From: Scott BarrettI just wanted to send you a quick note and let you know how much I enjoyed reading your two books Slow River and Ammonite. The SF Gateway collection Gollancz is producing is fantastic, and a great example of the Long Tail phenomenon working wonderfully for superb out-of-print books.
I literally just put down Ammonite. As I said, I did really enjoy the book, the cultures, and the women that you so richly created. It did leave me with one (fairly big) question however. The defining characteristic of Jeep was the virus. We discover midway through the book that it does fairly amazing things to the women who survived it. But the other defining thing it does is kill all men. Now perhaps that gave you the palette on which you wanted to paint the story of these women, and their relationships, and perhaps what a world without men might be like. But, when these cultures meet, and even become somewhat telepathic, men are never talked about. What they are, how they fit in, the fact that on every planet except Jeep the entire human race is made up of two sexes. Never mentioned, offered by Marghe, or discussed. For the entire novel.
Just was curious why. Was the omission intentional, or did you just not see the need to advance the story, or…?
Anyway, mainly wanted to let you know how much I did enjoy the books. Look forward to reading your others.
I’m delighted you liked them. I was sad when they went out of print in the UK. (They’ve been continuously in print here in the US. Ammonite alone has been through multiple editions and many-multiples of print runs. It still brings me useful royalty cheques every year. I’m proud of it.
Leaving out men was intentional, yes. I was tired of men always being the focus of attention and centre of gravity in fiction. I wanted to see what would happen if they were left out entirely—to find out if they were necessary to this story, to Story itself. It turns out they weren’t, aren’t. Even a bit.
When I finished the manuscript I sent it to three professional writers for their thoughts. One suggested no one would publish it unless I mentioned men, had my characters talk about men, have the women miss men. I thought, “No. Missing men just wouldn’t come up in the story situations I’d imagined.” So I didn’t. And you know what? I had zero difficulty placing Ammonite with a publisher. None.
In my opinion, the novel does not suffer from lack of men, but the apparent hole at the novel’s centre did startle many people (which frankly surprised me). And I’ve had a handful of readers (all men—but bear in mind this was 20 years ago, when the book first came out) accuse me of lying (these ones are always angry), obscuring the truth (puzzled), confusing the buying public (frowning, understanding they’re missing something), and forcing them to understand the world from a woman’s perspective (dazed and occasionally a bit frightened).
I responded to each and everyone one as patiently as I could (sometimes more successfully than others). They had just had their whole notion of the world fucked with, big time. They were angry/puzzled/dazed because they had been left out, and they had to face their own assumptions.
Let me give you two examples.
At party, a man buttonholed me, angry because he’d just read Ammonite and “the publisher lied!” It turned out that what he meant was that the cover copy had used gender-neutral terms such as colonist and anthropologist and native and employee. So he’d leapt to conclusions and was horrified when he realised he’d been reading about…girls! “Did you keep reading?” I asked him, curious. “Well, yes,” he said. “It’s a good story. But they lied!”
And the day after, at a Georgia Tech class on Literature and Culture, a student told me he’d got a third of the way through the book and before being been struck by the fact that he’d encountered no men. He suddenly understood how it must be to be a female student at Georgia Tech, to be reading text books written by and venerating only men, to not be mentioned, to not have one’s existence acknowledged, to feel, on some level, that one didn’t exist, or at least didn’t matter.
So I told the class the story of the novel’s very first review, in Locus magazine. The reviewer liked Ammonite and thought the main character, Marghe, interesting. But, “Oh, how much more interesting the book might have been if only the author had included the story of Marghe’s brother!” (I’m paraphrasing; I don’t have my reviews memorised.) I didn’t add any editorial comment. I just let the class work it out for themselves.
It astonishes me that nearly 22 years after that book was first published, people are still trying to figure it out. But the world is changing. It’s my sincere hope that 10 years from now readers won’t even understand initial readers’ puzzlement; they will barely notice the all-women thing. After all, the point of the book, for me, has always been the story: finding out who you are and where you belong.
8 thoughts on “Ammonite: why in 10 years no one will notice there are no men”
Not necessarily relevant but still, I read my Sci Fi especially for its “What if” factor. And I thank you for the chance to think it that Ammonite provided.
Hmmm…I don't think I was surprised or felt the lack of male involvement was a problem in Ammonite, As you say, the stories the thing and Ammonite is a good story. Some people just can't go with the flow ;-)
I'm re-reading Ammonite right now along with Elisabeth Vonarburg's In the Mothers Land / Maerland Chronicles and Liz Williams Banner of Souls in order to write an essay on SF that involves drastic shifts in the gender balance. I noticed that every example I knew of that shifted it to the female side was a functional, plausible society while every example that shifted it to the male side was a dystopia (with one interesting exception).
I'm curious if you ever thought or had suggested the idea of an anthology based on the experience of growing up in that society, 'Children of Jeep' I'd love to see something like that.
My first encounter with this idea was Phillip Wiley's, The Disappearance. As I recall it neither side came off very well and the main character's exit from the dilemma was quite a surprise too.
I wonder what Wylie would have thought of Ammonite? Going though a number of reviews just now (the book itself isn't available online) I thought the changing reactions over time to the gender stereotypes reinforce Nicola's point about changing attitudes.
I first read Ammonite earlier this year, after the Aud books, and I never thought of the absence of men as a thing. I knew nothing of the story going in, other than that it was sci-fi, and when I ran into the virus, I incorporated it into my understanding of Jeep and moved on. It was simply part of the setting, like weird spiky trees or the burning patches of earth or the colors of the sky.
I knew, on an intellectual level, that the author was trying to say something about what a world peopled only by women would be like, but I didn't care. I did care, very specifically, about Marghe and her … journey? quest? … and I cared about the all rest of the people of Jeep, from the military colonists to the Celtic warrior tribe of Tehuantepec to Marge's adopted tribe and family. I cared about these people because they were exactly that – people.
There was certainly a tragedy for the original settlers of Jeep, men and women both, but it's so far in the past it's passed beyond even myth. In the present of the novel, there are just the people of Jeep, a tiny, technologically limited population that survives in a beautiful, harsh, natural world. The fragmented society they've created works, mostly, just like any human society. The women don't starve to death because they've no men to hunt for them; they hunt and fight and farm and care for each other and do all the other things humans do. Their society is different, certainly, from one composed of both sexes, but not so very much. All of the skills and passions of humanity are there, good and bad, though perhaps in slighty different proportion.
I didn't really buy the author's explanation of the biology of reproduction and how it interacted with the mysticism of the deepsearch, but those few paragraphs were the only false note in the entire book. The rest renders the characters and the places so sharply that the book pulled me in and never let me go. The best writing, especially science fiction, can make you homesick for a place you've never been, and that maybe never even existed, and Ammonite does that as well as anything I've read.
The only point of comparison I'd make is The Left Hand of Darkness. If you've read it, the parallels will jump out at you. If not, what are you still doing here?
You're not the only one who doesn't like the interiority of the virus. But I still think the reproduction could have worked like that (it's as least as plausible as any FTL drive I've ever seen described).
The 'mysticism' is harder to counter. The awareness, eh, I think that could-maybe-sorta happen, in a hand-wavy kind of way. The memories of the communal past…no. If I were writing it today, I'd probably take that bit out.
I don't mind the idea of parthenogenesis with some form of gene transfer; I just didn't like the explanation. Sexual reproduction is the most successful mechanism for multiple genetic inheritance in nature, but it's by no means the only one. Real biology can be much stranger than what we learn in high school, and speculative exobiology can be stranger still. So yes, with a nudge from the virus, reproduction could work.
I actually did like the interiority of the virus, and the enhanced awareness; just not down to the molecular level. The physicality of your characters is a big part of what I like about your work.
As for communal memory, well, it's fiction. The nifty consequences, especially the scavenger hunt of linguistic references, are more than worth a little suspension of disbelief.
I liked Ammonite so much I gave my copy to the public library. Share the wealth.
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