Change or die. These are the only options on the planet Jeep. Centuries ago, a deadly virus shattered the colony, killing the men and forever altering the surviving women. Now anthropologist Marghe Taishan arrives to test a new vaccine. As she risks death to uncover the women’s biological secret, she finds that she, too, is changing – and that not only has she found a home on Jeep, but that she alone carries the seeds of its destruction…
As readers will be used to, the blurb for Ammonite is almost entirely misleading; Nicola Griffith’s female-only world is a much more interesting, slow, complex and concept-driven novel than the blurb makes it sound. It’s not without some problems, but this book does definitely deserve its Masterwork status.
As far as it being queer goes, I’m not sure a novel could be more gay; Ammonite is a book which has one male character, who himself only appears in recollections, and has a number of relationships, all shown as completely normal, and while Marghe is reluctant to enter a relationship with another woman, it isn’t a hangup over homosexuality (the colonial forces on the planet include a completely open homosexual couple) but over involvement with a native. In another sense, however, it’s stunningly unqueer; Ammonite is a novel whose very premise exists on an equation of gender and sexuality: we have no idea if there is such a thing as transgenderism in this universe, because it never comes up. The plague kills off all men and some women, but Griffith doesn’t even begin to address how that would affect non-binary individuals, a missed opportunity.
Mind you, she does have some excellent binary characters. Ammonite hinges on Marghe for the most part, and the anthropologist is a fascinating character; in the middle of the book the reason for its title becomes clear, and on either side of that Marghe goes through reverse processes, spiralling inwards and then outwards, a fantastic piece of writing that makes the character of the anthropologist who goes native more than just a trope but a process. Danner, the commander of Port Central, and hence head of the colonial forces, similarly undergoes a process of change across the course of the novel; that is, as a character, Danner changes how she conceives of herself, her role and responsibility, and the people around her, as Ammonite goes on and as events force her to act or present her with choices. Every character clearly has agency and makes choices, and Griffith doesn’t write a single character who doesn’t have an essential fascinating humanity.
The plot is less tightly focused than some novels; Ammonite ratchets its tension up and down, and changes the plot part of the way through, although it does also work to tie all the different strands together by its conclusion. There’s a kind of pressurising tightness bearing down on the novel’s first half that increases until pretty much the midway point and then the whole thing changes, becoming less about Marghe’s personal voyage and a wider scope appears; it’s an amazing piece of structural construction, but does leave some bits of story feeling a little like they’re flailing around or meandering at times. These are of course partially first novel problems, as Ammonite attempts the structural complexity and beauty that Griffith finetunes in later novels into a fantastic tool; but the ways in which she flounders with them are at least interesting.
Ammonite came out over two decades ago, but has largely avoided aging; Griffith really has written a fascinating, beautiful, intelligent, queer science fiction novel. Ammonite more than earns its place among Gollancz’s Masterworks.