Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 473
A Door into Ocean is the second science-fiction novel by professor of biology Joan Slonczewski, following Still Forms on Foxfield (1980). Like her other novels, it has been praised by critics for the accuracy of its science, the completeness of its alternate cultures, and its characterization. It won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award as best science-fiction novel of 1986.
As a work of science fiction, the novel offers the situation of the alien encounter. Shifting the scene from one planet to another, it explores the situation of alien encounter from the perspectives of both worlds, opening with the visit of the Sharers to Valedon. As in other science-fiction novels describing encounters with aliens, the story raises and examines the issue of the nature of humanity. When Valans turn purple like the Shorans, they fear the loss of their humanity. When Merwen considers the possibility that some of the Shorans are willing to hasten the death of the invaders, she worries that Sharers will lose their identity.
The two societies are not portrayed in monolithic and static terms, but the novel presents the encounter between Valedon and Shora as a juxtaposition of utopia and dystopia. The utopian society of Shora is not without difference, nor is the dystopian world of Valedon without its redeeming qualities. At the end of the novel, Spinel chooses to remain on the utopian Shora, but his choice carries the possibility of the transformation of Shora because he retains his Valan stonesign and knows that Lystra wishes to have daughters with him, daughters who will differ from both of them.
This novel has been discussed in the context of women as writers of science fiction and as a work of feminist science fiction. The portrayal of the world of Shora, with its highly advanced life-shaping science, its openness to all learning, and its egalitarian politics, values those matters that have been seen as feminist areas of concern. This emphasis critiques the patriarchal culture of Valedon as it also critiques the dominance of science itself, since the outcome of human action always remains unpredictable and uncontrollable. As Merwen knows in the final series of conversations with Realgar, it is wordweaving, the uncertain art of persuasive language, that will determine the final outcome.
Critic Robin Roberts, author of A New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction (1993), has highlighted A Door into Ocean as an example of post-modernist feminist science fiction because of its attention to the function of language. A deconstructive model is at play in revisions both of the convention of the alien encounter and of the static and monolithic utopia. The model carries through in the critique of the dominance of science and of patriarchy. It is mediated by the characterization of Merwen as a wordweaver and by a peculiarity of Sharer language: In every utterance, its opposite is present.