Does my science create or destroy: Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite

18 06 2010

Yesterday, I finished Nicola Griffith‘s Ammonite, which is a wonderful world-without-men story that tackles questions of inter-galactic colonization with greater sophistication than many other tales. This imperial project – to go forth and colonize the worlds, to take their resources for the powerful home planet, or company, or whatever – is a common trope in SF from right at the beginning of the genre and I don’t think I need to tell you how problematic it is.

Authors have tackled the problem over the years, turning to the exploration of culture and acknowledging the dignity of both sentient and non-sentient life on other planets, and using anthropologist characters as passionate cross-cultural interpreters. However, I find anthropologist characters, who treat other cultures as objects of knowledge rather than as equal thinking subjects, inherently suspect. This is why I find Griffith’s take on the subject so refreshing.

The story begins as Marghe, SEC (Settlement and Education Council) representative to the Durallium Company, prepares to descend to Grenchstom’s Planet (Jeep). Not long after Jeep had been rediscovered and the company – finding that this planet had the potential to be profitable – had landed its engineers, security, and SEC representative on the planet, they were infected by a virus that infected everyone on the mission and killed all the men. Marghe is being sent to the planet as a willing guinea pig to test a vaccine that could protect company employees from the virus and re-open Jeep to exploration and exploitation.

The Marghe of the beginning of the book is the typical ambitious, well-meaning, naively exploitative, curious anthropologist: six months on Jeep testing the FN-17 vaccine means “six months on a closed world to research a unique culture.” It’s “the most fabulous opportunity for an anthropologist since … since the nineteenth century.” The people of Jeep are secondary to Marghe’s pursuit of knowledge. From the beginning, wiser figures in her life offer her perspective, but Marghe, passionate scientist, perseveres. The vaccine could mean contact with this world, the opportunity to really share with its cultures, and to learn how they manage to reproduce without men! To give them the advantages of Earth and the opportunity to share what is wonderful about their way of life! Yes!

This won’t last long. Griffith introduces the parallel and the critique early:

Margue was tired. “Well, everything will be all right if the vaccine works.” She wished her head would stop hurting.
“All right for whom?”
“I don’t–”
“A vaccine is a counterweapon. it’s control. Imagine: mass vaccination of the women down there. If they need the virus to reproduce, then they’ll die.”
“You don’t know that they do.” Not even company would deal in genocide, would they? Hiam was paranoid, crazy. “You’re drunk.”
“Yes, I’m drunk. But not stupid. Loom me in the face and tell me SEC would stand up to Company on this.”
Marghe imagined her father, and what his opinion would be. Probably he would say nothing–just get up, search his bookshelves, pull down an old volume on the Trail of Tears and other, more systematic attempts at genocide, and hand it to her without comment.

Marghe did not know what to do with this information. She did not want to think about it. Her head hurt. She felt as though someone had been beating her with a thick stick.

That would be a clue-by-four.

Armed with her FN-17, Marghe descends upon Jeep, ignores the advice and attempts at building connection of pretty much everyone she meets, and marches off to the distant, dangerous Tehuantepec plain, because she is a Scientist, and she is Just That Awesome.

Oh Marghe.

The next several chapters involve some serious perspective-taking on Marghe’s part as the first people she encounters not only refuse to let her keep her artificial “impartial observer” perspective on their culture, but force her, with the threat of violence and death, to adopt their ways. “Change, or die,” as the jacket-blurb tells us. Marghe must abandon her beliefs, her knowledge, her culture, and even her status as a human being, in order to preserve her life. “You’re not mine to give away. You belong to the tribe,” Aoife tells her when Marghe asks for her freedom, reminding her that she is a possession. Marghe chooses death, and with another tribe, a more open tribe, is granted life.

As the story progresses, Marghe does change. She discovers the exigencies of the planet she is living on and eventually abandons the ways of Earth and Company, as Earth and Company abandon both her and the infected, women-only installation at Port Central. The structures of knowledge she brought with her to Jeep crumble and new structures develop as she begins life again, like a child.

In the end, Marghe is herself, human, and entirely different from what she was before – not a scientist, an observer, an Earthling, but a whole woman, a viajera of Jeep who teaches the residents of Port Central, the scientists and the soldiers, how to live without the support of the company. She does this not as a representative of Earth, but with her partner Thenike, as part of humanity on the planet, schooled in its ways and intimately implicated in its culture. She no longer tries to speak to or for Jeep and its residents, but with them.

Throughout her journey, Marghe suffers enormously physically and emotionally and emerges scarred and stronger. Her suffering and learning is the power and the lesson of this book: it is impossible to be an impartial observer of culture. To be a scientist of culture seems to be a noble task, but must be interrogated at its very roots. The scientist should ask, “Why am I here? What do I expect to gain from my encounter with this culture? What am I willing to give up, for this knowledge? What will this culture gain from my presence here? What will it lose? Really, setting aside immediate personal gain, does my science create or destroy?” and meditate long and seriously on his or her answers.

A culture other than your own is not inherently less or more, better or worse, and its people are not all the same. Every cultural encounter changes you, and the people you meet change by meeting you. Change hurts, even if it grants you a broader, fuller perspective. The new culture infects you, and like a virus – whether you wanted it or not – will not leave you. Change, like a virus, takes away even as it offers something in return. Is it worth the risk? And how?

This is the story, the beauty, and the complexity of Ammonite.

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8 responses

20 06 2010
BeccaTheCyborg

Gahhh, you keep making me want to read stuff. I have stuff to read!

23 06 2010
krackenburg

I think you would enjoy this one! I will bring it in the fall. Which gives you about two months to read all the stuff you want to read. 🙂

24 06 2010
mordicai

Yeah, what a great book; I really like Nicola Griffith’s stuff. The genderpolitik of Ammonite (which I’d sum up as “OMG really, women are human beings? Duh!”) gets all the attention, but the cultural imperialist element of it is really engaging, as well.

27 06 2010
krackenburg

I think the gender politics may be a little more complex than that, but point taken. It’s at the intersection of gender issues and imperalism that the story finds its power.

25 06 2010
Lara

What a wonderful review. It makes me want to re-read the book. 🙂 She’s one of my favourite authors.

27 06 2010
krackenburg

Ooh! Do re-read! It’s such a wonderful book! 🙂

25 06 2010
Sharon Woodbury

Nicola Griffith, who claims a place in my family and a place in my heart, continues to teach me about myself with every story she writes. She is staggeringly perceptive. This review is a delight to me, having read Ammonite many times over the years. Thank you for recognizing the important ideas this story presents. Good job!

27 06 2010
krackenburg

I have only read the one book so far, but on that basis, I definitely agree with you that she is staggeringly perceptive! What a great, insightful read. I’m glad you enjoyed the review.

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