Looking Backwards into the Future: A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski

A copy of A Door into Ocean sitting on a green backdrop.
Yes, I know AlphaSmarts aren't from the 80s, but I only have so much older tech laying around!

Genre: Hard Sci-Fi
Available on Bookshop.Org*

Content Note for Review: This is a feminist sci-fi work that includes discussion of rape; this review discusses the ways the characters have created a world without rape.

A Door Into Ocean is older than me and reading it felt like I was stepping into a conversation that I didn't quite have the context for. It feels steeped in Cold War politics, as the watery moon Shora comes into deeper contact with the planet Valedon. Shora's inhabitants (known as Sharers) are all female and adapted to aquatic life, while Valedon's inhabitants look like contemporary humans. The differences between the two population is one of the central questions of the book, as each side questions if the others are fully human.

The book itself is a slow novel of political strife, with invasions and resistance taking place over months. I'll admit that the first time I attempted to read this book, I stalled out after 50 pages due to its slow pace. However, when I reread it with the expectation that it was going to be a slow start, I was able to really enjoy the deep worldbuiling and the hard sci-fi that the author built in with the Sharer's genetic engineering. The author's academic background as a microbiologist shows, as the science of the Sharers is one of the highlights of the book.

Also highlighted in the book is the question of resistance to hostile forces. The Sharers are nonviolent and refuse to "hasten death". They see the world as equal forces: in their language, there is no difference between teaching and learning, as they see these as shared experiences. This is why they are Sharers. The book explicitly looks at how nonviolent resistance holds up in the face of violent oppression.

As a work feminist work of sci-fi with explicit political questions, the comparison to Ursula Le Guin's work is immediate; it's clear that these works are in conversation with each other, even if I can't quite figure out the full contours of the conversation. Here, Slonczewski is imagining a world of women and world without violence or rape. As a planet of all women, the Sharers engage in relationships primarially with other women. When one of the few men on the planet proposes having penetrative sex with his partner, she objects and shares that the Sharers are genetically altered so that any penetrative sex is extremely painful.

However, I also struggle with most works like this. I find that the two sides in the book are clearly divided into an oppressed people without flaws and a oppressor willing to go to any lengths to institute their rule. It feels almost too morally easy, at least in this current age. I think that I'm particularly skeptical of feminist stories that lean into this and don't incorporate an intersectional approach to power, as I've seen the legacy of white feminism. There are some complications in the book with regards to class and ethnicity on Valedon, but it isn't as developed as the rest. While this book is a worthwhile read, it does feel like I'm reading a book missing some context. It is still relevant in many aspects, but feels aged in others.

Content Warning Notes:

  • Depicted on Page: Genocide, Military Invasion, Torture, Kidnapping of Children
  • Discussed: Rape

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