Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite certainly wins the award for the book I took longest to read after buying. I picked it up on its initial “Del Rey Discovery” publication in 1993, and well, here we are, nearly thirty years later.

So the weird thing about the delay is that (with the exception of one plot element, which I’ll get to), this book really feels like it could be written now. It’s about a rapacious corporation that’s trying to settle a planet, but which is stymined by a deadly virus, one which leaves only women alive—and where a society of women has grown up from an earlier wave of settlement. (How did they not all die off in a generation? Well, that’s one of the questions the book poses as a mystery, so you’ll have to read it to find out.)

So, yeah: Themes of colonialism, capitalism, pandemic, and gender. It’s extremely 2022, but of course actually from the ‘90s.

In another way, though, it also feels like it could be older. Its anthropological framing (the main character is an anthropologist) and that focus on gender put it straight in the “heir to Ursula Le Guin” mold. (Though of course, when it was written, Le Guin was still alive and actively writing and didn’t need an heir.) The part where it’s very explicitly SF, even though it sorta feels like it wants to be fantasy, also puts it as part of that older tradition.

And then there’s its treatment of a potential vaccine against the virus—it works, but the protagonist rejects it, because it’s full of poisons and removes her connection from the natural world, and the key is to accept the virus. This is very much in a kind of (mostly regrettable) crunchy-left tradition, classically, but to 2022 eyes, it’s super-yikes. I doubt Griffith would write that the same way today.

But at any rate, the point I was trying to make isn’t so much that this is exactly like a book written today—culture doesn’t stay static for thirty years, of course it’s not—but that that it’s talking about a lot of topics that are still extremely relevant today, and any book that prescient is probably saying something worth hearing. And of course, beyond that, it’s a solid adventure story of inter-societal conflict and the ways people handle grief. The book probably felt more bracingly original thirty years ago, but that’s been replaced with the patina of an established classic, and it’s still worth reading today. Recommended.


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