A Door into Oceanby Joan Slonczewski, Rosalyn Landor
A Door into Ocean is the novel upon which the author's reputation as an important SF writer principally rests. A ground-breaking work both of feminist SF and of world-building hard SF, it concerns the Sharers of Shora, a nation of women on a distant moon in the far future who are pacifists, highly advanced in biological sciences, and who reproduce by/i>… See more details below
A Door into Ocean is the novel upon which the author's reputation as an important SF writer principally rests. A ground-breaking work both of feminist SF and of world-building hard SF, it concerns the Sharers of Shora, a nation of women on a distant moon in the far future who are pacifists, highly advanced in biological sciences, and who reproduce by parthenogenesisthere are no malesand tells of the conflicts that erupt when a neighboring civilization decides to develop their ocean world, and send in an army.
Author Bio: Joan Slonczewski is Professor of Biology at Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio.
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A Door Into Ocean
By Joan Slonczewski
Orb BooksCopyright © 2000 Joan Slonczewski
All right reserved.
Door Into Ocean
1MERWEN REACHED OVER the boat rail, but her hand froze above the weathered pier. To be sure, spring morning breathed peace through Chrysoport harbor, and the sea rippled without a crest. Still ... a shore. Across the sky, where Merwen was born, none but the dead ever sank to touch the world's floor.She shook herself and straightened her back. If she were to flinch now, dear Usha would balk altogether and drag her home from this parched planet. At Merwen's elbow, Usha wrinkled her nose as her long arms yanked tight the rope of the houseboat, which had born the two Sharers down along the shore, this endless edge of dry floor. Away from the space landing; that had been an unintelligible place of screeching noises and choking smells. Usha had been right to escape to the sea, though a strange sea it was with its floor jutting out hard as a whorlshell.On planet Valedon, most people lived "ashore," upon dry land--if in fact Valans were people, Merwen reminded herself. Here in Chrysoport, a small, quiet place, she might find out. And that answer would save her own people.So Merwen placed a hand, then a foot upon the pier. Loose planks vibrated warningly as Usha hoisted up the spinning wheel, the hand-loom, and the bundles of iridescent seasilk. Silkspinning would occupy Merwen's hands while she awaited the mission that had brought her and her lovesharer so far from their home.
The two women were foreign, but at first their presence went unnoticed in the sleepy town square. Olive-skinned fishermen were unloading their catch for the market, while brightly scarved vendors arranged onions and groundnuts on their stalls and came alive to shake their glass beads and argue shrilly over choice locations in the square. Those who did observe the strangers only stared in surprise. No one warned the pair not to settle beneath the luxurious shade tree by the granite storefront of the firemerchant.As shadows shrank toward the low houses which lined the marketplace, villagers trickled in to shop for cabbages and to hear the latestword from Pyrrhopolis, the upstart provincial capital under siege by the High Protector. Protectoral soldiers mingled with farmers and tradespeople at the firemerchant's door; they all came to recharge firecrystals, the white diamond-shaped energy cells more precious than any diamond. As customers passed the great tree, they gaped at the odd pair sitting beneath, and some wagered on how long it would take the firemerchant to boot the strangers out.Oblivious, the strangers wound their spindles full of rich shiny threads that squeaked when the strands crossed. Both wore garments of precious seasilk, yet crudely cut, like beggars clothed in a noblewoman's rags. Odder still, their flesh bloomed deep amethyst, from hairless scalp to nailless fingertips; and when a hand rose a moment, the overlong fingers spread to reveal scalloped webbing that shone translucent against the sun.No such creatures had ever been heard of on the planet of Valedon, not even from Pyrrhopolis or the other provinces whose uprisings guaranteed employment to Protectoral Guards. Did they come from a far star, one of the hundred now ruled by the Patriarch? It took years to crawl between stars at lightspeed; no one had done better since the old empire had collapsed, many centuries before.Away from the tree, a farmhand named Melas clapped dust from his trousers and leaned back against a vegetable rack. "They're Iridians, that's all," he assured the withered gray woman behind the stand. In Iridis, home of the High Protector, it was said that firecrystals littered the streets and moontraders wore such thick belts of gems that they swooned and fell off the skywalks. "That's an Iridian moontrader's boat they came on," Melas added. "I tell you, Ahn, they're tailored slaves of some noble lord. Did you ever see such perversion?"Ahn shook her head in disgust. "Not since I lost my good eye." Ahn's right eye was shrunken and sightless, ever since her head had been grazed by a firewhip from a couple of Iridian guards in a drunken duel. Her remaining eye narrowed as she counted change for a customer : Spinel, the stonecutter's son. "You won't find a city wickeder than Iridis on all the planets of the Patriarch."Spinel overheard her and smiled, for Ahn had never left Chrysoport, let alone planet Valedon. Then he stiffened with alarm and tightly clutched his change. An officer in Iridian blue and gold was just passing toward the firestore. To Spinel's relief, the officer took no notice;his chiseled features were set hard, and he walked straight ahead without looking left or right. The back of his uniform cut a striking figure, with its shoulder line swooping up to a point at either side where the ruby stonesigns glittered.Spinel absently filled a bag of groundnuts for Ahn to weigh. His nose had an engaging crook in it, and his eyes were green as malachite, while his ragged shirt revealed a dark chest still bare of any stonesign to mark a decent trade. He was beginning to think of joining the regiment, to escape and seek his fortune far beyond this sleepy town.Something occurred to him about the strangers at the tree. Dreamily he watched one of them apply silken fibers to the spinninghead through her long webbed fingers. "In the ocean," he murmured. "That's where they come from."Melas stared at the youth. "You think I have cornstalks for ears? The bottom of the sea, eh? How does the mayor collect their taxes?""No, no," Spinel protested, as Ahn laughed so hard that her speckled stonesign shook around her neck. "I meant the other ocean. The Ocean Moon."Ahn's laughter faded. She rearranged some bunches of ripe grapes bright as amethysts, or bright as the bare arms of the strangers. "Shora, the Ocean Moon. That's where the traders get their best medicines."Shora, sapphire of the night sky, world whose sea had no shore.But Melas strode forward, trousers swishing, and shook a finger in Spinel's face. "I thought those moon creatures the traders know have gills and scales! Where are their fishtails?" ."So I've heard," Spinel admitted. "They descended from catfish, and they spin magic from seaweed.""A fishy tale, or I'm the Patriarch."Spinel's arm shot out, but Melas parried the blow and sent him tumbling onto the stand. A crate of onions slid off; Ahn shrieked and uttered curses while she stooped to gather the scattered bulbs in her apron. Flustered, Spinel seized his groceries and left.He drifted among the motley racks and stalls, where customers shouted and haggled, children played hide-and-seek though they should have been in school, and a robed Spirit Caller with a winking starstone received alms. He was sick of this, Spinel thought suddenly. Until he got a good stonesign, he would be left to running errands and sawing slabs in the stoneshop. He paused by a cage of silvery furredmonkeys, a delicacy he had tasted only once in his life. Then an odor of fish lured him to Tybalt's stand, where basins overflowed with thick pink fillets and tight clams."Pst, lad; over here." Tybalt waved him over, neck outstretched like a plucked chicken. "Hagfish go for three solidi today. Two-fifty, for you."Spinel rolled his tongue but said, "Not today, friend." His coins were spent for the day. Stonecutters were thought to own the stars, but a town like Chrysoport boasted few noble customers, and how many commoners could afford better than chip-flecked glass? His father's business was precarious at best, despite his mother's firm hand on the account books."Not today, eh?" the fishmonger repeated. "Wait. See that beauty on the cutting block?" Tybalt's knobby thumb pointed to a magnificent specimen laid out beside the cleaver. Still alive, its scales flashed as it writhed on the block. "Do me a favor, and she's yours."Spinel's eyes opened wide. The fish would last their stewpot for a week.Tybalt leaned over the table, and his stonesign swung forward. "See them foreigners at the firemerchant's tree? You've got a smooth tongue; get them to pick up and move, before it's too late. Trouble's bad for business."The request surprised him. Tybalt must be in debt to the firemerchant again. Watching the fish, Spinel sucked air through his teeth. "All right."He turned to the tree, whose foliage hung in thick folds like fishermen's nets. Slowly he approached the strange moonwomen. How should he address them? Their dress might be common, though it consisted of fine seasilk, now that he got a closer look. They wore no stonesigns, and not a single string of beads, which village women trailed in abundance. They must be noble; it was said that in Iridis noble ladies spun and wove for a pastime, despite their mechanical servitors and inexhaustible firecrystals.But what in Valedon would bring them here? He scratched the back of his neck, warm from the sun overhead.One moonwoman concentrated on the spinning wheel, her foot rhythmically pumping the pedal. Wrinkled violet skin lay between her toes, which were twice as long as Spinel's own. He shuddered despite himself.Her companion looked up at him from where she sat crosslegged on a mat of iridescent blue, while she pulled tufts of blue seasilk between a pair of wired cards. A gingery perfume wafted over, exotic and expensive-smelling. Spinel smiled uncertainly at the woman on the mat. If he addressed her as a lady, he decided, at worst she could laugh."My lady, I have an urgent matter to bring to your attention. To address you properly, may I ask your stonesign?" She must have at least one, if only to mark her noble house.The woman on the mat watched him without missing a stroke. Baldness accentuated her long, oval face; small ears pressed back closely to her head. Her broad, flat lips gave her a haughty appearance. "What is 'stonesign'?"The words fell distinctly, despite an odd cadence. The question, though, was nonsense. His face warmed; he must have guessed wrong. "Please, I'm just a stonecutter's son, and you know in a town like this a stonecutter lives on scraps, and I'm still assigned to my father. But the firemerchant's a different sort, and you're sitting under his best netleaf tree, and if you don't leave soon ..."She put down her carding and picked up a small vial whose contents she massaged into her arms and neck. "Sitting under tree, yes. What is 'stonecutter'?"By now, several villagers were lounging casually within earshot. Thoroughly confused, Spinel was about to run off when the other moonwoman rose from the spinning wheel and came toward him, her webbed feet flapping slightly. She stopped and rested a gentle hand on the shoulder of the seated one. She had the same streamlined ears and flat lips, but her face was round and delicate, and her cheekbones stood out like jewels cut en cabochon. Her straight nose sloped steeply, her chin was small and level, and up her neck rippled a pale, creased scar.She said, "I am called Merwen the Impatient One. My lovesharer is Usha the Inconsiderate," she added, caressing Usha's shoulder. "We do not wear stone, but our purpose here is to share learning.""Well, I'm Spinel, son of Cyan the stonecutter." Then he realized what Merwen had just said. "But to work, you must have a stonesign," he exclaimed. "You may as well go unclothed as without sign.""In that case, may we go unclothed?""Oh, no!" He recalled another tale from the moontraders and wished his tongue would not take off on its own. "'Share learning' ... are you schoolteachers, then?""Teachers, yes," said the one called Usha. "We must learn many things."Merwen said, "We call ourselves 'Sharers.'"A proverb popped into Spinel's head: The fool shares gold with a stranger. He rushed on, "You've got lots to learn about Chrysoport, so please believe me for now and get away from the firestore. Anywhere else in the square is fine."The Sharers exchanged words in a foreign tongue. Usha's expression changed, although it still told him nothing. "No other place," Usha said. "Whole world too dry.""Our skin dries out," Merwen explained. "The tree gives shade. Is there another tree?"Suddenly the onlookers vanished. From the wide mosaic tiled steps of the firestore, two guards strode briskly into the square.Spinel remembered his groceries left at Tybalt's, but it was too late. He sprinted and wove in among the shoppers until he returned, breathless, to hide behind Ahn's stall."You want to lose an eye, too?" the vegetable woman hissed at him. "Trouble draws you like a moth to a flame."
Most of the villagers scattered, as Guard Roald knew they would. That was for the best, since no bystanders would get in the way. Roald nodded to his subaltern. "We'll take the debtor first." The two men approached the fish stand where Tybalt sat hunched behind his cutting block."Once again, Tybalt, your account is overdue." The guard spoke offhand, as though it meant nothing to himself, personally."Sirs, I need time," the vendor said quickly. "Another week at most, while the hagfish are running--""You owe Rhodochron for three months' worth of crystal charge. Pay up today, or you're out of business." Roald leaned across the table."You won't take my fish, by the Patriarch!" With a desperate lunge, Tybalt leaped to his feet, wielding a cleaver.A blue streak met the knife and cut through the fish and block below, before it stopped. Dazed, Tybalt held onto his seared fingers.As Roald replaced the firewhip at his belt, he tried not to grimace atthe stench of burnt meat and wood. "Always a fool, Tybalt." He reached for the vendor's stonesign; the thin chain snapped. "We'll keep this, till you pay.""Pay?" Tybalt whispered. "How can I pay if I can't sell?""You'll find a way." They always did. With his subaltern, Roald turned to their next task: the squatters at Rhodochron's netleaf tree. The firemerchant disliked riffraff cluttering his storefront.The sight of the strangers, their purplish flesh and finlike hands, filled Roald with particular distaste although he had seen his share of outlandish customers pass Rhodochron's door. "You, there," he called. "You're obstructing the doorway of Lord Rhodochron, the Protector's appointed firemerchant to Chrysoport." From Iridis, he need not add, since all firecrystals legally came from nowhere else. "Give your names and signs and remove yourselves, and you'll get off with a warning."The creature at the spinning wheel raised a hand: spidery fingertips flickered grotesquely. The other creature rose and shuffled forward to stand behind her. "Merwen the Impatient," said the spinner. "And Usha the Inconsiderate.""And?" Inconsiderate they were, all right. Why not get this over with? If they expected him to go soft on a couple of women, they had another thing coming."We are Sharers from Shora."Roald frowned. "Shora? You mean the moon?"Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his subaltern shrug. "Could be. Always a first time."Shora, the Ocean Moon. Roald remembered, now. With their herbs and seasilk, moontraders brought holocubes of the women-like creatures who lived in the endless sea, women whose men were never seen, who subsisted on seaworms and could dive deep beyond light's reach without going mad. Roald had never, believed half of it. Now, a bit of myth had turned solid in front of him. He stood up straight. "Very well, Sharer. Where's your stonesign?" Her neck bore no mica chips to mark the textile guild."We have no stone. We weave but do not sell," Merwen explained. "We carry herbs, but we do not trade."The other asked, "Will coral or raftwood do?"Insolent as well as inconsiderate. "You've no business at all in the marketplace, then." Roald raised his firewhip in warning."You are a soldier," Merwen observed. "We too are soldiers, of a kind.""Moon soldiers?" Behind him his subaltern's weapon clicked to standby. The Ocean Moon was not officially under Valan authority, although Valan traders had done as they wished there for forty years. His eyes searched the Sharers. Sterilized Valan women often signed into armed service, but these two wore no uniforms. His eyes narrowed. "Show your weapons."Merwen spread her hands like fans. "What more do we need than what is ... inside?"Roald's patience snapped. "Enough talk. Pack up, now, or we'll do it for you, fast."The Sharers both became very still. The guard shot a dull orange flame to the ground at their feet; sparks flew up to leave black pinpoints smoldering on the base of the spinning wheel. Yet the creatures remained, transfixed, a mosaic frieze. Then color began to drain from their limbs and faces, dissolved like a spent wave upon the sand, and faded through lavender to white at last, the ghastly whiteness of a dead squid dredged from the sea. White they were, but not from fear."Sir," whispered his subaltern, "are they diseased?"Roald's skin crawled, and he shifted his weight back. Disease warfare--he knew its history, from the early days when entire planets could succumb to a single virus, and more than one had done so rather than submit to the rule of the Patriarch of Torr. Such a scourge had never touched Valedon, but who knew what still lurked on the uncharted moon? He thought suddenly of his young wife at home: two children, and her gene quotient would permit a third."Women, who are you? What do you want here? What do you bear inside?"No answer. Their bleached faces seemed to stare beyond him to the harbor where the rising tide splashed up at the docks.The firewhip fell to his side. Whatever lurked behind those fearless stares, Roald wanted no part of it, even if Rhodochron raged and sent him packing."Remember," he said curtly, "you've been warned." The two men walked stiffly from the square, their shoulder-tip rubies flashing in the midmorning sun.Copyright © 1986 by Joan Slonczewski
Excerpted from A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski Copyright © 2000 by Joan Slonczewski. Excerpted by permission.
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Joan Slonczewski lives in Gambier, Ohio and teaches biology at Kenyon College.
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