Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Joan Sclonczewski - A Door into Ocean

Last semester, I took Professor Slonczewski’s “Biology in Science Fiction” class at Kenyon College. It’s a course she’s well qualified to teach. When not a professor and microbiologist, Slonczewski pens novels, and I’m sure a fair few here have encountered her name numerous times before and without the “professor” bit before it. Her second novel, A Door into Ocean, not only introduced her Elysium setting but also won her the John. W. Campbell award for best novel. With a scientist’s rigor and a writer’s imaginative flair, Slonczewski brings us to the ocean world of Shora. Other humans aren’t far behind us. Shora’s inhabitants, the Sharers, are about to be challenged by the military might of the Valans.

The contrast between Valans and Sharers, however, is more than environmental, and theirs is not simply a power struggle – it is, rather, a question of the very uses and expressions of power, of the structure of society, and of what is necessary for civilization to function. Of, even, what it is to be human. This is Science Fiction, after all, and the human race has long since learned how to destroy.

Mankind lives a life of strict control. The wonders that the Valans and their offworld overlords command are bare shadows of what they once were. Once, the human race was nearly wiped out, and now they live lives shaped so as to forget such a catastrophe’s recurrence. Theirs is a world carefully structured to exclude forbidden sciences (p. 33) and all learning that is not permissible (ibid). Their structure is strictly hierarchical, and it is a well armed hierarchy. Each level does all in its power to keep the entire structure intact by keeping the level below too weak to destroy it, a mechanism well illustrated when a city is annihilated for its flirtation with illicit nuclear power. Towards the novel’s end, a ruler of many worlds, a man well used to ordering genocides, gives his justifications: “How little keeps our world intact, safe from the law of the jungle. Always, in every age, a few strong men bear the burden of civilization.” (p. 393)

The Sharers, on the other hand, live a life of limitless technological and political potential. Their society is egalitarian and leaderless. Their decisions are made in gatherings. Where the Valans restrict every citizen to the point where he cannot harm himself or others, the Sharers give each and every one of themselves, each self-namer, limitless power. As Spinel characterizes it: Without any nobles and commoners, everyone got to be a High Protector (p. 61). This is joined by the Sharers’ immense technological strength. It is the Valans who come with guns, but we soon realize that each and every Valan can only live on Shora at the sufferance of the Sharers. The Sharers’ mastery of biotechnology is such that they, with ease, defeat any measure of the Valans that they find too intrusive, such that they could, with no trouble at all, devise a virus to end the threat.

This strength of the Sharers is kept cloistered by their personal restraint and strength of character, by what might even be called their wisdom. Despite their strength, violence is anathema to them. What it means to be a self-namer is to recognize oneself in the mirror of the water and in others, to understand the humanity that exists outside yourself, and to grasp a picture of life far vaster than your own concerns. That grasp, the ability to become a self-namer, is the defining feature of sentience to the Sharers, the defining feature of even humanity. As is said: There is more to a human than physiology (p. 77). It is not, either, a grasp that you can reach and then disregard. For, to truly understand life and humanity as it exists outside of yourself, is to step forever outside your own boundaries and to never again end your considerations with your own flesh and physical needs: Conscious beings were meant to control pain, to say yes or no to their physical selves, else how could their souls be freed? (p. 289). (It may be interesting to note, while we are on the subject, that the idea of humanity defined by transcending pain is one of many places ((another of which is the environment of her novel)) in which Slonzcewski is responding to Frank Herbert’s Dune.)

Of course, if we are defining humanity more by philosophy and behavior than by physiology, it’s suddenly rather questionable if the Valans fit the Sharer definition. And that’s a question that’s rather more than academic. If the Valans aren’t humans but just some particularly ferocious breed of beasts, than the Sharer viruses can be unloosed upon them without a backwards thought.

A Door into Ocean is a book about conflict, but that conflict is primarily philosophical. The Sharers have the ability to wipe out the Valans; if they choose not to exercise it, the Valans can more than certainly gun down their unresisting gatherings. As neither a one-stroke victory nor a protracted slaughter have all that much in the way of dramatic tension about them, our plot is less concerned with mechanics than it is with persuasion. Well the factions exercise the powers that they have? That question gives us the novel’s two arcs. The Sharer judgment on humanity is not only contingent upon their watching of the Valan hordes. Spinel, a Valan youth, was brought to the Sharer world just before the conflict’s height for just such a judgment, and we see his attempts to integrate into their (alien, entirely female, and landless) society. On the other side, we have the Valan resolve tested by Sharer pacifism and nonviolent resistance.

Both arcs are interesting ideas well conceived and explored that are dampened but not destroyed by their transformative moments being overstated and often rather cheesy. Slonczewski, I think it is safe to hazard, is rather more comfortable writing ecosystems and societies than single people or close friendships. This isn’t to say that she is a bad writer of character, necessarily. Her skill at conceiving and, then, depicting the interactions between people and the environment and society lead to moments of insight into people as well as into fish. Spinel’s youthful perspective and voice comes across authentically and leads to moments of juvenile but insightful commentary like that about high protectors quoted some paragraphs above.

In moments where the character has to come to the fore, however, moments of high and uncontrollable emotion, Slonczewski often falters, and characters begin to act out in the most dramatic and abrupt manners, leaving the reader’s emotions a good distance behind them in the dust. One characters sudden decision to enjoy some nice terrorism would likely be the prime contender for this, but she isn’t alone. For Spinel, crises are chiefly met with temper tantrums. This could be, to some extent, a function of his age, but it is no less exasperating for it, and, when hundreds of pages and huge personal growth later, Spinel reacts to an event with yet another fit of toddler-appropriate wrath, the reader can’t help but stare uncomfortably at how little he's come.

The dramatic power of nonresistance, meanwhile, is weakened by the inevitability of its victory. This is most obvious when Spinel brings its lessons to his hometown, where the police grumble for about five minutes before going home and giving way, but it sadly doesn’t vanish when the Sharers face the full might of the Valan military. The philosophical conflict at the novel’s heart is one with a very clearly favored side.

The Valans are a bunch of sadistic murderers. The second in command has a plan: “Line up those little ones and snuff them out before their mothers’ eyes. That would get results.” (p. 292) The overseer does too: “You shall activate the satellites to burn out the entire native population of the Ocean Moon. To the last mother and child – do I make myself clear?” (p. 391The main guy himself is no better. He is, after all, convinced that: In warfare there were no innocents (p. 206), and, knowing that, it was galling to have to protect natives along with his troops, and he hoped it would not be interpreted as a weakness (p. 284).

Is this a crowd that has gained your sympathies yet? No? Thought not. When one side is cackling while it devours babies, the reader knows who’s going to win long before the decision’s made, and so the Sharer’s victory becomes a matter not of if but of how, a persuasion that is essentially fated to occur. Besides which, the dissonance of having Valans intellectually capable of grasping the Sharer argument and yet subscribing so long to their kill and burn nonsense is rather hard to reconcile when the moment of epiphany comes knocking.

One last note on the Valan military: its leader, Raelgar, is the fiancé of one of the humans living with the Sharers. She soon realizes how much of a bastard he is, but that betrayal is not so stunning for the reader. It’s a situation nearly identical to that shown in Vernor Vinge’s disappointing The Children of the Sky. In both, a protagonist’s fiancé turns out to be the embodiment of darkness, and we are expected to feel the betrayal of it. But neither shows us the loving relationship that must precede such a betrayal, an omission that just leaves us wondering how the sane one could ever love the beast. Why do Science Fiction authors seem to think that our sympathies are immediately secured by the mere mention of an engagement?

Such issues, though, are not wholly damning. A Door into Ocean is a novel that is absolutely fantastic in its ideas and good even if not great in its execution. It brings a strange world to light, plays out a grand and excellently conceived conflict in its pages, and raises innumerable interesting questions (its treatment of gender, for instance, is an absolutely fascinating issue that I must admit I find myself unqualified to dig deeply into).

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