This debut novel opens with a familiar, SF trope(1): something's awry on a newly-acquired planet, so The Company sends an expert to investigate. The planet is named Jeep, certainly not called that by the original human colonists in loose tribes who apparently settled lost centuries ago. There are no records of when this world was called Grenchstom, but five years ago, Company established a Port Central, staffed it with men and women and machines, then began controlled "burns" to prepare the land for its exploitation. This, of course, ruined the soil for the natives' use and seriously threatened to destroy their culture, a similar path as Le Guin's 1972 masterpiece, The Word For World Is Forest. Then, Company discovers major stops: the whole human population is female, and, even worse, there's a raging virus that culls out all the men and about 25 percent of women.
This looks like a pre-ejaculatory dismount for Company, then some big brained scientist comes up with an antivirus. An anthropologist who'll become our protag named Marguerite Angelica Taishan is assigned to field work under the pretense of discovering Jeep's baffling history and cultural roots. Her real job is to test this new get-well concoction and she has 6 months to do it. You see, Company has no outside regulators and it likes setting its own commandments according to its God, commerce. As far as the Jeep startup goes, failure of the antidote means no workers on the surface, but there's the potential of a world-class, viral weapon similar to what the evil execs covet from the Alien series. The planet will either be nuked or abandoned to die if "Marghe" doesn't react positively to the experimental drug among the endemic population. There's an estimated 1 million girls down there, and—considering the lifestyle of Jeep—they're all good, working stock, with just a sexy hint of ferociousness. Too bad they're all poisonous lesbians, huh?
The second act is Marghe having a rough time of it among the natives. Everything seems to be run on a primitive pecking order, with prophesies in the wings. After being shanghaied into a tribe called the Echraidhe, she becomes indentured chattel just as a sibyl with a fever dream of conquest lets loose on another tribe. Marghe's manages a death-defying escape through winter snow storms and into the protection of a nicer tribe living around some old ruins of their human progenitors. In Ollfoss, she blossoms into native lifestyle by quitting the antidote and surviving the oncoming virus, gaining the viajera vision and an immaculate conception. Remarkably pregnant, alive, and in love with her teacher, Marghe stops the upcoming head bashing between natives with spears and conquistadors—the invading shock troops are called "Mirrors" 'cause they all wear aviator shades—with rail guns, and consolidates the tribes with peaceful negotiation. Company opts out, leaving the boots on the ground to de-tune their technological thinking and regress to a happy and harmonious, gay and agrarian lifestyle for surviving the harsh climes of Jeep.
But beyond the escapist plot, there's a lot of nuance to consider. Like, okay, the named source of the Jeep virus is an anthropoid named a Goth (p.108)(2). Other than the suspicion, there's no proof or contact except a short episode where a tribeswoman captures and kills a Goth for its skin. Fine. Leave it anonymous, author Griffith, but why leave a stockhouse picture of Harry from Harry and the Hendersons in my head? That even some girls—those who are hunters, anyway—can be cruel and unusual monsters? That even selfish murderers are a necessary tooth in the gearing of cultural ethnologies?
That's a silly sidebar, however, considering the virus mainly offers Deepsearch, the "listen to what's inside you"(DelRey pb, 0345378911, 6th pr, c.1993, p221) bridge from empiricism to accepting an intuitive belief system based upon harmonizing with the muted tantaras of the earth, the past canticles of ancestors, the undulating rumbas of the human soul. The virus is a physical, ingratiating "tuning fork"(p.226) that merges the host with Jeep's physical world. It also chains other humans together—well, not the guy side of the traditional equation—all the way to the ultimate, procreative connection called "soestre". In fact, everything about this world vibrates with a unifying cognizance; Marghe's "fluctuations in her nerves already beat to its rhythm"(p.184) as she ponders her child's terminus ad quem within the natural spring cycle of the planet(3). Even her new obsession—that of becoming a viajera, a wandering healer "of broken bones and old resentments"(p.176)—is a nurturance, a vocation of giving, an essential scaffolding for matriarchalism.
But Jeep is no Eden where Camilla Paglia and Riane Eisler hold hands over a battleground of feminist notions. The attrition percentage is rather high, climate is a couple of notches below Unbearable, and creature comfort is around the level of Oral Tradition. Considering the analogies to modern, sexual politics, one can only surmise that the harshness of Jeep is emblematic for the lack of men around to build suitable nests and weaponry, and to invent the microwave, the vacuum cleaner, and Mr. Coffee for the endurance of the species.
To use the symbol of the sphincter rather than the penetrator is certainly appropriate for the book's vision. An ammonite is an extinct invertebrate marine animal carrying a hollow, inwardly-spiraling shell on its back for buoyancy. These mollusks are closer to squids than the nautilus-shelled species they resemble visually. Historically, it relates to the Thebes' Horns of Ammon, translating as the "complete one"(p.224), and in this novel it marks the inward journey of the acolyte traversing the empty or incomprehensible chambers "filled with wet, soft life"(p.179) within herself for control "over the autonomic nervous system"(p.344).
Just as I find it interesting that some of the more famous and celebrated all-female, empowerment stories are set in a primitive, non-technological scenario(4)—as if you gotta have men around if you want the machines to multiply—most female journeys are inward discoveries, not external conquerings. Thank Gaea for the these womanly insights to spar off with the Robert Ruarks of the world, as so-called taming Nature is about balance, not so much about building; understanding, not ignoring; blending things instead of separatist dogma.
It's an orb or orifice as opposed to a rocket or fencepost. Think about it.
3) Calendars show and lock in the important rhythms: Spring Equinox is always mid March, but Earth Day (it's supposed celebration) is mid April. And, far more celebrated than either, Mother's Day is mid May & Valentine's Day mid February.
4) Joanna Russ' The Female Man, c.1975, Janet's World section; Suzy McKee Charnas' Motherlines, c.1978; Marge Piercey, Woman on the Edge of Time, c.1976; The Outer Limits, 1998 Season 4, Episode 17, Lithia.