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“A Door into Ocean” by Joan Slonczewski: Human Cultures Collide

No one wants to die. Understanding this fact is what enables a connection between seemingly opposite human viewpoints. Taking this extreme into consideration is most important now in struggles with the environment, because these struggles mean life or death for generations to come.

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“A study published in the journal Science reports that the current level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere — about 390 parts per million — is higher today than at any time in measurable history — at least the last 2.1 million years.” (Global). The reality of global warming is something that fewer and fewer people can deny, and it is a result of a school of thinking that precludes man as a separate entity from his environment. He is the commander of his environment, reshaping matter to befit his needs with little regard to the consequences. He is the receiver of the benefits of his work. His environment is merely an obstacle challenging his ability to survive in a hostile, ungiving world—a world that he will bend to his will, conquer, and dominate. These thoughts are not explicit, but implied in his actions, implied in his system of survival. Capitalism is a system in which all participants perceive their actions as consequential only to other human beings. Money is the invention that made a full disconnect, mentally, of a person from her world—it removed humankind from the ecology that was responsible for its existence. The impact one made on his environment since that time has played second fiddle to the objective value one could attain from other men as a result of one’s struggles with the physical world. Man no longer felt responsible to his mother, earth, but only to other men and women. That is when all the trouble started.

These men, these women, these human beings, however, are not wholly evil. Culture is created by pairs of billions of hands, through the ages. Most of us now perform as capitalists because it is what we know, what we have been exposed to. But it is not the only way. The Native Americans, men and women as much as any other race of human beings, formed a natural homeostasis with their environments. This, surprisingly, is how all mammals behave. There is a natural give and take that goes on like a dance of sustainability. The need to spread, to conquer new lands, is a consequence of failure of sustainability. The two attitudes are classified by Daniel Quinn in his novel Ishmael as leavers, and takers.

These two groups are personified differently in Joan Slonczewski’s science fiction novel A Door Into Ocean. In the story’s introduction, the reader sees a distinct, physical difference between the leavers, The Sharer People; and the takers, The Valan People. Two women are described as arriving in this Valan Village, with translucent skin and an odd manner. They have webbed toes and fingers. The Valans are like Earthlings—people with trades and classes and markets—and are suspicious of the Sharer women because of their general appearance, but become acquainted quickly with their willingness to provide. The Sharer women, Usha and Merwin, share quilts, medical treatment, and the essence of their culture as Sharers from Shora. Daniel Quinn marks the identity of leavers as peoples who keep their environment intact (leave it be, and leave its resources) while takers take resources, and, overpopulate, and must spread to sustain their numbers to other lands and start again. The Valans are takers—they are in fact about to attempt a military takeover of a society on Shora. The Sharer women are not only leavers, but they actually work to keep their ecological system healthy through science and technology unknown to the Valan people. They would have to be called givers, then—a step beyond any culture Quinn discusses.

This essential, categorical difference is what is interesting. Accepting the premise that human societies really do only break down into these two separate boxes, and the premise that all human beings aim to survive, leaves one to induce many things about some of the aspects of each people in Slonczewski’s work. Are some of each culture’s traits contributory to their ideological differences? In thinking this way, and searching for a solution to climate crisis, one is left to contemplate many different possibilities. The most distinct, quantifiable difference between each people is their language. In Sharer language, a phenomenon known as word sharing occurs, in which all things, all words, contain their opposite, and subject and object have no separation. Merwen and Usha decide to take a Valan boy Spinel back home to Shora, and when they explain word sharing to him, his response is comical: “If I hit a rock with a chisel, does the rock hit me?” He asks, to which Merwen replies, “I would think so, don’t you feel it in your arm?” (37). In a taker society, subject and object must be separated. The world is perceived as without a pulse, without intent, and therefore without any worth beyond the purposes it can serve for the human race. By exploring the implications of separating subject and object ideologically, one can identify the distinctions in the respective thought processes that make these competing philosophies so little able to mesh.

In the fall of 2001 Enron wanted to build a 15,000-acre wind farm on Yakama Indian Nation land (LaDuke 12). The Yakama Indian Nation protested this project. The Yakama Indians, a culture built on respect for the environment, wanted nothing to do with windfarm technology. The way they live does not require this technology. The way Enron lives is by finding new ways to harness the earth’s resources. After enough windfarms, what will happen when the winds slow down? The principle is simple physics, energy transfer. The energy of the wind is removed by the mills and converted into electricity. Has no one realized that global warming is only the first global symptom of a psychological sickness of a very powerful society? In a society like the Valans’, access to technology necessary to colonize other planets is available to sustain their ways. They do not succeed, but the necessity exists nonetheless. Unless they alter their basic ideological premises, their society will always need more, and will therefore be forced to expand, or thicken. It is the trader/taker need.

If subject and object are one, and what is done by humans to the world is also expressed, and experienced, as being done by the world to humans, would the inclination be to take and take from the environment? If one had the sense that the world was also taking from him, he would not be so quick to expend his energies taking from it. People would also be inclined to give as well.

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This is how the Sharers do serve as an example for present-day human societies. They tend to their ecosystem; they give to it. They share with each other. They do not trade goods. However, to fully understand who someone is, or what something means, it is important to understand the context from which it springs. This novel was written in the ’80s, in a decade when right-wing conservatives had maintained a stronghold on politics, military spending was at a high, and little concern was given by public office to environmental issues. The fear-inspired paranoia about communist beliefs spreading through the culture still lingered in the air (Slonczewski Study Guide). It makes sense that Slonczewski felt it necessary to make her leave people in this story an all-female population, as rhetoric employed by the right always seems to implicate liberal philosophy as weaker and effeminate in comparison to its own. Thus, she can show the virtues and strengths of such “weaker” philosophies, should they be acted out in the world at large.

The truth is that both the democrats and the republicans are a part of the bigger problem. Our taker culture will not be derailed by global warming, or a democrat. The Sharers can see the basic problem the Valans have with regard to their planet, and their manner of survival. The example they set with their own ecosystem is important, regardless of whether they are set on a moon while they are accomplishing sustainability. Any living system requires respect for the balance between all living things. Considered from a certain angle, all life on this planet originates from the same, basic, single-celled life forms that first took shape eons ago. Therefore, since we have the capacity, it is not irrational to tend to our environment with the same nurturing hands we use to tend to our kin.

Even this thinking does not line up with that of the Sharers. Since subject and object are not separate, they simply could not willfully cause damage to their ecosystems because they would experience that act as also themselves being damaged. Since they cannot live without their ecosystem, is not this belief an accurate reflection of reality? Ayn Rand, founder of Objectivism and a proponent of laisse fair capitalism, refers to the problem of the environment in her most famous work, Atlas Shrugged, in which she suggests that when, if, the environment ever begins to be a problem for mankind, he will, by that time, be able to meet it with a solution (Rand 547). If that solution comes from the same conquer-and-spread mindset that comes from what Quinn calls totalitarian agriculture, then how is it possible that it will do anything but create a short-term solution? Human beings cannot generate everything they need to survive without participation from the ecosystem, and yet philosophers like Rand believe that the will of a man is his justification to any resource in the world so long as it is utilized to contribute to the whole of the capitalist society. She calls for the complete separation of government and economics, an idea revealed as without solid premise when one considers that economics is ecology, and that ecology is a phenomenon of reciprocal causation, in which a life form, and its environment, naturally act off of one another—no separation between subject and object fully being possible. Government can only occur with respect to this reciprocation, and economies as they are viewed today do not have any respect for it at all.

When Merwen begins thinking of the living fabric of Shora being at stake at the beginning of Part II in the novel, she says that the Sharer people are “clamoring to close The Door” (58). The threat of a taker people entering a world so maintained an appreciation for balance, sharing, and nurturing is one realized by Merwen as significant and dangerous. Clamoring to close the door is, however, unlike the Sharer people who generally do not treat living things with so little regard. That is why Merwen and Usha arrive at Valan—to spread their culture and change the lives of the Valans—to cure their insanity. Merwen tells a native that they both are “soldiers of learning” (15). When asked about their weapons, she responds, “What more do we need than what is… inside?” They are trying to share the gifts of the heart with the Valan people, because Sharers are not perfect. They do wish to close the door on the Valans, so Merwen and Usha become like diplomats in an attempt to both understand their transgressors, and thereby change their dysfunctional ways.

This theme is one that is touched on over and over again in present-day story-telling. Avatar is a perfect example of a similar tale, only in A Door Into Ocean the conflict is not resolved with an all-out measure of violence. The Sharers use non-violent means to affect the ends they desire, whereas in popular stories like Avatar, the oppressed and disrespected Na’bu people rise up to defeat the taker people who are attempting to extract their resources without respect to their environment or to the people themselves. In this case, their deity is called upon to save them, as all trees on the planet of Pandora send electronic signals to one another like synapses in the brain, and therefore connect and form a network, a mind, which expands throughout the globe. This mind is called upon to defend the planet against the taker people, and so asks all the lifeforms to resist the takeover together, violently.

It is curious to understand whether an actual electrical network between all living things would be enough to make present-day societies appreciate the interconnectivity of all that exists, and is alive. It seems that one of the distinct differences between societies that take, and societies that leave, is that the former does not observe this interconnectivity, and the latter does. The understanding is one that comes from inside—it is a spiritual, mindful, and subconscious willingness to accept one’s people as a part of a working a whole, not a separate entity for which a whole is working. Sharer people observe and nurture their world, and therefore themselves. The Valans remain in service to a God by the name of Tor, an act that historically makes separation of ecology and economy easier since all things are done are enabled not by the living network, but by the sanctity of the God one is in service to.

The disconnect is what Slonczewski touches on so brilliantly in her novel. The disconnect to which is being referred is the one between these two ideologies. When Europeans discovered the Americas and the indigenous peoples of the two continents, they observed their lifestyle with contemptuous, devaluing eyes. They referred to the natives as savages. In turn, the natives had little understanding of the whites, as a whole, as anything near themselves and their own humanity. This plays out the same way in Slonczewski’s novel, as each culture struggles with its understanding of the other as human. How could both be human when behaving so differently to survive?

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The connection is ultimately made through touching on each culture’s understanding of the frailty of life. The Sharers put themselves in harm’s way without being prepared to defend themselves with any form of violence, and this brings about a respect from the Valans, as the people, all people, rethink their positions when they see others are affected so greatly by the decisions they have inspired that death becomes a viable alternative to submission. Remembering that each culture is doing what they are doing to preserve life, such acts are necessary to bring into the light the essential survivalist instincts being acted on in both parties. Each is responding to frailty they experience as living organisms, and to make that frailty into a physical reality before their transgressor’s eyes is what makes the Valans retreat into their own world, with the possibility of changing the ways that have brought them to the point of necessity to expand.

The story works because it takes the conflict of the times and personifies them in a futuristic society from which we can observe some of our own flaws without feeling threatened by the conclusions we come to. Being a biologist, Slonczewski can introduce accurate scientific principles, embodied by the societies of each culture, in ways that resonate truthfully with the reader. It is possible that each of these cultures diverged from the same human genomes thousands of years before the setting of the conflict, physical evolution may have taken place in that amount of time, it is possible that the Sharers, coming from a technologically advanced society, could learn to utilize its benefits without taking from their environment. It is also possible—and this is where the story’s true strength is viewed—that the Sharers could engender respect from their transgressors through non-violent means. The American Indian warred with the white man when he arrived at his shores. At first, he shared with him, but then, after realizing his ways of ownership and trade, the American Indian relied on violence to defeat an enemy of superior physical strength. This was a miscalculation—a miscalculation the Sharers do not make—and therefore can, through a willingness to die in protest, make the value of their way of life that much more observable to the Valans. By the end of the story, the conclusion is reached that each culture is in fact human, and that each does in fact still has much to learn.

Works Cited

Carruth, Shawn. “A Door Into Ocean.” Magill’s Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature 1996. Library Reference Center: Powered by EBSCOhost.

This article is one of the few peer-reviewed articles on the novel. Its analysis of Slonczewski’s ability to explore each society’s perspective of the other is its strength, as well as its depiction of the Sharer’s struggle with their own humanity as they are faced with annihilation from the Valan’s.

Higgens, Edward F. “Quaker Ethos as Science Praxis in Joan Slonczewski’s A Door Into Ocean.” 2001. George Fox University. Web.

This article is written by a professor at George Fox University and was presented at The International Science Fiction Conference in 2001. It details the similarities between Quaker culture and that of the Sharers, with special regard to their egalitarian rule.

J.C.. “A Door Into Ocean.” Library Journal 1Dec 1985: Vol. 110, 20, p129. Literary Reference Center: Powered by EBSCOhost.

This source is a review. It is short, but was chosen for its appraisal of Slonczewski’s work as one “that that reaches beyond feminism to a new definition of human nature.”

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LaDuke, Winona. The Winona LaDuke Reader. Minnesota: Voyageur, 2002.

This work outlines some basic differences in, and conflicts between, American Indian culture and capitalist business interests. Winona LaDuke was Ralph Nader’s running mate in both the 1996 and 2000 presidential races.

Slonczewski, Joan. “A Door Into Ocean: Study Guide.” 2001. Kenyon Coll. 

In this source, the author provides a context for her motivations in writing A Door Into Ocean. She explains that in the 80’s, her message of non-violence and interconnectedness among living things was ill-received. Slonczewski also expands on the psychology of passive resistance, citing Ghandi as an example of successful implementation of the necessary psychology for such resistance to succeed.

Slonczewski, Joan. A Door Into Ocean. Orb ed. 1. New York: Dohersty, 2000.

This is the science-fiction novel itself. This novel is appraised as a feminist’s commentary on socio-political/economic aspects of our world, and is praised as a scientific accomplishment. The science used in the novel is reflective of the understandings in the science world when it was written.

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