What a relief it is to read such a lesbian book.
We hear a lot about the "golden age of science fiction" but, pretty much, it was an age of science fiction by men, holding masculinist values. I think of E. E. Doc Smith and space operas about big guns, nasty aliens, and a kind of virile, healthy heterosexual swagger. And then there was change, and change, and now all the science fiction books have black covers and are about despair, dissolution and clever, sophisticated plagues that drive men mad inside their implants. Still men.
Ammonite is in a very different tradition. It's better placed with books like Sally Miller Gearhart's The Wanderground and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, in that it's a book about a society which has overcome, transcended or bypassed gendered hierarchies, which has a relationship to the land, and which holds some kind of values of peace and - where possible - non-violence. A society, in other words, informed by the values of lesbian/feminism. And it's just so... relaxing to read. A story told in my own language. One in which the surface reading, the author's reading, is also my reading, in which I'm not having to constantly tease apart threads and assumptions which have snuck their way in from outside. I felt while reading that I could breathe out, and smile, and even read some lines out loud to myself, and just feel clean and happy.
Well, more or less. Marghe, the main protagonist, journeys into the world of Jeep, in which a virus has killed all men. She comes to know the women of Jeep and integrates into their society, and serves as our point-of-view, allowing a reader who isn't soaked in lesbian/feminist praxis to ease herself into this worldview. There are some similarities with the White/Colonial Saviour narrative, as she rapidly comes to hold an important position with the society and has an effect on colonial conflict, taking the side of the natives. However, not all the "savages" (as one character refers to them) are noble, and much of the book's conflict comes from intra-tribal politics. The characters with a colonial background, including Marghe, are also a mixed bag. Overall I think it avoids the worst excesses of the trope - it's certainly no Dances with Wolves.
There's a slight awkwardness and biological essentialism to Griffith's "after the virus" move which echoes the work of writers like Mary Daly. Men are rapidly gotten out of the way before the story really starts. It's certainly one way to deal with patriarchy, and it's not as if I don't empathise, but as a trans woman I can never take that kind of move fully in my stride. Thankfully she takes pains to show that purging men doesn't simply purge hierarchical tendencies: colonialism and warmongering remain, women act badly, and tensions are largely resolved by hard work and properly sourced character development rather than the invisible hand of the Essential Feminine.
Unusually for work in this genre, Ammonite was written in the 90s, after AIDS, poststructuralism and the general literary and theoretic turn to queer paranoia and the incorporation of a kind of psychosocial death drive. Certainly Nicola Griffith must have been aware when writing the book that she was writing against the tide. Perhaps that explains some of the richness of the characterisation and plotting compared to earlier lesbian utopian writing. "Just women" doesn't automatically bring about utopia, and the book reflects that. I'd like to believe that her impulse to write it - this is her debut - was born from the same kind of desperation I feel when drowning in masculinist literature, not always relieved by the simple answers of, say, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland.
For lesbian/feminists, it's a must read. For those who don't know what lesbian/feminism is all about, likewise. If you know the score and you just can't stand that stuff, if you want something gritty and dark where the goodies always lose (or never existed in the first place), you may find it a little saccharine for your taste. It's particularly worth noting that this book is explicitly and overtly lesbian in its sexuality without being at all sadomasochistic. That may tip you either way depending on where you stand (it's probably an easy guess where I'm coming from).
Overall a big "YES!" from me, and definitely one I'll lend and recommend.