Close up of a brown and tan ammonite fossil.

Is This 30-Year-Old Queer Sci-Fi Novel Making a Comeback?

If you’re looking for rich, thoughtful, queer speculative fiction, Nicola Griffith is the author to read. Her Arthurian novel Spear earned massive critical acclaim when it came out last year. Her 2014 medieval novel Hild has a sequel, Menewood, coming out this fall. But before bringing the genderfluid knight Peretur and the young seer Hild to life, Griffith told the story of a humble spacefaring anthropologist in her 1992 Lambda Award-winning novel Ammonite.

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You won’t find Ammonite in most bookstores; it’s still in print, but not a big seller. Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw it on display last month at a book festival. Could it be making a comeback?

Cover of Ammonite by Nicola Griffith. A woman in white stands against a blue and red background, with an ammonite fossil at the top.
(Del Rey)

Ammonite tells the story of Marghe, a researcher who travels to the planet Jeep to try to unravel the mystery of a virus that has decimated the planet’s population and altered its survivors. The virus kills all cis men and many other people, too, but those who survive gain the ability to reproduce asexually. Thanks to the virus, an entire civilization has developed on Jeep since the original colonists landed—but anyone who visits risks either death from the virus, or permanent quarantine from Earth.

Jeep is vividly rendered, with much of the plot focusing on the clash between Marghe’s high-tech sponsors and the nonindustrial cultures on the planet’s surface. Traveling across the planet’s surface, Marghe encounters plains-roaming warriors, a forest-dwelling village, and a bustling port town. She meets herders, farmers, families, and traveling storytellers. All the while, she strains to keep her distance from the planet’s inhabitants, with her experimental vaccine acting as a physical barrier against the world around her.

It’s worth noting that “gendercide” stories, most often stories in which all men are killed off and women deal with the aftermath, have been rightfully criticized for erasing trans and non-binary people and reinforcing the gender binary, since they so often single out chromosomes or genitalia as the sole determinants of gender. Unfortunately, Ammonite has the same problem, although it’s never made explicit that the virus targets men specifically. It’s implied that all the survivors have uteruses, although in the communities that Marghe visits, the concept of gender loses much of its meaning. After all, no one’s enforcing a gender binary, so everyone simply exists as themselves: growing crops, solving problems, making art, and falling in love.

As Griffith explains in her afterward, she partly wrote the novel as a response to the abysmal state of female characters in ’80s and ’90s science fiction. Indeed, the best thing about Ammonite is its characters. There’s Marghe, struggling to understand both Jeep and herself. There’s the hardened and complicated herder Aoife, the gentle storyteller Thenike, and the stubborn Commander Danner, who leads a basecamp of soldiers who fear that they’ll never go home to Earth. Everyone in this novel is flawed, complex, and human, and I fell in love with them all when I read it.

However, I imagine that a trans or non-binary person reading Ammonite might feel the way I do when I read many of the classic (and heavily male) speculative novels: I can be swept away by the story and come to see the characters as friends, but notice the conspicuous absence of representation for myself or consideration for people like me within the concept of the story.

Ammonite has its flaws, but it’s a lushly rendered story with deeply sympathetic characters, and when women’s personhood still seems to be up for debate, I’m glad that it’s stuck around this long—and I hope that the literary landscape keeps expanding until no one sees themselves erased on the page.

(featured image: iStock/Getty Images)

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Julia Glassman
Julia Glassman (she/her) holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and has been covering feminism and media since 2007. As a staff writer for The Mary Sue, Julia covers Marvel movies, folk horror, sci fi and fantasy, film and TV, comics, and all things witchy. Under the pen name Asa West, she's the author of the popular zine 'Five Principles of Green Witchcraft' (Gods & Radicals Press). You can check out more of her writing at <a href=""></a>