Month: December 1996

Ammonite, Nicola Griffith

Del Rey, 1992, 349 pages, C$4.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-37891-1

Re-reading the above reviews, I am filled with dread: Not only aren’t they very good, but they’re also insufferably nice. I hate nice. Sooner or later, someone is going to send me a nasty e-mail asking whether or not Kim Stanley Robinson paid me for the heaps of praise lavished on his Mars trilogy.

So, in an effort to scale back the balance a bit, I have selected the worst SF book I have read this year. And this book is gonna get it. Be sure of one thing; I am not going to get any check from Nicola Griffith in the foreseeable future.

Because, you see, Ammonite is a bad novel. There are many degrees of badness, as well as several factors that sour my opinions of a particular book and Ammonite is a particularly remarkable intersection of a bunch of these anti-qualities.

I’ll be honest: I’m less than partial to explicitly feminist novels. I’ve explained several of the reasons elsewhere, but my main point is that fighting excesses with excesses are not a good way to win. Castrating all males is as much a power fantasy as tying up all females. (Personally, —I have a sister—there’s no doubt in my mind that women are as much out equal in terms of aggressiveness and inherent potential for violence… watch out when social conditioning will crumble.)

And Ammonite is an explicitly feminist novel. In spades.

On a certain planet, all men die and most women get temporarily sick from a native virus. Centuries pass, and anthropologist Marghe Taishan (that’s our heroine) arrives on the abandoned planet to test a new vaccine. What she discovers is a pastoral, all-female society (or rather, societies: War’s still going on between the clans.) Ah, but if all males dies upon exposure at the virus, how are the women reproducing? Will Marghe be able to stop the conflict between the opposing forces? Will she find love, meaning and happiness on this planet?

Now here comes my biggest objection to the book. Any careful SF fan could be able to guess where the story’s going based on the previous paragraph: The women are able to reproduce themselves with the transformations brought by the virus. Marghe will go native, meet girl and fall in love, but not before going through some terrible experiences of her own. Odds are that she will go through the single most defining experience for a woman on the planet, which is becoming pregnant “all by herself” (with a little help from her friend.) Of course, we can expect her to solve the Big Political Conflict by the end of the book and Live Happily Ever After.

The fun of SF, in most cases, is to see the author destroy our preconceived assumptions while going through the novel. And it would be even better for said author to do it entertainingly: I want action, or intelligence. If you’re about to write a 350-pages book, be sure to sustain it with enough plot, storyline twists and surprises to make me feel I’ve paid an adequate sum for the g’darn book!

Sadly, this doesn’t happen here. The expected twists never come: Marghe goes native, is rejected by natives, goes through some terrible experiences, falls in love, never gets sympathetic but does get pregnant, solve the conflict and Lives Happily Ever after. Points are deducted for goofy science, interminable length and glorification of new-agish crap.

To put it simply: There are no surprises in this book. By the time the Big Political Conflict is solved, we just don’t care anymore. I would have liked the book better if Marghe would have either just hung herself or loosened the man-killing virus upon the galaxy. But this doesn’t happen.

It might be a wise time to include a personal interlude here: In the first three months of 1996, I took an English course at my very own UofO, entitled “Utopian and Science-Fiction.” The course, taught by a teacher by the unlikely name of P h y l l i s P. P e r r a k i s, stank, bored and confused. But that’s another essay: “How academia doesn’t get SF, or at least not around here.”

At one point in the course, a female student from nearby Carleton University came into our class to ask if anyone was interested in participating in a survey for some kind of thesis on feminist SF. One of the two books: Ammonite. One fellow classmate (female) wanted to participate: “Anything for a free book” she said.

I warned her. I told her it wasn’t worth it. I pleaded for abstinence and restraint. I used a great many deal of **asterisks** to convince her not to waste her time on the book. But she didn’t listen…

Guess what? A week later, same place, same time: Fellow (female) classmate comes to me and says: “You’re right. It’s an incredibly boring book.” Ha! Vindication! Seems that her problem with the book was the same than mine: No surprises, incredible ennui

Ammonite, to restate, is a failure as a novel. Even then, it almost succeeds as a science-fiction story. The first chapters are interesting, but as soon as we get an idea of where the novel’s going, it loses all interest. Marghe’s trek across the planet is nothing compared to the odyssey the reader has to endure through the novel’s 349 pages. By the time everything settles down, we just don’t care anymore.

More on new-ageish crap: The society described by Griffith in Ammonite is barely feudal. Isolated clans, fighting for dominance until Marghe makes them all cooperate. Rejection of technology (which only serves males or male-indoctrinated females) is much more than strongly implied. The goofy pseudo-explanation for the virus’ effect smacks more of undigested psychic healing exploita than actual biology. Techies, or just rational people, will have to go elsewhere to get decent entertainment.

As a feminist tract, it’s not very good either. It did win the Lambda award for best gay/lesbian/bisexual novel of the year, but this award means exactly what it does… Not that all “feminist” novels are bad, or anti-technology: Elisabeth Vonarburg’s In the Mother’s Land/The Maerlande Chronicles is a good example of female-dominated, interesting, non-anti-tech novel.

In summary: Burn, baby, burn!