Worlds of Women: review of A Door Into Ocean

A Door Into Ocean is a 1986 sci-fi novel by Quaker author Joan Slonczewski. It’s interested in nonviolence and the creation of a culture focussing on sharing and equality. One of the ways it explores these themes is through the invention of a society in which there are only women. I picked this up because it was recommended in a Quaker context, but as I was reading I soon realised that it’s relevant to another discussion I’ve been reading recently – the extensive discussions about gender plague/gendercide stories. I mostly read these conversations on Twitter, but I recommend Ana Mardoll’s blog if you need to catch up on the latest round. On Twitter, and I’m sorry I can’t find this again, someone said something to the effect that perhaps authors look for ways to kill off all the men in these stories because they want to create a matriarchy but they don’t know how to do that without murder.

I think that might be true about this book. And if it is, that would be deeply ironic for a story so concerned with nonviolence and the avoidance of death-hastening. Before I get into the details, I should say that this isn’t a discussion of the mechanic presented in the book for the creation of an all-women society or how it works: the sci-fi explanation offered is that in the distant past, the life-shapers in this ocean-dwelling society discovered how to create pregnancies by fusing ova, and the group evolved to no longer have men. (Exactly how this squares with their vague belief in a creating deity who set the entire ecosystem up in balance isn’t explored.) But it has an extremely similar vibe to Nicola Griffith’s book Ammonite, in which a virus kills all men who land on a particular planet, and it’s still very much the case that the author made these decisions. 

Both books also have a kind of situational lesbianism, in which it feels like the author wanted to create lesbian relationships (which is great!) but didn’t believe women would really be attracted to other women if they had the choice of men. In particular, in A Door Into Ocean, although women in the all-women society take women as lovers, a man who goes to live in the all-women society easily finds a lover there, and the woman who crosses from another world into the all-women society retains her attachment to the men in her previous society. It imagines women loving women but always being attracted to men as well. In a somewhat similar way, A Door Into Ocean is aware of trans possibilities in a way I don’t recall in Ammonite, but it shies away from exploring them – there is just one scene in which a woman from the all-women society suggests to her lover, the man from the other world, that he could simply go to the local medic and be reshaped into what she regards as a normal female body. He immediately and emphatically rejects the idea and it is never mentioned again.

Joan Slonczewski has good reasons for wanting to create a society very different to her own. In fact, she creates two societies: one, associated with stone and metal, which seems to reflect real-world situations, with men mostly in charge (and some women in military roles), a strong military, lots of invasions, communities controlled by violence and fear, hunger and homelessness, etc. The other, represented by the world of water where everything is fluid and growing (a metaphor made literal which Slonczewski uses extremely well), is all women, nonviolent, governed by gatherings of people at which all adults can speak and a consensus is sought… in fact, funnily enough, the women of the ocean world make decisions in a very similar way to the characters in my novel Between Boat and Shore. This other Quaker author and I might be drawing on, err, Quaker discernment processes? All this is good in some ways. But what is the message given by the conclusion she apparently reached before writing, namely that such a society could not have, or would be much better off without, men?

I think it normalises the assumption that masculinity and violence go together. If it was a one-off, there wouldn’t necessarily be any harm in this creation in a sci-fi; but this book is part of a much larger pattern, in which it’s clear that the opposite – a society of all men, which is completely peaceful and loving and nonviolent – is not being imagined. (And if you are about to tell me that they couldn’t reproduce, remember that in these stories we’re talking about speculative fiction in which a wide range of currently impossible surgeries are made possible, and mpreg is already a genre, and also some trans men carry pregnancies…) It also tends to ignore trans experience, as already mentioned. And, to return to the idea from the first paragraph, it is interesting that authors trying to create societies where women lead need to do so through the nonexistence of men. 

Whether men are killed by a virus or other plague, or die off when they become unnecessary, this creation of matriarchies through death undermines the nonviolent results Slonczewski wants it to have. It can imply a bio-essentialism, because it suggests that violence is inextricably entangled with the male body rather than being a social problem. Those results are so at odds with the other values expressed in A Door Into Ocean (such as the belief that every person can learn and grow, and the possibility of social change through nonviolent pressure) that it seems unlikely to Slonczewski intended them. Now they’ve been pointed out, hopefully future authors with similar social agendas (myself included) can avoid them.

2 responses to “Worlds of Women: review of A Door Into Ocean

  1. You might enjoy The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin. It has an anarchist society living on the moon of a planet with a capitalist dominant country and a socialist society which is hostile to it. In the anarchist society, there is no compulsion and people act altruistically. They find the notion of personal property objectionable, and hold things in common. It does not work perfectly, but offers hope. And it has equality of men and women.

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