Sep 12 2008 1:48pm

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.

Stephanie Chaplin
1. Plate
I love this book -- it has been on my favorites list since sixth grade.
It's not the most complicated book (I read mostly hard sci fi), but the characters keep making me want to re-read it.

I have lent it many times, and thus have bought this book at least three times.
Teka Lynn
2. Teka Lynn
Well, it could be said that Lee's protagonist does indeed kickstart a Renaissance. If nothing else, s/he manages to set up the world's coolest commune and attract the best and brightest (as well as the dullest and druggiest) to it while giving the robots collective apoplexy.
Lis Riba
3. lisriba
Thanks for reviving fond memories; I have these books as two paperbacks.

For what it's worth, when I read Scott Westerfeld's Uglies, it gave me a strong vibe reminiscent of this story.
Paul Howard
4. DrakBibliophile
While it's been awhile since I read these books, they met my number one standard for a Good Read.

I wondered what would happen next.

Drak Bibliophile
Teka Lynn
5. vcmw
I love this book! As a kid what I remember most being struck with was the one character who refuses repeatedly to be beautiful, and the character conflict between him and the narrator. It was Beauty and the Beast-like, but from an angle my teen brain had never thought of.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
VCMW: Hatta, my favourite character, and yes, one of th4e cleverest things in the book, I agree.
James Nicoll
7. JamesDavisNicoll
Do we actually know the the Clarke and Lee are set in different universe? Maybe by Diaspar's time the robots had just become far more subtle in their manipulation of the humans (and of course we know where Lys has to have come from).
Wesley Parish
8. Aladdin_Sane
I've got Drinking Sapphire Wine, and enjoyed it thoroughly, though this is the first time I've ever seen it in apposition to Against the Fall of Night.

I have to agree, though. It makes sense.

The best thing I liked about it was the sexual identity/ambiguity. If you can rebuild yourself on order, sexual identity is going to be a damn sight different from the prebuilt-and-hardwired H. Saps of the present day. And the characters - Tanith Lee's got the characters in strength and the strength in characters, but not much deep time poetry, while Arthur C. Clarke's the very opposite.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
James: What an interesting idea!

In Lee's universe there's no hint of them going out into space and having an empire and coming back, indeed there's no hint of the possibility of anything off the surface of the planet at all. And Clarke's characters aren't interested in changing gender, but I can just see that being something the robots had decided to genetically engineer away -- which they'd be in a perfect position to do.

Clarke expects one to take the benevolence of his robots on faith.
Natalie Costa Bir
10. taelian
This is one of my favourite books, alongside The Silver Metal Lover (also by Tanith Lee). What I like most about it, beside the imagined world, is the connection the protagonist has with the Pet. And the way she feels about it and the way it affects her life in a very important way. I always felt that Lee had captured the bond between a person and their pet beautifully. And I think Lee's description of the desert blooming is wonderfully poetic.
I was also very amused by the way her Bee would always fall on her head.
Teka Lynn
11. Jinx Jang
...The title of the book is "Don't Bite The Sun"...

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