A couple of years ago I was reading A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski and when I came to the end, I thought to myself, "they don't make them like this any more." Most obviously, they literally don't make them like that any more; published in 1986 and winner of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, it is now out of print. Instead I found my secondhand copy of The Women's Press edition, published as part of their dedicated science fiction imprint, in a charity shop. This too speaks of another time, a time when feminist presses were plentiful, mainstream, and sufficiently resourced in cash and talent to be able to publish dozens of female SF writers. A couple of decades after the imprint ended, its publications are still highly prominent amongst the secondhand stock of London. Despite their good work, you are unlikely to be able to say the same about Aqueduct Press in the future. For British SF at least, it seemed as if half of humanity had become a niche.
More than anything, I was thinking of the content though. A Door Into Ocean depicts not just a feminist society but a radical ecofeminist, pacifist utopia. In the context of contemporary SF, it seemed both incendiary and deeply, sadly, old-fashioned. Since reading Slonczewski's novel, I've been yearning for a modern version—something unabashedly aspirational—and, at first, Astra by Naomi Foyle promised to be that book. It is tantalizingly close, but Foyle had other plans and deliberately subverts her story which, for me, makes it less subversive. Nor is it literary fiction of the type a front cover quote from the Poetry Book Society and funding logo from Arts Council England might suggest. Yet it is still an unusual and appealing novel and does perhaps point towards the emergence of a new breed of core genre British publishing.
Astra lives with her Shelter parents in Or, a village community on the periphery of Is-Land. It is a couple of hundred years hence, the inevitable collapse has occurred, and the world's reconfigured states are finding their own way through the future. The Is-Landers are following the path of their forefathers in the Welsh mountains to create a sustainable techno-pagan paradise. As the novel opens, the project is well advanced and—seen through eight-year-old Astra's eyes—is an attractive proposition. Surprisingly so. I can't be the only science fiction reader who has to suppress an involuntary shudder at the subtitle "The Gaia Chronicles," and there are moments when that instinctive prejudice is deserved:
World websites are bad for us. They go on and on forever, and if you get lost in them you forget how to listen to Gaia. That's partly what caused the Dark Time. People were so busy tweeting online, they didn't hear that the birds had stopped singing. (p. 191)
This is too cute, as is an earlier pop culture reference of the type post-collapse SF is addicted to: "he'd laughed and said Astra was his warrior princess from an Old World fairy tale" (p. 65). I also raised an eyebrow or several at "oh my dewy meadow" as default expression of disbelief. Then again, who really thought "oh my days" would be the next "omg" in the youth lexicon? But the fact these quibbles stand out is testament to Foyle's canniness in avoiding the pitfalls of both rote SF and para-genre woo. One of her most significant successes in Astra is in undercutting the potential tweeness of her scenario. So, for example, we read:
Between his legs his soft Gaia plough was drooping on its wrinkly seed bag. Sheba's Code had come from there—well, half of it, the other half from Nimma's egg, which was hidden in a nest deep inside her Gaia garden. (p. 67)
Nudity is the natural state of Is-Landers since they lack the shame of religion or the vanity of capitalism. Admirable stuff but that language could get tiresome very quickly. Instead Foyle immediately continues:
You weren't allowed to touch adults' Gaia ploughs or Gaia gardens. They were like expensive microscopes or Owleons: important, delicate things that only other adults could play with. (ibid)
So much for humorless feminists. Instead Foyle creates a society where the current margins are the mainstream in a way that seems sensible and exciting rather than righteous and po-faced (as can be the case with evangelical advocates of such lifestyles). So, for example, the earthships of low-impact New Mexicans become a ubiquitous form of housing and veganism becomes universal through the handy technological fix of vat-grown alt-meat. It doesn't last, though.
Iain M. Banks once said something to the effect that utopia is dull, hence all the Culture novels being set outside of the Culture itself. I'm not so sure and I always regretted the fact he never wrote an entirely domestic episode. But even if he was right with respect to his millennia-old post-scarcity society, Is-Land is a utopia that is only just blossoming and is absolutely fascinating. However, Foyle is equally quick to introduce dramatic tension to solve this so-called problem by introducing a snake into the garden. This comes in the form of eugenics: an extension of the genetic engineering prowess that bankrolls the country. The state decides to "vaccinate" all children to create a stronger, more emotionally resilient, and more intellectually compliant generation to ensure its perpetuity. Astra's third Shelter parent, an eminent scientist, arranges for her to skip the shot and so preserve her creativity (and humanity).
That is act one. It turns out Astra is a three-act novel where Astra grows from child to tween to teenager. As we move through the parallel marketing categories of Children, Middle Grade, and Young Adult, utopia is unpeeled by her presence. Both Astra and Astra are reconfigured by going through puberty and it is the second act where the hormones really kick in:
Play time! Who were these people? She was nearly thirteen. She didn't need to muck about in a frigging playground, let alone an unwashed, meat-eating, Non-Lander spy. Her face was blazing hot and she wanted to jump up, stamp and yell and throw her knitting across the room. (p. 156)
This is where the book promises something even better than a new A Door Into Ocean: the possibility of an SF Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. I read quite a bit of YA and I'm always surprised at how cagey it is about the actual experience of adolescence. How childish it is. So it is nice to see a science fiction novel—crucially one not marketed as YA—taking the Judy Blume approach and confronting angst, lust, alienation, and jealousy (and, of course, menstruation and masturbation) head on.
Lil shrugged that minimalist shrug again. "You're still quite undeveloped."
What? Just because Lil's breasts were a fraction bigger than hers didn't make Astra undeveloped. "We don't make remarks like that here in Or," she announced icily. "Everyone develops in their own time."
For a moment, what looked suspiciously like a sneer distorted Lil's face. "Sorry," she said. "I meant, you're young still." (p. 160)
Whattabitch. Lil is that Non-Lander spy Astra was complaining about; in reality she is not an underage infiltrator but rather the child of a refusenik. She exists to expand Astra's horizons in several directions, notably politically and erotically. "Lil's breath smelled of the carrot cake, sweet and spicy, and her breasts were brushing against Astra's arm. They felt soft and mysterious, as if even Lil didn't know what they were doing" (p. 197). This is genuinely a better world; a happy, healthy society that gives children the space and support to become adults. However, these liberal social beliefs are not just moral codes but codified rules and you just have to scratch the surface to find a strong authoritarian streak:
Woodland Siesta will be supervised by two teachers at all times. However, Gaia play is by its nature private and the teachers will be based in the main shelter. Students will therefore be responsible for monitoring their own and others' behavior, and are expected to report any infractions immediately to the supervisors. In addition, all Gaia play in the Woodland huts and clearings will be recorded by unmanned closed-circuit cameras. Footage will be auto-scanned by the latest Gaia play recognition software and images that pass inspection will be immediately erased. (p. 206)
This is the sort of paternalist state which would make any libertarian—whether of the right, left, or MacLeodian variety—reach for their revolver. The Maoist menstruation celebration, the "Blood & Seed ceremony," that follows might prove too much for anybody.
Astra has her first period at the ceremony: "It wasn't wee. It wasn't Gaia play juice. It was black" (p. 274). This is considered extremely lucky. "Astra stared into the lens and placed her hand between her legs. She thrust her dripping red palm out towards the camera and up into air. The cheer of the crowd intensified and their clapping became rhythmic in time to the chant" (p. 275). This would be unnerving enough but crescendo of the ceremony goes even further: "The officer was smoothing the stencil over her perineum now, holding it down with two finger. Then, with the other hand, heesh was taking the laser gun from hir belt" (p. 277). Yes, becoming a citizen involves civil defense officers burning the emblem of the state into your genitals. This sort of fetish porn take on the Hitlerjugend would sink a weaker book. The reason Astra survives is because Astra embraces it; conformity and subjugation are not sins so long as they are consensual; it is the forced indoctrination that is Is-Land's crime. Foyle holds open the possibility that this deeply alien culture still has the capacity to be utopian.
But we are obviously pretty firmly in YA dystopia territory when the third act dawns. Astra is now seventeen and it is time for her secret to emerge (as we have always known it must). This is the shortest and weakest section of the novel because it is the most familiar. It may be the case that all happy families are alike whereas every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way but it is the opposite in SF. The dystopias all tend to resemble one another whereas the promise of paradise is more personal.
Astra feels special because she is special. This is not just the lack of vaccination that is central to the plot but the example of her being chosen by Gaia above. She feels like the world is out to get her because the world really is out to get her. The lone teen who holds the secret to defeating the state in the face of impotent and uncomprehending adults; we've read it a thousand times and it flattens the ambiguity of the rest of the book. This is particularly true of the gradual but extreme transformation of the mother-loving Is-Landers into jackbooted hippies over the course of the novel. The ambiguity that remains is why Foyle has taken this approach to her society. Beyond destroying utopia merely for the sake of drama, the cumulative impact of a number of things lurking under the skin of the novel imply a direct political parallel is intended.
Is-Land is situated between "Himalaya" and "Neuropa"—that is to say, in the Middle East. It is a small country funded by refugees from persecution. It is richer than its surrounding countries. It has compulsory military service at eighteen to protect its encircling Boundary from its ideologically opposed neighbors and it punishes traitors with life imprisonment ("at the bottom of a concrete well" [p.314]). Both types of enemies, it is suggested, are as much sinned against as sinners. I can't say whether an analogy to Israel is intended but it is hard to ignore. Nothing is yet made of it, however.
This adds to the sense that the ending, which sees Astra exiled from Or, is less conclusion than prologue. Which, of course, is exactly what it is; book two of The Gaia Chronicles will be out at some point in the near future. Allow me to don my rose-tinted spectacles once more: A Door Into Ocean wasn't the first volume of a trilogy. Nor was The Female Man by Joanna Russ or Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy or most of the other titles The Women's Press published in the eighties.
In contrast, a quick inventory of the titles I've reviewed for Strange Horizons since 2013 reveals that only one of the six titles was published as an actual novel; that is to say a discrete piece of prose rather than a serialized installment. I'd have to go back to 2008 to find a debut novel that was not part of a series and notably that was a book from a non-genre publisher. (Hats off to Foyle since her debut novel, Seoul Survivors, was a standalone; I'm not sure how she persuaded Jo Fletcher of that one but obviously it couldn't last.) I keep mentioning this because it remains worth mentioning but this is clearly the world we are living in. If Astra, as a story, shows the dangers of seeking perfection, it might also, as an artifact of the industry, show how the world of commercial genre publishing is getting a bit better within its constraints.
Which brings me to my final and most important point about A Door Into Ocean: it isn't actually a classic. Rather it is a fascinating, thought-provoking novel with multiple flaws that emerged from a rich soup of talent. In recent years, this pool has seemed more like thin gruel, both in its lack of diversity and limited ambitions. Since 2013, however, we have seen the launch of Jo Fletcher Books (publishing Foyle, Karen Lord, and Stephanie Saulter) and Del Rey UK (Kameron Hurley and E. J. Swift). These build on the pioneering work of Angry Robot (Madeline Ashby and Lauren Beukes) to create a cohort of medium-sized, risk-taking commercial publishers who have put the larger houses to shame. Here's to more fascinatingly flawed mainstream science fiction novels that dare to be different.
Martin Lewis lives in East London. His reviews have appeared in venues including Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He is the current reviews editor for Vector, and blogs at Everything Is Nice.