The gradual disappearance of ammonite species, without a sudden break 65 million years ago, is regarded as a piece of evidence that the dinosaurs were not destroyed, and the Mesozoic Era not ended, by an asteroid hitting the Earth, by those few paleobiologists and geologists who are still skeptical of the notion.

The English science fiction writer Nicola Griffith's first novel is called Ammonite. It was first published in 1992. It doesn't seem to have won the Hugo or the Nebula, surprisingly. It did, however, win the prestigious "Garryowen Says Jeez, that's One Heck of a Book" Award.

The story is set far, far in the future, where stories belong. The premise is that a human garrison was established a few years earlier on the planet GP, where they found the remnants of a much older, lost human colony. Oddly, the "original" colonists are all women -- yet they reproduce.

Soon enough, a plague kills all of the men in the new group, and the planet is quarantined by the interplanetary human government. It happens that this government is a tyrannical bunch of yahoos, controlled by Big Business. The set-up is a lot like what "company towns" in the United States appear to have been like in the 19th century, except that the whole galaxy seems to be one big company town. You can't just pack your kids in the wagon and head for another planet the way you once could head for Oregon, so in Ammonite the frontier is pretty well controlled by those with significant capital. The author considers this a Bad Thing, pretty clearly.

Now, the thing about this planet, GP, is that of course the Company doesn't dare enter the "town", so to speak. The garrison is stranded there, and they don't interact with the natives. They've got no hope of leaving, but they still act like a garrison that's going to go home in a year or two. The natives, meanwhile, have over the centuries settled into a "primitive" way of life. Some of them are nomadic or semi-nomadic, while others live in towns. They have sailing ships and farms and so on.

Our protagonist, Marghe Taishan, is sent to test a vaccine against the virus which killed half the garrison. It happens that she's an anthropologist, and also that she has a personal and family history of painful encounters with the powers that be. On arrival, she gets sick, spends some time in bed, and then heads off to chat up the natives.

In time, Taishan ends up joining up with the natives. She falls in love, marrie, and learns the mysterious secret of how they reproduce. It's not a bad secret, except that it's implausible. Up until there, it's hard SF. She learns some other mysterious secrets, too, some of which make as little sense as the lame parthenogenesis handwave. We do, however, get to hear a bit about the background of the planet itself, and we get to learn a lot about the "natives". That part's cool.

In the end, Taishan talks the garrison into facing facts and joining up with the locals. There's a near-battle with some local badasses and the whole thing is very exciting. The good guys win! Well, maybe not "guys" as such. The problem is that the Company is still out there, they've got tremendous resources, and they've got an investment in the planet which they'd rather not write off. The local conflicts are really small potatoes compared to what may happen in the future. I'm sorry to say that the ending feels like a set-up for a sequel1. Plot? No, there's not much of a plot. There's so much neat stuff going on, I didn't miss it.

Now, when you stop and think about it, this is some kind of a lesbian separatist novel, isn't it? I think it is, but that turns out not to be a problem. What's nice is that while the author fudges some science, she doesn't fudge human nature. There are relatively good characters and relatively bad ones. We're not handed any foolishness about how if you got rid of all the men things would be great. No, we're told that things would be pretty much like they are now. Any culture that makes a living the way this one does is bound to have people filling certain roles, and there they are, big as life. The people and the culture make enough sense that I didn't give it any thought. Griffith writes decent prose, too. By SF standards, she's well ahead of the pack.

As for the goofy science and that ominous impending sequel bit, well, it was a first novel. That'd hold more water if her second novel didn't have some flaws, too (it's got a plot, though). Both of them are worth reading anyway, for their strengths. They both have the very great strength of not reminding me of anything else I've read, not even each other. That's what SF is about: New things!2 And, like, there's broads gettin' it on and stuff3.

1 I'm not saying I won't buy the sequel, assuming it ever gets written.

2 It's damn depressing that a genre so much about novelty should be such a haven for clichés, isn't it?

3 Not much, really. I just felt like saying that.

Am"mon*ite (#), n. [L. cornu Ammonis born of Ammon; L. Ammon, Gr. an appellation of Jupiter, as represented with the horns of a ram. It was originally the name of an. Egyptian god, Amun.] Paleon.

A fossil cephalopod shell related to the nautilus. There are many genera and species, and all are extinct, the typical forms having existed only in the Mesozoic age, when they were exceedingly numerous. They differ from the nautili in having the margins of the septa very much lobed or plaited, and the siphuncle dorsal. Also called serpent stone, snake stone, and cornu Ammonis.


© Webster 1913.

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