Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Door into Ocean - Joan Slonczewski

A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski was first published in 1986 and won her a John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1987. I've never read anything by Slonczewski before but her name pops up in science fiction regularly. She is not very prolific, combining a career as microbiologist with writing science fiction, but from what I've seen of it, what she has written is very well received. This novel might well be the one that is most critically acclaimed. Without having read any of the others I can't say if this is justified but I did think it was a very rich and remarkably complex science fiction novel in terms of worldbuilding. So much so in fact, that I doubt I can do it justice in this review. In the end I was less impressed with the treatment of gender in this novel. It divides the genders along sharp lines in ways that I wasn't really expecting from a book that is considered a highlight of feminist science fiction.

On the ocean world of Shora, a nation of women have created a pacifist society, combining highly developed biological sciences with a deep understanding of the world's ecology. After being left alone for ages, they come into conflict with a neighbouring civilization from the planet Valedon that wants to develop the ocean's resources. Their societies are so different that neither of the parties is completely sure that the other meets their definition of human. This gap in understanding needs to be bridged for Shora to survive. Doing so  poses to be a formidable challenge for all those involved.

The novel has been hailed as an example of eco-feminism. I'm not entirely sure that was what Slonczewski set out to write but the male/female is one of the many dichotomies that can be found in the novel. The population of Shora is entirely female, while Valedon has two genders but is essentially a patriarchal society. This difference is striking but the gap between Shora and Valedon runs much deeper. There is a difference in the development of different branches of science, a difference in the structure of their language, a dichotomy between organic and inorganic and one between pacifist and violent. All of these play an important part in the conflict and add to the challenge of the parties to understand each other. Unfortunately these contradictions all seem to run along gender lines and the story makes it quite clear who the author sympathizes with.

Slonczewski has stated that A Door into Ocean is influenced by Frank Herbert's Dune (1965) and Ursula K. Le Guin's The Word for World is Forest (1976), both of which I've read. The influence of Dune in this novel is very clear. Shora is, in just about every respect an opposite of Arakis. An ocean instead of a desert, a pacifist people instead of a highly violent one, a people maintaining the web of life instead of a people trying to force the planet's ecology into a different mold. Dune must have been a dissatisfying read for Slonczewski. Herbert was one of the first authors who used ecology as an essential part of his stories but that doesn't mean that the ecology of Dune makes sense. For a trained biologist, some of it must have been grating.

The ecology of Shora is more diverse than the one Herbert describes. The dominant species on the planet are based on earth's cephalopods (squids, nautiluses, octopuses and the like), with this difference that the haemocyanin, a copper bases oxygen carrier in their blood, is exchanged for iron bases haemoglobin. Haemoglobin is more efficient, enabling a higher rate of metabolism. They provide an important source of food for the people of Shora and also make sure the surface of the ocean doesn't get clogged up with plant matter. Where Herbert's Fremen, despite their skill at living in the desert, still seem to survive despite their harsh environment, the Shora are truly part of the web of life. They understand their position in it, regulate their numbers accordingly and accept losses to the the enormous, migrating seaswallowers in exchange for the service they provide. The Sharers are the most environmentally aware people I've come across in science fiction.

The role of violence is an other clear element where Slonczewski takes the opposite direction from Herbert. The language of the Sharers doesn't distinguish between subject and object, something that contributes to the problems of the Valans and the Sharers have understanding each other. Early in the novel Slonczewski draws a parallel between Sharer language and Newton's third law of motion which has very interesting implications. When 'I hurt you' in essence is the same as 'we hurt each other' violence makes very little sense. It is, at best, an expression of immaturity but at various stages in the novel it is also described as a disease or even proof than the Valans are not human. It's a twist to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis I haven't come across before.

The treatment of violence is what ties the novel to Le Guin's The Word for World is Forest, which also includes a seemingly pacifist people not considered quite human by invading humans. That story eventually erupts in quite brutal violence however. Slonczewski takes the Shora idea of passive resistance all the way to the climax of the novel. That is not to say that blood doesn't flow but the war the Valan general wants, never materializes. I must admit that, in the face of the large numbers of casualties, I had my doubts about whether or not a human being, or a society as a whole, could face up to the consequences of this position. It seems a tad unlikely to me but then again, I'm from a society where violence is present in every day life. It must be said that, politically speaking, the effect of the Sharer strategies are just as devastating as a victory on the battlefield.

Slonczewski manages to incorporate a lot of very interesting material in the novel. The ecological part of the story in particular had me captivated. When you sit back and think about he various contrasts in the novel however, it does become apparent that the division of positive and negative traits assigned to each culture results in a picture devoid of grey. The feminine Sharers are associated with peace, life and heath, while the masculine Valans represent death, violence and sickness. Had it been just a clash between a pacifist society and one where a certain level of violence is accepted and power is based on the capacity to inflict damage, it would have worked for me. Putting the divide along gender lines feels like pushing it too far. Especially since the novel suggests that neither party is really capable of understanding the other, limited to what their gender allows them. Ultimately the conflict is not resolved with an understanding, or sharing as the Sharers would put it, and that was a bit of a let down for me.

All things considered, I feel that A Door into Ocean would have been a better book if it had been a bit less political. I love the worldbuilding, emphasis on ecology and the way Slonczewski handles language for instance. In some respects it is a very strong novel so I can see why it was awarded the Campbell. I can't help but detect a bit of irony there, Campbell himself would, given the content and his views on women and science fiction, most likely have detested the novel. Ultimately it's the simplicity of the way genders are portrayed that is the novels undoing however. While I enjoyed parts of it greatly, I found the novel as a whole a bit of a disappointing read.

Book Details
Title: A Door into Ocean
Author: Joan Slonczewski
Publisher: Orb Books
Pages: 403
Year: 2000
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-312-87652-4
First published: 1986

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