When the Company colonised Grenchstom’s Planet, or Jeep, it was already inhabited by humans. Not only was their origin unknown, they were all women. Soon enough, a virus swept through the Company’s employees, killing all of the men and many of the women. To stop the virus from spreading, the Company keeps a ship in orbit, ready to destroy everything that lives on it, or tries to escape it. A government agency sends a representative to Jeep to determine if the Company is exploiting the planet’s ‘natives.’ This woman, Marghe Taishan, is also a test subject for a vaccine against the virus. She knew that this was a one way trip, no matter what. But she never anticipated how irrevocably Jeep would change her.
Griffith is respected as a writer of both science-fiction and crime stories concerned with gender and sexuality. First published in 1992, Ammonite is her first novel, and a winner of Lambda and Tiptree awards. It begins strongly, establishing several deeply intriguing mysteries about Jeep and its natives – principally, how they manage to reproduce. With a silent spectre hanging over the planet, and unknown dangers waiting on its surface, Marghe has many challenges to face. Her journey is disappointing in more ways than one, however.
Ammonite’s sense of tension quickly dissipates as it lets go of its hold on a focused plot. Marghe’s exploration of Jeep becomes less important than her inner growth. The link between these things seems natural but, unfortunately, it’s not often clear where Marghe is going and why. A sub-plot in which the colony’s commander, Hannah Danner, trys to keep the Company ship at bay almost revives the story, but again, this is lost as it becomes clear that months pass between the important developments. This is obviously necessary to make Marghe and Danner cross paths at certain times, but when little actually happens after Danner passes the supposed point of no return, it’s the death knell for the story’s sense of urgency.
Griffith is primarily concerned with a character study, and creating an evocative world. It’s just not an exciting story, though, and when it eventually does answer some of its mysteries, the reader may feel even more strongly that this isn’t the type of story they were expecting. They’re not bad answers, just not entirely satisfying. And the novel is totally undermined by the fact that Marghe just happens to be the ideal person to discover certain things about the natives – even though no one could have anticipated this.
Strangely, the off-worlders don’t discuss or dwell on the fact that Jeep is populated entirely by women. Perhaps Griffith is trying to make it clear that women are people first and foremost. However, Jeep is so different to what the off-world characters are used to that it’s surely worth having a conversation about! Beyond being common sense, this would tell us more about some of the social norms that the human race has in this future, and it would also tell us more about the characters. How do they feel about the idea of never seeing another man ever again? Is this the reason (never revealed) why some of the characters want to escape from Jeep, no matter the cost?
Jeep does feel like a detailed, interesting world. Griffith often uses striking descriptions, particularly of the planet’s sky. Sometimes it is full of clouds that are “low and rounded, as featureless as a basket of eggs,” and sometimes it is “the grey yellow of lentil scum, a sky full of snow.” Skilful use of imagery and language is laudable, but not a story’s sole appeal for many readers (and certainly not this one). Learning about Jeep would be more enjoyable if Ammonite did not meander so much.
Though it has an engaging premise and succeeds in presenting a story where practically every character is female (a strong statement in and of itself), Ammonite is dissatisfying in regards to plot. This is made worse by the fact that many of the conflicts that it establishes are not fully resolved. Unless Griffith returns to Jeep, which seems unlikely given that twenty years have passed, this story will still feel incomplete.