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Bewildering Stories

Nicola Griffith, Ammonite

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

Author: Nicola Griffith
Publisher: Del Ray, 2002
Length: 397 pages
ISBN: 0-345-45238-0

Quick: name the top ten hoariest plot devices of the now-venerable science fiction genre. Yes, yes, the mad computer one is definitely in there, but I’m thinking of another good ol’ cliché this time. It was used in Star Trek and in a myriad of other fanciful universes. Yes, it’s the old device of a world without men.

We’ve seen it before: the beefy spaceman, all rock-hard biceps and rampant testosterone, arrives on a mysterious world where only women are to be found. That may be the most popular riff on the old chestnut, true (I’m sure, though I can’t remember any specifics, that the skirt-chasing, love ’em and leave ’em Captain Kirk must have done this theme several times in his usual salacious style), but there have been others. There are the more-cojones-than-a-man riffs of Xena and the Amazons on one end of the spectrum, and on the other, as our author herself notes, we have the Woman as Vegetarian Saintly Mother Goddess Who Wouldn’t Swat A Fly. None of these ever caught my attention for long (though I must admit to enjoying the campy tongue-in-cheek irreverence of Xena on more than one occasion).

Nicola Griffith imagines a world without men, and at least, she takes us into a new direction. Jeep is a lost-and-refound human colony that humanity, in the form of Big Business and the Company, would like to reclaim for its exploitable resources. But there’s a real problem. The world is host to an indigenous virus that nails all the men, and there’s no cure for the disease. Understandably, there’s a Terrene warship orbiting Jeep, with its license-to-kill firmly tacked to the captain’s chair. I can’t say as I blame them.

But Jeep also represents those valuable resources, so the Company hasn’t given up. Marghe Taishan, an anthropologist, is sent down to Jeep to both study the colony and test out a new vaccine. It looks like it might be Last Stop for Marghe, as there are rumors that personnel who leave Jeep are conveniently never heard from again.

But in the meantime, Marghe has a lot of mysterious to solve. How, in the absence of men, do the low-tech former colonists manage to reproduce sexually? What’s the link between the almost-vanished native race, the Goths, and the virus that afflicts the colonists? How do the human colonists manage to recall ancestral memories dating back hundreds of years? (This last is a question that is never satisfactorily answered, by the way, except for the catchall answer of “the virus”. I kept wanting to ask: but where are those memories stored? When are they passed — at conception? Death? Etc.). And, what’s the mysterious mating ritual called deep trance?

Marghe strikes out on her own, in pursuit of a vanished and presumed dead assistant. But she soon falls victim to a disturbed young woman who imagines herself the reincarnation of the Goddess of Death. Marghe is taken prisoner by a slowly crumbling tribe named the Echraidhe, and by the time Marghe has a few answers to her questions, she’s a long ways from her professional anthropologist beginnings.

Ammonite is a thought-provoking book, but it raised more questions than it answered for this reader. In Ms. Griffith’s Afterward, she addresses some of her themes explicitly. I quote, because Ms. Griffith says it better than I can. ‘Women are not aliens. Take away men and we do not automatically lose our fire and intelligence and sex drive’. A society of women, in Ms. Griffith’s view, is simply a society of people, with the inevitable spectrum of human behavior, bad and good. As she states, ‘Women are not inherently passive or dominant, maternal or viscious. We are all different.’

There may be some truth to that statement, but perhaps, in this reader’s opinion, it’s not the whole truth, either. I wish Ms. Griffith had examined the very real questions raised by an all-female society with both more depth and more realism. Let’s take one example. Current popular theory holds that same-sex attractions are primarily biological; that is, one doesn’t choose to be homosexual, one is born that way. (This is in opposition to the older theory that homosexuals are made, not born, because Momma was a controlling harridan, or Daddy was a nancy who wore pink shirts and nosegays in his buttonhole — or whatever Freud happened to think up during his latest doze on the couch).

But if nature not nurture makes one homosexual, why are all Griffith’s characters so well adjusted to their lesbian lifestyles? Our protagonist segues into a lesbian relationship (thankfully not explicitly described, for those who might balk at the nitty-gritty of gay sex) without a backward glance. We’re never told whether she was a lesbian before she arrived on Jeep, but whatever her previous preferences, Marghe doesn’t seem to miss the companionship of men, not even her father’s. In fact, no one in this book misses the men. Men don’t just not exist, they don’t even matter. Yet I assume (if the nature vs. nurture argument holds true) that Griffith’s all-female society should have at least a few, and, (if the ratio of born-heterosexual-to-born-homosexual of our present population holds true), many biological malcontents who just don’t get into breasts as sex objects. Instead, there’s not a female on the planet that seems to miss the men.

Ms. Griffith also ignores, though I wish she hadn’t, the thousands of years of Darwinian selection that developed gender roles in the first place. The myth of the Amazons notwithstanding, human gender roles are clearly defined by nature (as they are in chimps). Men, as well as male chimpanzees, are predominantly the gender that bands together, wages war, and (at their best, bless their hairy chins) protects their pregnant females and young. Maybe men don’t do it very well, most of the time, but still, history alone tells us this role description has some truth. No, I am not a rabid right-winger who thinks women should stay home in the kitchen: I earn my own living sans male help, and have since I was twenty. But I read history, and history, as well as common sense, leads me to deduce that there may have been some clear biological advantages to the classic division of gender roles.

Modern society has glossed over these ancient gender-based functions, but they evolved for a reason. An eight-month pregnant waddling female needs someone, to fight off the cave bears and fetch the pickles from the store. When we’re left, as in Ms. Griffith’s story, with only the female half of the equation, how does such a fundamental sea change truly affect the roles between a mated, (same sex, in this case), couple? Would such a society evolve toward one party taking the role of protector and provider (are “mannish” dykes evolving toward such a role, in fact)?

I can’t say, of course, but the question is intriguing. I beg to differ with Ms. Griffith’s own answer: in her society, not only do we not seem to have the biological equivalents of the ancient provider-protector vs. nurturer-caregiver roles, but both halves of the mated female couple become pregnant at exactly the same time. What’s the Darwinian advantage of both parents becoming helplessly handicapped with pregnancies at the same time? Excuse me my inappropriate humor, who goes for the pickles?

I’d love to hear back from a real-life anthropologist who has made a genuine case study of an all-female society. The lesbian subculture aside, the only genuine all-female society I know of is our incarcerated population. Perhaps it doesn’t provide the best case study, but I wish some enterprising anthropologist would examine it all the same. What really happens to a woman who’s faced with spending the rest of her life only in the company of women? Will she, as Ms. Griffith seems to suggest, segue inevitably from heterosexual to homosexual? (If so, the nature vs. nurture theory of sexual orientation has been decided in the favor of nurture, which also implies, of course, that it’s a genuine choice, not biological destiny).

There are more questions, more than I can address here. How, for example, would women express conflict in such all-female societies? In Ms. Griffith’s view, it seems, exactly as men do, which I also question. Any girl who was a late-blooming frump in middle and high school can tell you that women don’t need spears and sticks. We can kill quite effectively with words. I think that, in general, women do not express hostility and conflict in exactly the same way men do, though let no one think we’re less ferocious for that.

Ah. The questions that could be answered by a genuine case study of an all-female society are fascinating. You, out there, with your master’s degree from that ivy-bedecked institution, give up those boring studies of headhunters from Borneo or the mating habits of excessively spoiled divorced New Yorkers. Do something interesting instead. Book yourself into your nearest penal colony, and find out exactly what did happen to Martha Stewart when she wore those orange coveralls!

But until some enterprising anthropologist answers my call, gentle reader, try Ms. Griffith’s book, and decide for yourself. Ammonite makes a great book to share with your coffee-shop amateur debating society. Enjoy those arguments!

Copyright © 2006 by Danielle L. Parker

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