Book Review: A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski

A Door Into Ocean

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by Mark Aragona

We’ve seen many facets of war in science fiction—from fleet-to-fleet space battles to death rays to whole-scale planetary invasions and genocide. In Joan Slonczewski’s award-winning A Door Into Ocean, we are asked—can there be war if one side refuses to fight? Moreover, can the pacifist side even win?

A Door Into Ocean follows Merwen and her all-female race of Sharers, as their planet Shora is being invaded by your typical galactic empire, the Valans. The Sharers are overrun, outnumbered, and out-classed in terms of hard technology. Thinking that the Sharers must be controlled for their own good, the Valans use every available means to subjugate the natives: guns, ships, threats, even torture. But the Sharers have their own means of resistance—they absolutely refuse to cooperate or even fight. Most times they refuse to acknowledge the Valans at all!

Slonczewski draws from her own background as a biologist and a Quaker to create the unusual society of the Sharers. Composed entirely of women, they bio-engineer their children by mingling DNA from both parents. Symbiotic microorganisms let them stay underwater for long periods of time. Sharer language captures the essence of their philosophy: it makes no distinction between subject and object, meaning that the giver is usually also the recipient. Thus, they have no concept ownership; everything on their planet Shora is shared. They also have no concept of violence, as they realize that “sharing harm” with someone else ultimately means harming themselves.

As Shora is composed entirely of ocean, the Sharers dwell on great rafts made up of floating mangroves. The great variety of life found on the rafts allows the Sharers incredible prowess in life sciences and bio-engineering. They are so far advanced that they have no need for surgery; their lifeshapers can simply program cells to cure diseases and heal injuries from within.

Door is unabashedly feminist, but Slonczewski does not beat us over our heads with it. She gets right to the action, offering fully-realized characters, a complex but comprehensible plot, and a stunning, well-articulated battle of ideas. Slonczewski sometimes drops the ball when it comes to her characters (one act of terrorism from a self-professed terrorism almost throws the story off), but even those problems are easily forgiven.

Door works as a response to a lot of classic science fiction, like Frank Herbert’s Dune. Instead of Dune’s barren desert world, we have a planet without shores. Instead of hard technology, the focus is on ecology and life sciences. And instead of war and political machinations, we have a society dedicated to nonviolence and non-cooperation.

A Door Into Ocean is a must-read. It’s more than just inspired science fiction—it’s an inspiring story about how spirituality can triumph over brute force. It recalls the many times in our own history when causes were won by nonviolent means, and reminds us that its ideas, not weapons, that change the world.

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