Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Review of A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski

Ahh, the risk one takes walking the utopia tightrope.  Many have walked before, and it’s unsure anyone has made it all the way to the end without falling off.  Aldous Huxley’s Island is unique; Theodore Sturgeon’s Venus Plux X asks some great questions; Iain Banks’ Culture books look at the psyche of utopia in interesting fashion.  And there are innumerable other works presenting some form of utopia.  But it seems fair to say none have successfully convinced the world their idea is workable.  Joan Slonczewski in her 1986 A Door into Ocean nevertheless tries to have a hand.  Does it successfully walk the tightrope?  Perhaps hand over hand…

A utopia imagined along gender/socio-economic lines, A Door into Ocean sets an all-female pacifist society that collectively shares information against a male-dominated society that isolates information based on its value for trade potential much lke the present-day West.  The Sharers inhabiting the ocean-moon Shora, their world comes into major conflict with the nearby planet Valedon when a galaxy faction tasks the Valedons with takeover.  The Sharers non-violent, they are pushed to extreme lengths to protect their planet.  But at the cost of giving up their principles?

A simple but effective narrative device, Slonczewski holds her readers by the hand and leads them into her story by taking a young man from Valedon, Spinel, and relocating him within the all-female Shora.  The reader discovering the planet alongside Spinel, life is at first difficult for him.  New food, new environment, new people, and new social etiquette, he slowly learns Sharer culture, and in the process gains an appreciation for their way of life.  Made such a believer, in fact, he finds himself fighting for Shora when war comes knocking.

In the study guide she prepared, Slonczewski describes A Door into Ocean as a response to Dune and Word for World is Forest; she offers a women’s world in the case of Dune’s male power structure, and a non-violent denouement in reponse to Le Guin’s novel.  The end result is a story that feels like a mix of Tiptree Jr. and Le Guin. For as simplistic the Shora/Valedon dichotomy is: the gender and social elements are challenging and the alien culture is relevant.

Slonczewski aiming at an immersive experience, Shora is rendered in images by turns cartoonish and realistic.  Significant time going into detailing the moon’s rich flora and fauna, the worldbuilding of A Door into Ocean could have come from 50s or 60s’ sf.  The reader can get lost in the imagination invested.  A double-edged sword, that the setup is so contrived automatically creates some distance between it and our physical reality.  Despite this shortcoming, Slonczewski achieves the goal of creating a pacifist society living in harmony with its environment, if only superficially.  Problems still exist with social relations and nature is often tragically unfair to the Sharers, which lends an air of realism, but the real test is: can an analogue utopia be created on Earth?  Is the scenario relevant?  That is the tightrope.

I cannot presume to say whether Slonczewski successfully walks it.  The only thing I can say with certainty are the ideas deployed are progressive, optimistic, and ultimately with humanity’s best interests in mind.  The Sharers are willing to make personal sacrifices and accept risks to life and limb so their community remains in harmony with nature.  This means, for example, leaving deadly predators alive for their role in the larger web of life, that is, rather than using technology to wipe them out.  Likewise, resources are collected and used in a sustainable rather than wasteful or profitable manner, meaning additional sacrifices to quality of life must be made.  Ecologically speaking, there are major analogues to mitigative measures if not sustainably “utopian” ideals present day humanity would do well to implement.

Socially, the Sharers are an egalitarian society divided into small communities, thus minimizing the need for grand political hierarchies.  Technically an anarchy which highlights both the importance of individual equality and a person’s relationship to the community, the Sharers nevertheless possess structure to their purpose and direction—similar but different to the society Le Guin created in The Dispossessed.  Meetings are held, matters discussed, things voted on, and common consent found, all the while language and social etiquette serve to keep any potential hierarchy from developing.  Helping matters is that everything is shared. Any potential tension regarding ownership automatically disappears, allowing for more open relations and interaction.  Again here we see the idea of giving up something personal for the greater good.

The most ideologically troublesome aspect of the book is, however, the pacifism.  I consider myself closer to the left than right in politics, but even the non-violent approach of the Sharers is at times, laughable.  Slonczewski naturally able to contrive scenes wherein non-violence “wins,” its real world answer to an army invading your space and forcing matters at gunpoint is inept.  Certainly there have been situations in the past wherein pacifism won out the day, but any real view to human behavior has to take into account the fact no action through non-action will ever be 100% successful when people like Hitler have existed.  Had nobody tried to violently stop him, we would be Nazis.  Thus, for all the examples Slonczewski cites regarding the successes of non-violence, the fate of the likes of Ghandi and John Lennon is well known.  Worse yet, science involving the human reaction to group life (e.g. Zimbardo et al) is ignored.  Again, this is not to say the scene presented is impossible, only that the deeper psychological issues surrounding social harmony are simply not addressed in robust fashion.

In the end, A Door into Ocean is a science fiction novel with a very classic feel that uses environmental science to build a pacifist utopia (redundant term?) by revisioning the details of Western life that cause war and strife.  I’m not sure how convincing the novel is given its lack of complexity in terms of plot setup (it’s black and white) and inability to address some key issues related to violence in the human condition, but I do know the first step toward building a utopia is imagining it, which is more than enough to set this novel back on the tightrope to continue its journey for us all.

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