ammonite. In those days, Griffith’s birth land, the eternally sunless United Kingdom, had a Prime Minister named Margaret Thatcher. Under Thatcher, the UK really embraced its inner Mordor. Judging by the fiction that emerged from the UK in those years, Thatcher was in the habit of fluttering in through the windows of her unfortunate electorate to suck the joy out of their souls3. Gay people like Griffith came in for particular persecution under Thatcher. But in Thatcher’s defense, Thatcher was a terrible person with no redeeming qualities; everyone who voted for her was culpable as well and should be ashamed. The UK did not produce many Thatcher-era SF books where one could imagine anyone smiling for any length of time. Despite the passionate romances chronicled in Griffith’s novel, it really isn’t one of the few exceptions. Ammonite is, however, a rewarding read.
(But there’s a happy ending! Griffith met American Kelley Eskridge at Clarion in 1988; they fell in love and lived happily together for the rest of their days4, their days being currently in Seattle — which just happens to be a part of the US that is nearly as innocent of direct sunlight as Britain.)
I don’t really buy the mechanism by which Jeep’s women reproduce but it’s nowhere near the least implausible element I have ever accepted for the sake of a good story. If there’s no way for the locals to replace themselves despite the biological challenges, then Jeep’s native population would be somewhere in the vicinity of zero, which would make for very dull anthropology.
Actually, on second thought that would be a good description of Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To…
I am going to assume that Taishan’s lack of preparedness and perhaps even suitability for field work probably owes a lot to the political-economic arrangements in this era. From the point of view of the Company, Taishan was a known impediment; the Company really does not give a toss for the locals beyond wanting to know how to open the planet up for strip-mining; and while the reason for allowing Taishan to visit the world may be scientific, the science she is supposed to serve isn’t anthropology but epidemiology.
Ammonite belongs to a long tradition of SF works featuring worlds whose populations are all the same sex. I believe that it was specifically intended as a reply to the subset of all-female utopias, where eliminating all the men made everything wonderful and sparkly. Griffith is skeptical that it would actually work this way. Removing the male humans still leaves female humans and the important word there is humans; Jeep’s all-female population displays the full range of human behavior, both pleasant and unpleasant.
There is a secondary theme, which is that while it might be nice to think we can just reshape the worlds we find to suit us, worlds are very big and the shaping might be done to us. The off-worlders who settled Jeep centuries ago and the ones who settled it a few years ago make the same discovery; they can adapt to the peculiar conditions on Jeep or they can die out.
Many promising authors produce a few works and vanish. Griffith is still an active, if not a prolific, writer. Unfortunately from my point of view, she is an example of the other thing that happens to talented authors, which is that they migrate out of SF and into other, larger fields. Ammonite (1992) was followed by the equally SFnal Slow River (1995), but Slow River was followed by The Blue Place (1998), Stay (2003), and Always (2007), all good but all of which belong over in mystery. While Hild (2013) garnered a Nebula nomination, as far as I can tell it is a straight-up historical. I understand the process by which this happens — other markets are much larger5— but I still gnash my teeth.
1: The ISFDB says 1993 but the copy I have in my hand clearly says this was copyrighted 1992.
2: I wonder how little time that would take? Not more than a century or two.
3: Popular fantasy author JK Rowling wrote at least one and perhaps two characters in not-so-fond remembrance of Thatcher but sadly for the UK, Thatcher was never opposed by anything like an effective Order of the Phoenix.
4: No pressure.
5: What I was told ten years ago was that romance novels make up 50 percent of the fiction sold, mystery 25 percent, fantasy about 4 percent and SF 2 percent. I doubt the numbers have improved since then. (Note how carefully publishers avoid labeling futuristic dystopias aimed at teens as SF.)
Since the skills to write in one genre are often applicable to other genres, established writers are subject to a sort of osmotic pressure which makes it much more likely that they will migrate out of SF than into it.