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Slonczewski, Joan

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1956-    ) US professor of biology, specializing in genetics, and author who began publishing sf with her first novel, Still Forms on Foxfield (1980), a tale in which most of her subsequent concerns take initial shape. A human community of Quakers, having fled an apparently doomed Earth and having establishing on the planet Foxfield a sane and Ecology-obedient relationship with the native species, is contacted centuries later by a Technologically resurgent humanity and must now deal with the challenge to its ways. Significantly, the book deals not with rediscovery – an old and typically triumphalist sf theme – but with being discovered (see Imperialism).

This angle of approach also provides background and continuing drama to the series by which she is best known, the Elysium Chronicles sequence comprising A Door into Ocean (1986), which won the John W Campbell Memorial Award, Daughter of Elysium (1993), The Children Star (1998) and Brain Plague (2000). The planet (in fact a moon) is in this case a water-covered Utopia inhabited solely by parthenogenetic web-footed aquatic female Shorans (ie Women in SF by proxy) whose pacific culture suffers a savage Invasion at the hands of the male-dominated rigidly-hierarchical culture from the neighbouring planet of Valedon, whose leader is called the Patriarch. The dualistic simplicities of this confrontational setting soon complexify, however, and though the book teaches some sharp Feminist lessons en passant, by the end of the tale accommodations have been reached; the Linguistic determinism shaping the Shoran culture is implausible but entrancing: so immersively in contact are Shorans with their world that their language lacks transitive verbs (for every act is a merciful sharing), which makes it hard to talk to males. The sequels, each of them set significantly further along the timeline of this universe, build coherently from the first volume, and deal with different issues and challenges. Daughter of Elysium features several contrasting societies – at some cost to narrative vigour – whose conflicts seem initially schematic, with Shorans (in whose language the word for "woman" is "goddess") complicatedly at odds with the Immortal childless hedonic Elysians, and with the detested males from Urulan, who torture females. But again this easy dualism erodes into a set of portraits of complex personalities facing complex issues. Though Thought Experiment simplistics overpower the series at points, it should be noted that Slonczewski's Biological speculations are both soundly based and tightly argued; and that plotting is never, in fact, forgotten. In The Children Star a male-entrepreneur attempts to purchase (and presumably Terraform) a seemingly defenceless planet, whose Secret Masters are, however, finally induced to provide a comeuppance; and in Brain Plague a sharing of body and consciousness intriguingly unites a human female artist and the ten thousand "micros" who have been installed in her body, and who have created a raucous civilization that almost drives her crazy before a commensal concord is achieved.

Two further singletons are also of interest. The Wall around Eden (1989) is set on a devastated Post-Holocaust Earth where survivors are kept alive in Keeps by an Alien civilization (which humans, typically, believe may itself have started World War Three), providing its female protagonist with numbing challenges of comprehension, for the gaseous balloon-like Aliens may in fact be decorticate extensions of a single Hive Mind. The alien Teleportation devices allow the plot (and protagonist) to wander geographically, and to discover a kind of Garden of Eden in orbit, but a central, unassuming but deeply felt concern with Ecology as interwoven with human Religion powerfully shapes the active story. From the slightly sentimentalized burden of her first book, Slonczewski moved rapidly with this tale into supple command of her ample concerns. A later apparent singleton for the Young Adult market, The Highest Frontier (2011), which may be the first volume of the Frontera sequence, was a joint winner of the John W Campbell Memorial Award. It is set in a multiply transformed Near Future, with new Technologies both aiding and afflicting Homo sapiens; the protagonist, a student in the orbital Frontera college, copes with school, her political heritage (her surname is Kennedy), and much else. There are useful touches of Satire. [JC]

see also: Internet; Pastoral; Under the Sea.

Joan Lyn Slonczewski

born Hyde Park, New York: 14 August 1956



Elysium Cycle

individual titles


  • The Helix and the Hard Road (Seattle, Washington: Aqueduct Press, 2013) with Jo Walton [coll: includes some nonfiction and some poetry: in the WisCon Guest of Honor Offerings series: pb/various artists]


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