Nicola Griffith. 1992
This stunning debut sci-fi adventure novel is a celebration of survival and self-acceptance wrapped up in a cracking story where loyalty, respect, friendship and love are forged in a frontier wilderness.
Marghe is an anthropologist grieving for her mother and is emotionally and physically at a low ebb.
Attempting to kickstart her career, Marghe has opted to study the population of the planet Jeep, which has been isolated for a hundred years, and where Marghe becomes involved in a tribal war driven by ancient religious myths.
A ‘civilised’ scientist arriving on a frontier, it’s the Western-like setting which gives it a sense of grand adventure and allows the author to introduce us to her fabulously rendered world.
Griffith embraces the imagery and framework of Western movies to tell a propulsive and exciting yarn which is given depth by its convincingly rich cultural detail and political scope.
There are spaceships, voice-activated computers and an advanced hi-tech colonist kit. But there are more shamanic trances than laser gun battles. This could be subtitled ‘Trances With Wolves.’
The habitants of Marghe’s adopted home are in tune with the planet, and meditate to connect with their ancestors, but are also capable of great brutality in the harsh rural landscape.
And Marghe really needs the benefit of meditation as being stranger in a strange land allows Griffith to build Marghe into a high state of paranoia, exacerbated by a background of corporate greed and exploitation.
Griffith offers an alternative futurist take on of the conquest of North America by European colonists, and unlike in reality, Griffith’s is one led by desire to learn, to join and evolve, and not to commit genocide and steal land.
With historic parallels with the deliberate poisoning of Native Americans with the deadly Small pox virus, a lethal retrovirus spread by sexual contact, among other means, has forced the planet to be quarantined.
This deadly virus also has echoes of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s, which would have resonated far more in 1992 when Ammonite was first published than perhaps it does now.
Reading Ammonite for the first time in 2021 as I did, as the world was struggling to get to grips with Covid 19, means Ammonite has a different but no less relevant impact on the reader than perhaps Griffith intended.
Despite this adversity, Griffith finds optimism in the cooperation between clashing cultures, which is necessary for their mutual survival. There may be a lack of testosterone in her a believable alien eco-system, but no shortage of competition or conflict.
Ammonite is wonderfully rich in cultural detail, one that offers empathy to the powerless and angry cynicism towards corporations which embrace violence to serve the god of mammon.
Griffith is a wonderful writer who picks up the mantel of Ursula K. Le Guin and runs headlong with it. Beyond dystopia and utopia, the author rolls up her sleeves and tackles the nuts and bolts of an all-female civilisation with a beady clear-eyed gaze.
Ammonite is aggressively pro-environment , pro-community, and pro-rural, which bursts with a love of the natural world and a compassion for life so encompassing, even a deadly virus offers possibilities for growth.
Importantly, Ammonite is not anti-men, rather this is a book which does no share men’s view of their own status or importance in the cosmos.
And Griffith is very self-aware and whenever she feels her characters are in danger of boring us or disappearing up their own fundament, she brings us and them crashing back to earth with humour.
The fate of minor characters are left to our imagination as they’re introduced and abandoned with an impressive ruthlessness.
A master of detail who always avoids drowning the reader in a slurry of unnecessary description such as afflicted much of Jules Verne’s work, Griffith provides a sinewy, muscular and incredibly engrossing read.
Quite why it’s never been adapted for the big screen is a huge mystery, though we don’t have to look very hard we do find traces of Ammonite’s DNA in Hollywood.
The mystical discipline dreamlike state of ‘Deepsearch’, could be a forerunner of ideas in film director Christopher Nolan’s 2010 sci-fi thriller, Inception, while the electric-like connection with the natives experience with their planet suggests an influence on James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster, Avatar.
The first time you read Ammonite you’ll race through the story in your eagerness to discover the fate of its faltering hero, and the second time you take a leisurely wander, breathing in the smells and stroking the textures of this marvellously created world.
It’s a testament to Griffith’s extraordinary gifts as a writer that either way Ammonite is a glorious read.