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A Door Into Ocean, Joan Slonczewski, Avon, 1986, 406 pp.

A Door Into Ocean is an extraordinary novel, an astonishing explosion of ideas, themes, and speculation. Slonczewski spent eight years writing this book, and every facet shines brightly in the mind's eye long after the book is back on the shelf. We get rich characterization, fascinating societies, extensively realized ecologies, and a stunning plot. And best of all, Slonczewski has a keen sense of balance, especially with regards to the exposition of all the background material. We are always grabbed by the events as they happen, and we are never stopped dead in our tracks by lumps of explanation -- the characters act urgently on what they know, and we gradually accumulate the same knowledge from them. A Door Into Ocean handles complex issues such as sexuality, linguistic barriers, and environmentalism with aplomb, and deftly makes thought-provoking points inside the context of the story. Everything about the book fits together in a seamless, integrated whole, and even the few things that Slonczewski actually fumbles are forgotten against the scale of her achievement.

Shora is an ocean moon, in orbit around the planet of Valedon. The Valan society is easy to imagine. Think of Earth, perhaps with patriarchal values even more firmly entrenched, just as militaristic, and a few advances in space flight. Valedon, however, is under the thumb of the Patriarch, the ruler of a hundred scattered planets. The Patriarch's Envoy arrives at Valedon every ten years, and has control of the forbidden technology of atom smashing. On the visit that is depicted in the book, the Envoy commands Valedon to take control of Shora. Learning about Shoran society, and how it resists invasion, makes up the major portion of the book, and this is where Slonczewski's plot relocates in absolutely unique territory. In some ways, the story hurtles forward in typical genre fashion, and more on the irony of that in a minute. But Slonczewski has the plot under firm control, and it never deviates from its service to her themes. Every plot twist makes us cheer or hiss, and we're so caught up that we don't see how we are being manipulated. Nor can we really see our way through to the ending, another way that Slonczewski's exceptional imagination keeps us reading.

The book opens with Merwen the Impatient and Usha the Inconsiderate, two Shorans, arriving in a small town on Valedon. We get Merwen's sense of culture shock -- cross-cultural experiences being one of the most basic themes in the book -- as well as planet shock, to coin a phrase. In the opening paragraph, Merwen tries to control her reaction to the sight of land: "Across the sky, where Merwen was born, none but the dead ever sank to touch the world's floor" (3). Why are these two Shorans here? We find out almost immediately, and it's an answer that doesn't register immediately. Here is the third paragraph of the book: "On planet Valedon, most people lived 'ashore,' upon dry land -- if in fact Valans were people, Merwen reminded herself. Here in Chrysoport, a small, quiet place, she might find out. And that answer would save her own people" (3). What kind of silliness is this? Slonczewski almost immediately switches to the viewpoints of various residents of Chrysoport (including Spinel, who later goes to Shora himself), and we identify with their puzzlement about these two women. Only as we read further do we discover that Merwen's mission is in fact the heart of the book.

The characterization in A Door Into Ocean is excellent -- while the book is written in third-person, Slonczewski switches viewpoints often enough that we gain quite an intimate knowledge of the important people. Merwen carries an enormous burden, knowing how much Shora depends on her, but she is also dealing with her impetuous daughter, Lystra. Lystra fumes about Valan influence on Shora but falls in love with Spinel. Lady Berenice is engaged to Realgar, the army officer in charge of invading her adopted planet, Shora. Spinel is perhaps our entry character into all this complexity and ethical puzzling -- he is a young boy, becoming a man, and he joins up with Merwen and Usha out of a desperate wish to get out of his stifling home town. Since he comes from such an Earthlike society, his actions and reactions help us understand Shoran society, and point out what the reader's reaction should be. To Slonczewski's credit, this reaction, if it would mimic Spinel's, would be more ambiguous than the response other utopias in science fiction sometimes seek to elicit. Spinel has fits of homesickness, and keeps his intelligence about him while judging Shoran attitudes and actions.

In a shrewd turn, Slonczewski never narrates from the point of view of the High Protector of Valedon or the Patriarch's Envoy. Are these people incomprehensible to the overriding ethic of the book? Quite possibly, and in the case of the Envoy, the reason why is clear (I don't want to give away a major surprise in the book by explaining further). As for the High Protector, the implication seems to be that he is not human, in the sense that is used in the book, as I will explain in a minute. Is this a consequence of his job? That also seems to be the implication, when the Valan system of government is compared to the Shoran. Meanwhile, we get several sections from Realgar's point of view -- and despite all the horrible things he does in the second half of the book, he doesn't come to the end we expect for him. Perhaps I'm stretching a rather thin point here, but it's something to think about.

Who is human? That is a question that haunts the book from its opening page, through all of the plot developments, and right to the bitter ending. What actions would define us as human? And what would separate us from humanity? Slonczewski makes the book a very penetrating debate on the issue, most often in the context of story, but the Shorans sometimes debate this point openly. Merwen's many encounters with Realgar demonstrate once more how nailbiting and tense a conversation can be in the proper context -- how many books and movies forget this in blasts of gratuitous violence! The question of defining humanity also forms the double hinge points of the book, both when Merwen finally convinces the Sharers of the need to stay human in the face of Valan attacks (313) and when Realgar sees the trap inhumanity has laid for him, and chooses to be human (396-7). Seldom have I read a book where the ethical question the author wishes to raise is so coherently demonstrated and debated, both in context and overtly.

Slonczewski uses her constructed society on Shora to examine many issues. The Shorans use language much differently than the Valans (and us) -- their concept of verbs is two-way. Grammatically speaking, the subject/object distinction is obliterated. In practice, this means that "to kill" is understood as "to share death" or "to hasten death." The Shorans have seen quite clearly what effects the action has on the actor, and the extreme examples in the book demonstrate quite well the rightness of their concept. Shorans also know their place in the complex Shoran ecology, and the consequences of imbalance show immediately. The Valans try to eliminate the terrifying "sea-swallowers" and the cycle of life is thrown out of alignment for six months. The ocean environment is both more fragile and more strong than it appears, and despite the Valans' worst transgressions, Shora has the advantage of the intelligence of the Sharers. Once again, give and take shows its strength. And finally, Slonczewski illustrates a number of ideas about sexuality with the "lovesharers" of Shora. The Shoran women reproduce by merging genetic information, and over time, have evolved so that normal heterosexual sex is impossible (as we find out in one disturbing attempted rape scene (268-9)). Such a radical feminist utopia seems to be constructed in answer to questions about the equality of sex raised by people like Andrea Dworkin. But Slonczewski takes this beyond lesbianism and issues like abuse, because her concerns about sexuality are integrated into her deeper concerns about humanity. Who is human? The rape scene shows who is not -- "It was beyond Lystra's comprehension that someone could mean to use an act of loving to share hurt instead" (269) -- and the relationship between Spinel, a Valan, and Lystra, a Shoran, shows that love (the aspect of humanity here) is not a matter of anatomy. Slonczewski makes her didactic points, but certainly achieves quite an astonishing balance.

A few flaws to note. As with any utopian fiction, the book risks taking a place too far ahead of where we are now, of losing its point by its impossibility. However, as already noted, Slonczewski does keep some ambiguity. The writing style sometimes felt awkward, as did the transitions between character viewpoints. Slonczewski overcomes this by her forward rush of events, and by the fact the characters were always clear and differentiated. The book takes advantage of genre readers, which might not be appreciated on the first encounter. A Door Into Ocean is a page-turner, highly readable, and we fall into the trap of expecting a blowout of an ending. The subtle, intelligent essence of the climax could be predicted by careful readers (or those, like me, who are re-reading the book and watching for clues), but it still comes as quite a shock. Another layer of irony.

However, these few flaws in A Door Into Ocean simply do not tally up compared to the elements it gets right. The book's most admirable trait is perhaps the way the parts relate to the sum in exact accordance to Slonczewski's theme -- an integral whole, all parts necessary, all parts contributing, every aspect vital and alive. A Door Into Ocean leaves quite an impression on the reader, especially upon numerous readings as the book becomes more familiar and understood in the way it is intended, as a whole.


Last modified: February 23, 1998

Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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