Clarke reimagined in hot pink: Tanith Lee’s Biting the Sun

After reading Against the Fall of Night, I felt like reading something else set at the end of time, but this time with some girls in it. Tanith Lee’s Biting the Sun was the obvious and immediate selection. Re-reading it with that in mind, I wonder if this may have been Lee’s intention in writing it.

My friend Hergal had killed himself again. This was the fortieth time he had crashed his bird-plane on to the Zeefahr Monument and had to have a new body made. And when I went to visit him at Limbo, I was wandering around for ages before the robot found him for me. He was dark this time, about a foot taller with very long hair and a moustache all glittery gold fibres, and these silly wings growing out of his shoulders and ankles.

It’s the far future. Humanity is confined to three very similar domed cities (the interestingly named Four Bee, Boo, and Baa) the rest of the Earth is desert. Robots do everything. People are essentially immortal, and decadent. We have an adolescent protagonist. So far, so very similar to Clarke. After that point, everything is different. Lee’s work is first person, up front, immersive, immediate, individual, and anything but distant. Her version of humanity has not been genetically engineered into contemplative asexuality and aeons of quiet dreaming—anything but. Lee gives us a slangy rebellious girl with a taste for sex and drugs and changing gender. This is the subversive feminist version of the desert city with robots at the end of time.

The normal life-cycle in Lee’s world is for the life-spark (or soul) to begin as a child, with at least one involved parent, or maker. The child goes to hypno-school and is educated. After this, the child becomes “Jang,” adolescent, and is expected to stay at this stage for a century or two. Beyond that they become “Older People” and live a different lifestyle for some centuries until they’re sufficiently bored with life to wipe their memory and return to childhood, this time with a robot parent.

Robots do everything. There’s nothing significant for people to do. At one point we’re shown people “working” where they have to press buttons—and if they don’t press them, they pop up anyway in half a minute. This really is makework and futility. Even art is entirely computer-mediated—and when the protagonist tries to make a sculpture without that mediation, it falls to bits. There’s no work, there’s no art, robots have it all. This is an early take on the problem of post-scarcity leisure, and as such it also makes an interesting comparison with John Barnes A Million Open Doors or Karl Schoeder’s Ventus. If you can do anything you want and have anything you want, but none of it matters, what do you want to do or have?

There’s nothing in this world for humans to do except eat, shop, take drugs, dream designer dreams, follow fashion, and have sex, for which they get married for periods varying between one afternoon and forty days. Jang are supposed to sabotage things from time to time, and even that isn’t any fun, and doesn’t really achieve anything. Life’s a cycle of romance, drugs and sex, no wonder people are killing themselves in droves. There’s no scarcity of anything, and you pay for things with grovelling thanks. If you think of some work you could do, you have to apply for permission, and you’ll find the robots have already got it covered.

Clarke’s robots are wise, ageless, inscrutable and have the good of humanity at heart. Lee’s are petulant, have personalities, and are not beyond cheating on their programming. They’re sure they know best, after all. Clarke’s are wise servants, Lee’s are stifling over-controlling parents. This may not be as good for the characters, but it does make for more conflict.

Life for humans is, on the surface, glittering and fascinating. There are about six words of new slang, giving a brave illusion of a new dialect. Almost everyone lives in a palace. Fashion is constantly changing. You can have a completely new body designed, and wake up in it right away. You should do this no more than every thirty days, but you can short-circuit the process by committing suicide if you’re impatient. Killing yourself creatively and designing interesting bodies are almost the only real art forms. You can change gender as easily as you can change height, weight, hair and skin colour. Most people have a gender preference, but it tends to be fairly mild. One character describes himself as “eighty percent male” and only appears as female once in the novel; others switch gender as often as clothing. This is done brilliantly, because it’s accepted so casually. It bears comparison with the best of Varley’s Eight Worlds stories.

The book has an interesting title history. It was originally published in the US as Dont Bite the Sun (1976) and Drinking Sapphire Wine (1977). I own a 1979 UK (Hamlyn) edition of both volumes bound in one cover as Drinking Sapphire Wine. More recent editions include both books but use the name Biting the Sun. I think of it as Drinking Sapphire Wine, as that’s what it’s said on my copy every time I’ve read it for almost thirty years, but they’re both great titles. Biting the Sun refers to a shard found in an archaeological site our protagonist spends time at in her quest for relevance. The shard bears the message “Do not bite the sun! It will burn your mouth,” which she interprets as not fighting the system—which she nevertheless continues to fight throughout the book. The sapphire wine is the water of Lethe which will let you forget who you are and begin again at childhood.

Unlike Against the Fall of Night, I’ve re-read this at reasonably frequent intervals. I think it’s fair to say that I like it a lot more—but then I am a sucker for characters and events in a book, and Clarke’s is pretty much pure atmosphere. I adore Lee’s first person unnamed protagonist. I re-read it to visit with her and her world for a while. She’s predominantly female and has been Jang for about twenty-five years and is sick of it. She has a circle of friends and a life that doesn’t contain anything real. At the beginning of the book she steals a pet, a desert animal. The first volume is about her search for meaning in her life, and the difference her pet makes; the second volume is largely about her living alone and making the desert bloom. You can see that as growing up, in a very limited way, I suppose.

I don’t know quite what it says about gender expectations that while Clarke’s protagonist looks outside the city and causes a renaissance, Lee’s settles for a garden.


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