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"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen

Review: A Door Into Ocean, by Joan Slonczewski

A Door Into Ocean - Joan Slonczewski

I feel like I've been reading this book over and over lately. Just a few weeks ago, for instance, when it was called Dreamfall. Or earlier this year, under the title Woman on the Edge of Time. A couple of years ago, when it was The Word for World is Forest. All feature these futuristic or alien, usually matriarchal societies, who love nature and new age spirituality, where conflicts are solved through sharing instead of violence, and war is unheard of where empathy reigns. Then vicious capitalist humans show up wanting their resources, and hunt the hippies to near extinction, destroying their way of life and their childlike innocence in the process. But at least one human defects and goes native, standing up to the.... *snooooooooore*

Oh, sorry about that, I bored myself to sleep there for a sec. It's just, I've seen this show before.

And I'm really not a fan of this plotline, especially the way it tends to transpire in feminist science fiction. It's not just trite and overused, it's all tied up in that lame, gender-essentialist "if women ran the world, there'd be no war!" stuff. Look, I don't know if men are naturally more greedy and violent than women or not, but I have been educated and have worked in female-dominated environments, and the idea that they are tranquil dominions governed by nurturing and harmonious conflict resolution is ludicrous.

Still, a lot of good writers have used this trope, so I keep finding myself reading the same story, again and again, no matter how much it annoys me.

Slonczewski's version is about as predictable and formulaic as they come. There's an intergalactic empire (called the Patriarchy - no subtlety here!) which rules many planets and wants to take control of Shora, a landless ocean world populated by a race of parthenogenetic female humanoids called Sharers. The Patriarchy wants control of Shora's resources and the Sharers' superior gene-shaping technology, but it quickly becomes clear that belligerence will get them nowhere against a planetful of Gandhis. Blah blah blah, you can guess where this is heading.

But apart from the paint-by-number plotline, I liked pretty much everything else about the book. The worldbuilding is fantastic, Dune-like in its depth and scope. Slonczewski has a doctorate in biology, and it shows in all the fascinating details she includes about Shora's flora and fauna. The characters, too, are complex and interesting - at least, the Sharers and their human allies are. (Their human enemies are all disappointingly one-dimensional, caring only about conquest while completely lacking empathy, intuition, or any other "feminine" instinct.)

And the book's feminist themes, while familiar and not exactly my cup of ideological tea, did at times feel fresh and thought-provoking. So even though, in the end, the book's message boiled down to "war - what is it good for? absolutely nothin", it made that point in a way that had me really asking myself, "War - what is it good for?" as though that thought had never yet occurred to me.

That takes talent, for a writer, and Slonczewski's got it. I just wish she had used her powers for good - say, a storyline I haven't already read 7,000 times - and shucked the idea that a society ruled by women would be some kind of collaborative paradise.


(December 15, 2011)