My life in outer space

A Door Into Ocean – Joan Slonczewski (1986)

A Door Into Ocean

‘From the ocean world of Shora, Merwen the Impatient and Usha the Inconsiderate travel to Valedon, the world of stone. The Valans view with suspicion the ancient female race of Shora: with their webbed fingers, their withdrawal into ‘whitetrance’ and their marvellous arts of healing. Where the Sharers of Shora hope for understanding, they are met with aggression.

Joan Slonczewski pushes the moral and political philosophy of non-violence to its very limits in a powerful and gripping narrative. To read it is to see your own future in the balance.’

Blurb from the 1987 Women’s Press paperback edition.

In a far-future galaxy Humanity spread to a thousand worlds, but following devastating wars and a period of ethnic cleansing, the number of human worlds was reduced to ninety-seven, ruled by The Patriarch.
The Patriarch has forbidden certain technologies or sciences to be employed independently, such as nuclear power or genetic engineering, driven by the fear that it would lead to a further great war.
On the planet Valedon, two strangers appear in the town square; hairless women with violet skin who wish to ‘learnshare’ in order to discover whether the Valans are human. The stonecutter’s son, Spinel, becomes fascinated with them and eventually leaves with them for the ocean world of Shora.
Travelling with them is the Lady Berenice, a woman who has known the natives of Shora since she was a child and who is also being employed as a spy for the Valan government.
Her fiance, Realgar, is a General and a favourite of Takin, the ‘Protector’ of Valedon.
Valans have been trading peacefully with the Shorans for many years, but following a visit by the Patriarch’s envoy, Malachite, the Valans suspect that Shora may be either a very valuable resource or a terrible danger. Realgar is sent to Shora to ‘deal with’ the natives who have become increasingly restless since the number of Valans on their world increased and the ecological balance began to change.
Structurally we follow three couples, Merwen and Usha (the original two Shorans who visited Valedon), Berenice and Realgar, and Spinel and Lystra (the daughter of Merwen and Usha) who at first do not take to each other (or so they believe) but later both discover that the other is a very different person to the one they believed they loved.
On the whole, we see the drama unfold through the eyes of these six.
The natives of Shora are all female, at least to the average human observer, although a couple are able to conceive children between them. Their passive resistance and incomprehension of external societies which attempt to impose rules on them by force no doubt parallels the protests of the Nineteen Eighties by many women at such places as Greenham Common. The success of such protests is evinced by the fact that the very phrase ‘Greenham Common’ is familiar to most of us decades later, and that their message was relaid by the media and the world and changed us, to whatever degree, as a society.
The women here are protesting at first about environmental vandalism, and their almost genetic adherence to a non-aggressive resistance eventually pays off, though at a terrible price to their population.
The setting is an interesting one, albeit symbolic, since the very masculine patriarchal ‘stone’ world of Valedon is contrasted by the very female ‘water’ world of Shora. The women live on giant rafts of living vegetation in a world where every species (including themselves) is a vital part of the world’s biosphere. There have been similar waterworlds in the past, notably in CS Lewis’ ‘Voyage to Venus’ (or ‘Perelandra), where again the femininity of the sea is contrasted with the male rock of the island (in this case standing in for the Forbidden Tree of Knowledge in The Garden of Eden)
Jack Vance’s ‘The Blue World’ is almost the complete antithesis of Lewis’ since Vance uses his novel to demonstrate the absurdity and the detrimental effect on society of organised religion. As in ‘Door into Ocean’ Vance’s natives live a somewhat idyllic existence on island systems of giant lilypads.
Published by The Women’s Press it is not surprisingly a very female work in tone and theme, which does make a refreshing change. Although very Romantic in style, there is a solid structure and a healthy respect for the integrity of the internal scientific logic.
Interestingly, the Shoran philosophy is to live in harmony with the Ocean and its life, although Slonczewski has muddied the waters a little by letting us know that much of the flora and fauna was genetically engineered by the Shorans, even themselves.
And, there is an obvious political contrast between the patriarchal (literally ruled by The Patriarch and his ‘protectors’) society of Valedon and the leaderless Shorans who are, in essence, a collective.
Despite the perhaps heavy-handed symbolism it is nevertheless a beautifully crafted and important piece of work. I’m not sure how Gollancz picks or obtains works for its SF Masterworks series but this should certainly be on the Gollancz shortlist.
Although it’s published by the Women’s Press, men are allowed to read this. In fact, I’m pretty sure men would benefit more from reading this than women would. Women already know how bad men are at running the world.

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