Joan Slonczewski’s “A Door Into Ocean” and C.S. Lewis’ “Out of the Silent Planet”










On the face of it, Joan Slonczewski and C.S. Lewis make an odd pair. The first is a living American microbiologist writing highly technical science fiction in environmental, feminist, lesbian, and pacifist streams, while the second was a British literary historian writing Christian scientifiction in the modernist strain with little care for hard science. Both academics, as their research was so different, A Door Into Ocean (Door, 1987) is a much different kind of book than Out of the Silent Planet (OSP, 1937).

Despite this, there are some similarities between the book. OSP is the story of a clueless English academic kidnapped while on holiday and taken to another planet, Malacandra, to be sacrificed by the native population to their gods. Breaking an age-long silence between the planets, men have finally found the technological means out of their world. The desire to invade Malacandra is split between the motivations of the two main villains: one wishes to protect the human race by spreading it among the stars, while the other wants gold. Neither a full-scale colonization project nor the complete extraction of Malacadra’s resources takes place as the men from earth stand trial to test their humanity. They are found to be human, but bent, and are ejected from the planet.

A Door Into Ocean is also the story of two-fold invasion upon a peaceful planet. For 10,000 years, Shora has silently circled the patriarchal, capitalistic planet of Valedon, itself a part of a galaxy-wide empire ruled by the Patriarch. Sharers, the inhabitants of Shora, have been genetically designed to work in synchronicity with the delicately balanced ecosystem of the planet. In one way, they are absolutely unequipped to deal with an armed invasion and occupation by Valedon. They have no weapons to resist the forces, and causing death through fighting the occupiers would bring death to their own humanity.

As the book develops, the occupation brutalizes the “native” population of Shora, with no resistance except protest and an offer of healing. The suspicion grows through the book that only two kinds of people who would fail to resist when being overtaken: those with no weapons or those with a weapon too frightening to use. The occupiers must balance those chances and their own personal prejudices and ambitions as they look at themselves in the mirrors during the genocide of Shora.

Already the similarities abound. Both books invert the Martian invasion story making the civilization that we know a thin and violent thing next to the native races they encounter in the skies. Though the Sharers of Shora are decended from the ancestors of Valens and far more human-like than the three races of Malecandra, the native inhabitants of both worlds are animalian people that look like they live in primitive communities. The primitive communities of small huts, primitive tools, and hunter-gatherer ways betray their access to sophisticated technologies that grow out of their relationship to their planet, as opposed to Valen and Thulcandran (Earth-like) technocracies that all have an environmental cost. Both invaded cultures resist Earth-like capitalism, though both engage in various kinds of trade.

And both books are really about what it means to be human.

The most striking aspect of comparison is that instinct of connectivity among native, non-capitalistic populations over against European-style civilization. Both present alternative cultures to our own—peoples with personality, troubles, ingenuity, and a rugged sense of who they are. These are not mere utopias, though. In both stories, the experimental base of these native cultures is unavailable to readers, as each planet has been shaped and framed for a particular kind of peacemaking, relational trust, and technological development in harmony with indigenous life that is unknown to us. The gentle and creative alien races act like a mirror to highlight critical weaknesses in our own worldviews.

In both books, that contrast is highlighted by artificial restrictions in the language. The Sharers of Shora are restricted in that the grammar of their language disallows a certain kind of violence, in the same way that Old Solar requires a certain mythic respect for Maleldil in its very structure. Both lack words like evil, duty, and murder, and in translation to the native tongue, the plain English highlights the deeply problematic approach of colonization according to the Western civilizational pattern. It is a clever technique, though not very subtle in either book.

A Door Into Ocean is a far more complex project than what Lewis attempted—not just in its technical framework, but in its exploration of culture and human experience. While Out of the Silent Planet is a breezy space adventure that cuts the knees out of a philosophy that did not live as long as its generation, A Door Into Ocean is a deep, philosophical exploration of questions that remain central to us 30 years later. Readers might be tempted to disregard Lewis’ science fiction because of its Christian framework, and the temptation is similar with A Door Into Ocean work. If not considered carefully, Slonczewski’s structure of a female only peaceful world look tiresomely sexist (as does Lewis’ male-led world). While both books are affected by the culture of their time, neither is worse for its ideological centre—even if they each get a little preachy at times.

Though I’m always cautioning about the problem of moralistic art, I actually think it is their message that provides the strength in the moral dilemmas of both the characters and the reader. While both Christians, Lewis’ Anglicanism shaped him differently than Slonczewski’s Quakerism, but this may be one of the links between the books. Each author is working from a rooted worldview that they believe has ethical implications for a mass culture that has largely rejected what they believe to be central. It is one of the things that science fiction is good for, to use C.S. Lewis’ language.

I know that not everyone sees it this way, but I am partial to the ideas they are teasing out about technology, political leadership, faith, and gender equality. There are weaknesses in the books besides a bit of soapboxing. Lewis’ character development hasn’t reached its height yet, leaving Ransom as flat against a vertically-oriented landscape. Slonczewski’s ending to the crisis is unsatisfactory, and has the same effect of disappearing the problem that Lewis shares in OSP, though in Lewis’ Field of Arbol there is a logic for that, Protectors of the planets that can intervene. The question of providence remains unanswered in A Door Into Ocean, so the ending is far too tight for satisfaction (though it is the ending I wanted most).

Besides quibbles, there is an intriguing connection between these two authors on different ends of the social spectrum and on either sides of the golden age of SciFi. They are two books worth reading together.

Joan Lyn Slonczewski is an American microbiologist at Kenyon College and a science fiction writer who explores biology and space travel. Her books have twice earned the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel: A Door into Ocean (1987) and The Highest Frontier (2011). With John W. Foster she coauthors the textbook, Microbiology: An Evolving Science (Norton). She explores her ideas of biology, politics, and artificial intelligence at her blog Ultraphyte (wikipedia bio).

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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13 Responses to Joan Slonczewski’s “A Door Into Ocean” and C.S. Lewis’ “Out of the Silent Planet”

  1. At some point, actually that point has to come very soon, we are going to have to do the work that Malcolm Guite speaks of in the concluding essay in The Inklings and King Arthur, to lose something that we are profoundly tempted to believe is essential to our survival. The alliance of Weston and Devine is descriptive both of the past history of western colonialism which includes the various subjugations within our societies that you allude to in Slonczweski and also to recognise that it is a process that is ongoing. We are in love with, and in thrall to, the tools for domination that we create, and which, like the Ring, slowly rob us of life.

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  9. brambonius says:

    I know I’m a few years too late for this blogpost, but I just read ‘A Door into Ocean’ and I was thinking a lot about the second part of Lewis’ space trilogy, for more worldbuilding reasons, although the ‘first contact with innocent race’ is still present in a way. (only without the war part like that) But something about floating islands, weirdly coloured women that are naked but not in a sexual way, and indeed the language barrier issues that are present in OOTSP too made me wonder if Slonczewski was influenced by the space trilogy, although they have opposite views on gender.
    Another book that I was reminded of but that can hardly be an influence is ‘kinderen van moeder Aarde’ by Thea Beckman (1985, still untranslated into English) about a matriarchal and pacifist paradisical temperate Greenland a millenium after WWIII in conflict with a very patriarchal colonial European empire. The same question about ‘are they human’ does arise in a way, and (even more in the 2 following books) the lament that being forced to defend themselves and using (some kind of )violence and killing is already a bit of destroying them by taking away their conscience. That struggle is very present in ‘A door into Ocean’ too.
    I’m not sure why both books make a nonviolent country so female though, as a man I’d prefer such a society too…


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