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Ammonite by Nicola Griffith

Grafton, 1993, 395 p.

Ammonite cover

There is a well-established trope in children’s literature whereby the parents must be got rid of (benignly or otherwise) in order for the protagonist to have the scope for the adventure the book will describe. Ammonite has what I assume is a feminist variant on this device, which is to remove men, rather than parents, from the equation. Nothing wrong with that. This is SF after all. Thought experiments are more or less mandatory.

The newly rediscovered Grenchstom’s Planet – shortened to GP, or Jeep – has begun to be exploited by the Company only for it to find that a virus is endemic; a virus which kills all men but only a percentage of women. Jeep is thus quarantined and the surviving Company women stuck down there. Nevertheless the earlier human inhabitants, now of course all women, are able to have children and have been present on Jeep for many generations. This parthenogenetic ability is somehow linked to the virus.

Our main narrative viewpoint character Marghe (Marguerite Angelica Taishan,) has been given an experimental vaccine against the virus – which she has to take every day* – and sent to the planet’s surface, knowing if it fails she may die or would in the best case never return to Earth as the Company will most likely pull the plug on its venture and leave its employees to their fates. Other scenes are presented from the viewpoint of Commander Danner, head of the Company’s base at Port Central.

Marghe’s explorations amongst the natives lead to her capture by a particular clan. Here she learns some of the ways and beliefs of the inhabitants but realises they are slowly declining and dying out. As a result a kind of death cult begins to flourish and a tribal war breaks out. Marghe seizes the chance to escape and makes her way in the middle of a harsh winter to seek refuge at another outpost, almost dying as a result, but is rescued by another native tribe. Meanwhile Commander Danner is exercised by the problems of surviving on Jeep and the presence in her charges of those excessively loyal to the Company.

Marghe’s relationships with her rescuers lead her to develop an ability known as deepsearch which connects the natives to their pasts and, if undertaken with a companion, allows conception. Children simultaneously engendered in this way are known as soestres.

Whatever Griffiths’s intentions were on writing Ammonite the interactions between her characters are recognisably the same as in any other SF novel; indeed any other novel. We have goodies and baddies, conflicts, betrayals, loves, endurance, but the final battle is averted through dialogue.

I remember Ammonite being well received when it was first published but didn’t get round to it then. The years since may perhaps have been unkind to it as it no longer reads as being particularly distinctive. For example the planetary wanderings and the contrast between the “civilised” newcomers and older inhabitants reminded me of Avram Davidson’s Rork! which I read a few weeks ago. (There are, though, only a few variations on a theme.)

Pedant’s corner:- *I’m not sure vaccines actually work that way. An occasional booster – perhaps only once – to replenish the immune response, yes; but not a continual daily dose. “Accompanying them were a contingent” (was a contingent,) “They all wore scarves wrapped around their nose and mouth” (noses and mouths.) “Drink lots a of fluids” (‘Drink a lot of’. Or. ‘Drink lots of’. Not ‘Drink lots a of’.) Llangelli (Llanelli?) “the triple handful of riders were returning” (the triple handful …. was returning,) “perhaps she should talk to these two again some time” (this two,) Dogias’ (Dogias’s,) “a thumbs up…. That gesture had travelled to this world all the way from ancient Rome,” (true, but in ancient Rome it signified death, not approval,) “where people ate and breathed and relived themselves” (‘relieved themselves’ makes more sense.) “The less personnel risked, the better” (the fewer personnel,) Cardos’ (Cardos’s,) Huelis’ (Huelis’s,) “one less softgel than there had been” (one fewer softgel,) “another group of six were struggling” (strictly, a group was struggling,) “port Central” (otherwise always ‘Port Central’,) “to wipe the sweat from their brow” (brows,) “Fuller’s earth” (I believe it’s Fuller’s Earth.) There were a few uneasy glances” (a few is actually singular, grammatically,) “‘I nearly gave up, laid down and died’” (lay down and died.)

Rork! by Avram Davidson

Penguin, 1969, 140 p.

 Rork! cover

The planet Pia 2 is isolated, so isolated it only has a spaceship visit every five years. Despite this it is home to the redwing, a crop which can be processed to manufacture an important medical treatment. In the time of the culture’s Great Wars Pia 2 was cut off for centuries. The humans there evolved into gruff, hardy creatures speaking in a stripped down patois – still recognisable but not standard. These “autochthonous” humans are known as Tocks and exist in tame (near the Station) varieties and wilder ones. It is the Tocks who harvest the redwing and bring it into the Station. The planet also harbours really native animals like crybabies (known as such for their calls at night) and others which can be dangerous, like the rips and especially, the titular Rorks, giant spider like creatures. Rorkland is a no-go area except perhaps in the Cold Time, when Rorks become sluggish.

Ran Lomar has been sent to the Station to see if there is any way in which redwing production can be increased. The local humans – not to mention the Tocks – are set in their ways and very resistant to change. Having entangled, then disentangled, himself with a local Station woman, Lindel, Lomar sets off to the South of Tockland to try to encourage those there to improve the yield of redwing. He, his Tock companion Old Guns, along with his daughter Norna, are captured by a wild bunch of Tocks and Old Guns is killed.

Aided by Norna, Lomar makes his escape, and the pair are forced to travel into Rorkland to evade recapture. It is obvious by now where this is going and what they are going to find out about Rorks on their travels. Davidson handles it well though and had I read this in the 1960s I would no doubt have thought it excellent. It now reads as a little well-worn, however, and its sexual politics are very much of the 1960s.

Davidson’s use of the words wee, besom and pogue indicates a Scottish connection somewhere but the internet is unforthcoming on what that might be. He can string sentences together though and spin out a plot. I’m not averse to reading more of him.

Pedant’s corner:- In the author information; Wand Moore (Ward Moore.) Otherwise; “Here and they the passed gatherers” (‘there’ for the first ‘they’,) melancholy (melancholy,) Flinders’ (several times, Flinders’s,) “born along” (borne along,) distanthill (distant hill,) “had not know” (known,) “the natural exultance inevitably to the male” (inevitable.) “‘Harb did not even seemed to be waiting” (seem,)”the spaces between the peoples was increased” (were increased,) “grimy impatient” (grimly.) “The mouth seemed trying to say something” (seemed to be trying,) exploitive (exploitative.)

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