A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski (First published February 1986)
My copy: Kindle edition published November 2016 by Phoenix Pick
The Short Version: On a personal level, A Door Into Ocean was pure comfort for my feminist soul. Objectively, it’s an intelligent and interesting look at one fantastical world in which patriarchy can be fully resisted, with some fascinating speculation around bioengineering and a nuanced look at “feminine” society which doesn’t rely on gender essentialism to make its case.
Rating: 8 successfully harvested shockworm arms out of 10
You know those times when you are having a terrible afternoon/day/week for no apparent reason, everything is getting you frustrated and down, the world is inexplicably awful… and then it turns out you were actually hungry, or you needed to exercise, or leave the house more regularly, and your body just didn’t have the right signals to explain this to you? Well, I think I have this relationship with feminist SFF novels. In theory I can probably live a full and physically healthy life without fabulous narratives challenging patriarchal domination, but after several increasingly frustrating dude-heavy books in a row (shout out to Death’s End, by Cixin Liu, the book I finished before starting this blog and which I never want to talk about again…!) the world of reading was starting to lose its glow, and only feminist SF was going to make things right again.
In this regard, A Door Into Ocean was the right book for the right moment. This is the story of a planet of women, the Sharers of Shora, and what appens when they come back into contact with a patriarchal society (the ruler of the galaxy is literally called the Patriarch, let’s establish right away that it’s that kind of book) after thousands of years of isolation. Shora, a completely ocean-covered planet, is in a binary system with Valedon, a “normal” world; the latter is one of the ninety-odd members of a galactic order decimated by a long-ago calamity, which has led the remnants of humanity to adopt strict prohibitions on certain types of technology, notably nuclear power. The million inhabitants of Shora have only recently been “rediscovered” by Valedon, and have escaped notice of this remnant government, but the situation is not going to last: the representative of the patriarch is due to visit, and thanks to increasing trade between the two planets, he’s finally putting Shora on his agenda.
We get a couple of interesting snapshots of Valedon’s caste-based society, and its internal conflicts and interactions with the galactic patriarchy. However, most of the book’s narrative and effort is expended on fleshing out Shora itself. The Sharers’ entire existence relies on extreme knowledge of and adaptation to the ocean world around them, but the “men = technology, women = nature” stereotype is undermined heavily by the extent to which they rely on advanced biological engineering to maintain their existence. The Sharers themselves are a product of this engineering: they are hairless, with webbed hands and large feet, and they develop a symbiotic relationship with a dermatological microbe that helps store oxygen and prolong the time they can spend underwater, while also turning their entire skin purple. They are also all female, and rely on their technology for reproduction. Sharer women are considered adults when they take a “selfname”, which is supposed to represent their own worst trait – “the impatient”, “the inconsiderate”, “the lazy”, and they are then encouraged to spend their adult lives disowning that name.
Reinforcing their alien-ness, to the Valans if not to the audience, is a completely different outlook on life and society, based fundamentally on the concept of (you guessed it) Sharing. This approach borders on silly at times, and I was unconvinced by the linguistic representation in particular; we are told, in the language, that there is no distinction between subject and object for verbs, so “dog eats bone” and “bone eats dog” are literally the same sentence, represented on the page by “the dog shares eating with the bone”. Slonczewski illustrates this by having Merwen, one of the major Sharer characters, mysteriously say “oh, but does not the bone eat the dog?” a few times with examples picked to be a bit more convincing, but this by the far the most prominent weak link in the otherwise excellent worldbuilding.
Plotwise, this is a book of two halves. The first half is a slow build introducing the characters, their worlds, and the conflicts between them, through the eyes of Merwen the Impatient One and her daughter Lystra; a Valan called Berenice who is part of the first family to re-establish contact with Shora and tries to straddle the diplomatic line between the two societies; and a Valan boy called Spinel, who undertakes an “apprenticeship” with Merwen when she visits his town and who becomes the eyes through which we learn about the more alien aspects of Sharer culture. Inevitably, despite Berenice’s best efforts, Valedon ends up sending a military force to subdue Shora, headed by her fiance Realgar, and the second book deals with the fallout from and resistance to this occupation and its ultimate effects on both societies.
There’s ultimately no surprises in how the plot unfolds – despite trials and losses (of which the greatest may be… their innocence… *shocked emoji*) the Sharers manage to overcome the Valan invasion through a combination of non-violent resistance, quiet reasoning and good old fashioned winding people up. The galactic patriarch hanging in the background adds useful short-term constraints on Valan behaviour (they can’t commit genocide against the Sharers, because genocidal technology is a power which can only be employed by the patriarch, and he won’t hesitate to use it against them next time he is in town – such is the balance of power when masculinity is on the line) but it also leaves a cloud over proceedings at the end, with Sharer society safe from Valedon but perhaps not from the return of an overwhelming and unreasonable masculine force.
(Big spoilers end, small spoilers continue…!)
I think what I found most satisfying about Door Into Ocean, particularly compared to similar books in this genre (looking at you, The Shore of Women) is that it provides reasonable justification for all of its more essentialist, tropey choices. Yes, the Sharers are an idealised version of a feminine society, but the explanation is not necessarily because they’re all female – rather, that they have adapted to an extreme living environment in the best way they can, which requires utter adherence to a cooperative, communistic way of life. Sharers still make difficult choices, fall in love, fall out of love, deal with criminals within their societies using a dismal understanding of mental healthcare, and fail to live in close proximity to their annoying mothers, but they don’t have more than the most isolated incidents of murder or violence and or stratification within society, because their society is simply too precarious to allow those things, and their grasp of technology allows them to make their lives both precarious and comfortable and well-connected in a way which doesn’t map onto any human society that I’m aware of. The conflict with Valedon pushes them into more difficult internal debate, particularly regarding the development and use of biological weapons which would be well within their capacity, but the justifications for using these are very different to the usual rationale for inflicting violence on an enemy. On the other side, the Valans and their different factions are a little more broadly painted and generally ended up blending together for me, although I was pleased that most of the military units were depicted as having women at all levels below the very top, and one of those women in particular is very much an ally to patriarchy and instrumental in keeping the conflict going, reinforcing the idea that we are watching a clash of societies and not some narrow, patriarchy-dependent Battle of the Sexes.
The two main POV Valans blend well in that mix, and it’s telling that of these two, it’s Spinel who ultimately takes the teachings of Shora to heart, though not by completely rejecting the things he’s learned from his own upbringing. Spinel starts off extremely uncertain and closed off to the Sharers, having been brought unwillingly to the planet to satisfy his parents. However, his experiences on Shora, and a brief return to Valedon, allow him to re-evaluate his own identity and the ways in which one can derive meaning and status in a community. Of course, there’s also an inevitable romance with Lystra (for the record, she finds him equal but not superior to her previous female lover, and where none of the characters find her choice remarkable or enviable for gendered reasons – thank goodness!); a small and thankfully minor part of his coming of age is based on learning not to force PIV sex on people who don’t want to do it, and how he’s not actually that good at making women happy when he goes for that anyway. I can’t say the book needed this subplot, although the overall relationship between Spinel and Lystra is useful for providing an in-universe answer to the “is The Other human?” question which plagues the characters on both sides for most of the book.
(There’s also one attempted rape, which is subverted by biological engineering and which ends up causing undefined physical harm to the perpetrator, as well as being denounced by surrounding characters. Although this pushes the conflict further into the realms of the fantastic, I certainly didn’t mind the narrative blocking sexual violence in things I’m trying to read for fun.)
(All spoilers end)
It’s ultimately hard for me to separate my enjoyment of this book out from the fact it’s in a subgenre I love so much, and it avoided most of the missteps that make some other books from around this era more difficult to get behind (looking at you again, Shore of Women… and Gate to Women’s Country…). However I think this is a classic for a reason, and there’s a lot here to enjoy even for a less partial reader, both in terms of the worldbuilding and technology, as well as in its approach to conflict. If you’re not sure whether you like novels about planets of women taking on the patriarchy, you could do a lot worse than to start here — and please let me know when you discover that it’s the best genre ever, so that we can continue to be friends accordingly.