Sunday, August 9, 2020


Nicola Griffith
Completed 8/9/2020, Reviewed 8/9/2020
5 stars

Nicola Griffith is the most nominated and one of the winningest authors of the Lambda Literary Award.  This book was her first win.  I really liked her second win, SlowRiver.  Ammonite, however, feels like her masterpiece.  It was also her first novel.  It felt carefully written, with wonderful prose and beautiful characterization.  The premise is the basic trope of a planet of women, but it is done as if women were simply people, not less than men, not greater than men, simply people who have adapted to their environment.  She comments on this in her afterward, that her goal was to write a book where the women’s characters are as varied as men’s in a typical mainstream science fiction novel.  This book also won the Sideways Award and is considered a classic of science fiction about as well as by women.

Marghe is an anthropologist going to the planet known as Jeep to study the culture of the women who inhabit it for a corporation that wants to exploit its natural resources.  The women are the remnants of a colony that was decimated by a virus that killed all the men and many women.  The women who survived somehow had children.  The problem with going to Jeep is that the virus is still active.  Marghe, however, is given an experimental vaccine for the virus, a pill she must take regularly.  She goes to Jeep, meets with the survivors of the corporation’s base, and then sets off to live with some of the indigenous cultures.  On her way, she is captured by one tribe.  She escapes, lives with another tribe, and discovers the secrets of the virus and people.

Marghe is a very well-developed character.  Through her exploits, we learn who she is, her past, and what she’s made of.  Griffith does a remarkable job of giving us the full range of emotions and experience of Marghe.  This is most demonstrated during her escape from the first tribe in the dead of winter in the far north of Jeep where the weather is bitter and a blizzard comes through.  Some authors could make this tedious, but Griffith made me feel Marghe’s courage and despair while she tries to save herself and her sanity.

In addition to Marghe’s story, there is a plotline that follows the corporation’s base and its commander Danner.  Danner has serious self-doubts about her abilities to lead.  She is conflicted by her duty to the corporation versus her people.  Her doubts and conflict help create another fully formed character with great complexity.  While not nearly as interesting as Marghe’s journey, Danner’s story line is still riveting as she must deal with corporate spies and keep up the morale of the base.  Between Marghe and Danner, I became a participant in the story, not just a spectator.

While anthropology in science fiction traditionally makes it “soft” versus “hard”, I thought the discovery of how the women of Jeep procreate was the best, most detailed explanation I have come across in any book about an all-women’s society.  I also thought the description of the virus was well done and believable.  These are two aspects of the story that show just how well Griffith did with the world-building.  In addition to these were the three cultures she created, that of the base and the two very distinct tribes in which Marghe lived.

I give this book five stars out of five.  I deeply felt a part of the complex world that Griffith created, although, as a man, the virus would have killed me.  The prose was wondrous without being heavy-handed.  The characters were multi-dimensional.  In the end, Griffith tied everything up beautifully and believably, which made me joyous and at the same time terribly sad that the book had to come to an end. 

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