Nicola Griffith first came to my attention with her novel Hild (2013), which follows the life of a significant female figure in seventh-century Anglo-Saxon Britain, and which many of my favourite bloggers absolutely loved. (I’m ashamed to say that I’m yet to finish it, although I’m determined to give it another go – the complexity of names, allegiances and relationships defeated me, even when I tried to make my own notes as I went along! Fans of this novel, any tips?) Ammonite, her 1993 debut, starts in a rather different space. Marghe, trained as an anthropologist, is about to land on a distant planet inhabited by a migratory strand of the human race. Centuries ago, this planet was affected by a mysterious virus that wiped out all the men and conferred upon the women the power to reproduce asexually, although they are able to scramble genetic data so they don’t simply give birth to clones of themselves (Griffith emphasises that there is a mystical aspect to how this takes place, so getting hung up on the science would be, I think, to miss the point of this novel). Marghe is using an untested vaccine to avoid becoming infected herself, but as she walks deeper into the unknown, she is drawn to the cultures she encounters in ways that she hadn’t anticipated.
As this all suggests, Ammonite draws heavily from Ursula Le Guin’s classic The Left Hand of Darkness; not only philosophically – Le Guin famously depicts a society where biological sex is mutable and often absent – but spatially. A centrepiece of the novel is the time Marghe spends in the freezing northern wastes of this planet, reflecting the journey that Le Guin’s narrator undertakes across a frozen sea. But it also looks forward to SF such as Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, where biological sex differences remain but the sociological significance of gender has been eliminated. In Ammonite, I often found myself forgetting that everybody in the book is female (and that all the people in this world are lesbians, if that word has any meaning in a world where everyone’s forgotten that men ever existed); but when I remembered, it was incredibly refreshing to read something where I don’t have to constantly think about the structural power conferred upon men and straight people by patriarchy. Interestingly, Griffith herself seems to take a similar approach; the book is not really interested in interrogating gender or sexuality as such, but with getting on with telling another kind of story.
The pivotal point of this novel comes partway through, when Marghe is talking to one of the women, Thenike, about her work. Thenike asks her ‘These places you go, the people you find, do you come to care for them? Or do you only study them like strange shells you might find on the beach?’ This phrase comes to haunt Marghe. ‘She had lived alone for as long as she could remember… She had buried herself in study, in observation and analysis… She had no friends, because whenever she began to get close to someone it felt like unknown territory, and it scared her; she ran away to a new place, to find new people to study, people to whom she did not necessarily have to be a person back.’ Later, Marghe title-drops the novel by thinking of herself as an ammonite, a fossilised empty shell, unlike the living creatures who inhabit the ‘shells’ she studies. This novel, then, for all its alien trappings, is really about making a commitment to yourself and to a place; about realising, as Dido sings, that your life is not for rent. A less accomplished novelist might have reduced this to a dreary lesson on how family and friends are more important than career, but we see how the choice Marghe makes allows her to give her full self to both.
Readers who struggled with the dry academic tone of The Left Hand of Darkness will be pleased to hear that Ammonite is much more engaging on the storytelling level; readers who liked The Left Hand of Darkness will be encouraged by the fact that this comes with the Le Guin seal of approval (she called it ‘a knockout . . . Strong, likable characters, a compelling story, and a very interesting take on gender’). For my money, Ammonite is both uncompromisingly intelligent and emotionally and morally rich. My kind of book.