Sunday, August 23, 2020

A Door Into Ocean

Joan Slonczewski
Completed 8/23/2020, Reviewed 8/23/2020
4 stars

I’ve read a lot of books featuring a women’s utopia or dystopia.  They’ve ranged from mediocre to great.  This is one of the great ones.  It has tremendous world-building, a complex plot, and tackles themes like saving the environment, non-violent existence, and passive resistance.  It takes place on Shora, an ocean planet.  The women living on the planet have a purple tint, are hairless, and reproduce parthenogenically.  They live on “rafts,” large floating platforms, and interact with the sea creatures in mysterious ways.  Shora is about to be invaded by the Patriarchy, an empire that controls all the people-bearing planets in the galactic neighborhood.  Their quandary is how to fight off the Patriarchy while sticking to their peace-loving culture.  This book was published before the major LGBTQ book awards came into being, but it did win the Campbell award for Science Fiction in 1987. 

Spinel is a stone-cutter’s son.  He lives on Valedon, a planet in the same system as Shora.  (I wasn’t quite clear on this, but Shora may be its moon).  He’s directionless, not having had much motivation to find a career for himself.  One day, he comes across two naked purple women from Shora who’ve come to learn about Valedon.  They’ve created an uproar in the town, but have not met with much resistance.  He becomes entranced with them and they offer to take him back with them to Shora.  At first, he’s excited, but when they actually make a deal with his parents to take him with them, he balks.  Still, he ends up going.  On Shora, he has a tough time integrating with women there, known as Sharers, but eventually becomes a part of their culture.  The Sharers are not without their turmoil.  They have foreign traders living on the planet.  Then the invasion comes and they choose to fight the only way they know how, by passive resistance. 

There are so many interesting things in this world that Slonczewski created.  The Sharers have developed an advanced medical practice where they use genetics and local plants to heal people as well as manipulate their environment.  For example, they’ve altered insects to carry information.  They’ve done this despite eschewing modern technology.  This causes the invading cultures to consider them witches.  The Sharers have also developed a technique for dealing with grief and pain.  They go into a trance state where their body turns white and they cannot be reached without force.  It is considered anathema to try to bring someone out of this state.   They deal with transgressions by shunning the transgressor with silence for some period of time.  Their language uses, some may say overuses, the word sharing.  It’s a little annoying at first, but then begins to make sense.  You realize it is essential in describing how the Sharers think and act.  Their decision-making is by consensus in a process called Gathering. 

The battle for Shora is not a clear war along gender lines.  Sure, the general, Realgar, is a pretty evil male, and many of the people in power in the Patriarchy are male.  But Spinel is a male who assimilates into Sharer society, and many of the male soldiers stationed on Shora soften to the Sharer’s plight.  And there is at least one woman on the Patriarchy side who is pretty evil, Jade, being the primary torturer.  Realgar and Jade, despite being bad, are a little more three dimensional than most of the bad guys in science fiction, although Realgar becomes quite single-minded in his pursuit of conquest.

I thought the character development was really good.  Spinel is perhaps the best developed.  Much of the beginning of the book is from his perspective.  Of the Sharers, Merwen, a woman the Patriarchy sees as leader among this leaderless society, is also well done.  Much of the rest of the perspective from the Sharers is through her eyes.  Her sisters look to her for wisdom in dealing with the invasion.  Her partner Usha is a healer of astounding talent.  Merwen has a daughter Lystra, who is headstrong and against the fact that Merwen brought Spinel to live with them.  Lystra probably does the most growing as she first loses her partner, then falls in love with Spinel. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  I was engrossed with it by about the fiftieth page and subsequently had trouble putting it down.  For someone who generally doesn’t like space opera memes, I really got into the politics of the invasion, particularly how the Patriarchy dehumanizes the Sharers by constantly referring to them as catfish, from which they may have evolved.  At the same time, the Sharers deal with their own question of their enemy’s humanity, considering they have the morality of children and are obsessed with death rather than life.  There are three other books in this series.  I don’t know if I’ll read them, as my TBR pile for next year is so large.  But I’ll definitely consider it based on how much I enjoyed this one. 

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