"Door Into Ocean" is a subset of sci-fi, "varying humanoids on multiple planets." It follows a young adult human from a patriarchal planet as he interacts with the single-sex pacifist egalitarian race of the nearest planet, becoming involved in their efforts to maintain balance on their planet and resist exploitation. It includes themes of: ecological balance, consensus versus coercion, economic exploitation, phallocentric perceptions of sex versus relational perceptions, language as it creates and defines culture, definitions of mental illness, and responsibility as it relates to adulthood, self-knowledge, and civic identity.
Honestly I can't express just how intensely I love this book. I just finished my fourth re-read, and I got more from it than ever before. It is an amazing allegory on so many different levels, most of all about the nature of hierarchy and reciprocity. I love the thoroughness of world-building, the depth and evolution of characters, the variety of personalities, and the many layers of meaning. If I could get everyone to read one fiction book, this would be the one I would choose.
Content note: a possible trigger is a rape that happens on page 266. It's very briefly described, and in terms of the victim's point of view. No detail or attempt at glamorizing.
Characters: The characters are all cis, all non-disabled, almost all normatively sized. The main characters consist of: Spinel, a poor, occasionally homeless dark-skinned straight man; Merwen, Usha, and Lystra who are queer, agender, bald, purple female humanoids with webbed hands and feet (Sharers); Lady Berenice who is an upper-class, rich & powerful straight white woman; and Realgar who is a rich & powerful straight white man. The characterizations are complex, showing not only who the characters are now and through the events of the book, but also enough history to deeply understand their motivations, even for the antagonists (without being so much history that it distracts from the flow of the plot).
Point of view: 3rd person, following Spinel, Merwen, and Berenice by turns.
Imagination: Concepts I hadn't seen before [[[possible spoilers in this paragraph]]] included language with no subject-object relationship where instead all relationships are reciprocal; a single-sex race who reproduce exclusively through genetic science; clothing as a shameful kind of dishonesty; skin-dwelling microbes that function as a scuba tank; microbes designed to eat pollutants; insects and cetaceans used to communicate over distance; carved stones used to signify rank and occupation throughout the culture (even among the poor); many other aspects! [[[end spoilers]]]
This is the most imaginative book I have ever read in the sense that the author created a unique humanoid race and considered their environment thoroughly in relation to the design of their bodies and the development of their culture. As a pacifist, egalitarian communal culture, there were NO obvious inconsistencies.
Issues: the biggest issue I saw was the conflation of mental illness and desire to control or cause harm. While it might make sense in a world that sees pacifism and respect as the healthy norm, it still reproduces the modern stereotype that says people who kill are all mentally ill and mentally ill people are dangerous. I think this should have been handled differently. I also was disturbed to note some fat-phobic description of the one person who was described as large - but that was only one line of the book.
Plot: The plot was a little slow for the first 20 pages, but then settled into a steady, active pace that got a little nerve-wracking but never so slow that I was tempted to skim. There was nothing I noticed that seemed superfluous.
Setting: Mostly this takes place on Shora, a world of ocean with natural rafts which grow on top of the water and form the dwelling places for Sharers. A small part of it takes place on Valedon, a planet of multiple cultures which serves the Patriarch. The Patriarch is considered a god, and acts as an interplanetary authority which enforces a certain level of scientific control to prevent humans from engaging in widespread damage (such as biological or nuclear warfare).
Dialogue: There's only a bit more description than dialogue, making this a fairly easy read. The dialogue is varied from character to character and through the development of the book, as well. It passes the Bechdel test with ease.
Writing style: The style is simple, clear, and matter-of-fact, with a good bit of omniscient exposition. Sensations and emotions are given by narration, which for me makes them feel more of a fact of the story and thus weaves all the characters together in a tapestry of feeling, thinking, sensing.
Length, cover: 403 pages in trade paperback. The cover pictures a bald pink-white person in a water tank, with webbed fingers and a tiny fly inexplicably in the water. The artist clearly did not read what the Sharers are supposed to look like. Why is there a white person on the cover? Sharers are dark purple most of the time. Why is the fly in water? Why is this person modestly covering their body in a way a Sharer would never do? I would guess it is supposed to be a clickfly, but they're supposed to be the size of a dinner plate. The original cover for the mass-market paperback is far better. The feel of the cover is weird, as the person is captured and a gun is propped against the door, but the person looks content and self-conscious. I don't know what message i am meant to take from it but I hate it.
Author: Joan Slonczewski, feminist, white, age 30 at the time of writing this in 1986, Quaker, cisgender, seemingly straight woman from northeast US.
Context of this reviewer: White, afab, genderfree, trans, queer, non-disabled, poly, add-pi neurodivergent, poor, intersectional feminist, age 32, from southern US.