Book Review: Don’t Bite the Sun, Tanith Lee (1976)

(Brian Froud’s cover for the 1st edition)

3.75/5 (Good)

My friend Hergal had killed himself again. This was the fortieth time he had crashed his bird-plane on the Zeefahr Monument and had to have a new body made” (9).

Tanith Lee’s Don’t Bite the Sun (1976) posits a post-scarcity future  replete with advanced technology where youth, the Jang, are encouraged (and “taught” via hypno-schools) to engage in various forms of excess. The nameless female Jang narrator (N) attempts to find life’s purpose in a society without rules, struggle, or religion.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

In cities surrounded by desert sand and the hidden ruins of ancient habitation, humans deploy technology to satiate all their whims. There are three groups of “humans.” The Jang, or the youth, In Limbo, new bodies are made for the Jang who commit suicide and others who want a change in costume or gender (9). The Jang, allowed to engage in all forms of excess, break rules without repercussion, experience incredible dreams on whatever topic their might desire, speak in “Jang Essential Experience jargon” (17), purge their “negative motivational reflexes” in dimension altering palaces (33), and get married for short lengths of time in order to have sexual relations with whoever they want (35).

Old People, the post-Jang state, are allowed to have children and pursue simple jobs (of course, backed up entirely by machines!). They too are able to change gender, have orgies, and new bodies… The third and final “human” state are Quasi-Robots, who are humanoid androids: “living flesh motivated by electrodes, metallic plasma, and a steel brain, built into the cells as they grow” (80) Q-R’s oversee society and pander to their charges’ desires.

It is into this world our narrator attempts to chart her own path. N, in a fit of depression, or, as she calls it, her “Neurotic Need” (16), she breaks free from the normal Jang “experiences” and attempts to find a job. But everything is automated, her intense and fantastic imagination has no place even among the dream engineers who create visions to satiate the masses:

“’The trouble is, my dear,’ murmured the controller quite sadly, ‘that there is too much story and too little eroticism. You must understand,’ he went on, forestalling any possible outburst on my part, which I felt too tired to make anyway, ‘that picture-vision is almost entirely watched by the older groups of Four BEE. In addition, most people who watch it simply like to switch on and off when they wish, and if all our entertainments had plots, what confusion there would be wouldn’t there?'” (69)

With one avenue for creative fulfillment quashed, N strikes off on a different path. Although the Jang normally do not have children, N decides to make a child: “I would be the guardian. I would watch the flower grow in its crystallized twilight, take it home and tend it” (76). However, she cannot find a suitable male half–instead she changes her gender and presents herself as the male part of the child. The Quasi-Robots see through her plot and ban her from creating a child. N, increasingly frustrated, sets off on an archaeological expedition. A small disaster hammers home the emptiness of her existence…

Final Thoughts

The evolution of N’s character forms the main narrative thrust of Don’t Bite the Sun. This is a careful and affective character study. Despite the bizarre and hilarious elements of the world (the clothes, the entertainments, the EXCESS OF IT ALL), Lee succeeds in her vision as the reader feels deeply for the struggles and desires of N. N’s quest to identify her purpose in life isn’t a grandiose prophecy or master plan set in motion–Lee’s focus is far more applicable and real. N wants meaning in her life, N wants to work, to strive, to struggle, to nurture. Signs of Jang trauma proliferate the pages of the novel–Hergal crashes his airplane into mountains and picks new bodies that appall desperate to identify if people care for what is inside not what he looks like. And N laments, “I was so depressed I went and drowned myself, for the tenth time, in my bubble” (11).

Recommended for fans of Michael Moorcock’s An Alien Heat (1972) and 1970s far future post-scarcity worlds of decadence and despair. I look forward to exploring more of Tanith Lee’s 70s and early 80s SF works.

Check out MPorcius’ review for a similar, but more detailed, take on the novel.

For more reviews consult the INDEX

(Peter Goodfellow’s cover for the 1979 omnibus edition)

(Jean-Claude Hadi’s cover for the 1979 French edition)

(Allison’s cover for the 1978 Italian edition)

10 thoughts on “Book Review: Don’t Bite the Sun, Tanith Lee (1976)

  1. Hi

    You asked if I had read Lee. I had read a fair bit at one time and while it some years ago Don’t Bite the Sun and Drinking Sapphire Wine were definitely my favourites. They leaned closer to science fiction than a lot of the other works by her that I read. They are certainly the books I remember the most clearly. I think I found it quite easy to empathize with the main character and while the books where short there was a lot to chew one.

    I think your comment “This is a careful and affective character study.” was right on the mark.


    • Hello Guy,

      Thanks for stopping by. Yeah, she seemed to have written most of her SF in the 70s and very early 80s. Her most famous work, The Birthgrave, seems more like fantasy with a smallish SF explanation at the end… I have a copy as well although I haven’t posted it in an acquisition post.

      But yes, it’s very easy to empathize with the struggles of the main character.

      I guess I could have said it’s a “careful, affective, AND effective character study.” I always wonder if I use the word “affective” if readers think I am misspelling it… hah.


  2. I read it this month, and have been on the fence. I found the Jang slang annoying and distracting – inventing a new language variant for a novel is hard to pull off.

    Your review helped me clarify what I think about it. The idea behind the book is an interesting approach to the old SF question of how to find personal fulfillment in a post-scarcity society. This book would make a great movie. But I found the execution mediocre, or maybe just too YA for my taste. I didn’t like the slang, and most of the secondary characters seem like cartoonish – though N was interesting.

    Maybe the problem is that I missed the intended humor & read it in the wrong state of mind.

    • Thanks for stopping by.

      I thought the Jang slang would be annoying! And I did for the first few pages… and then I never consulted the index of terms again. If an author substitutes easy to understand words whose meaning and intent can be inferred due to context, then I find a limited use of invented slang is fine. I wish there was additional discussion in the novel about the idea of linguistics instilling a new type of experience…. it’s implied but not in a substantive manner.

      I struggled with Moorcock’s similar An Alien Heat (decadent far future quest for meaning)…. something about Lee’s delicate treatment of the main character made this one appealing. Regardless, I think the final product is on the slight side and certainly not a masterpiece, hence my rating.

      • An Alien Heat is near the top of my to-read pile so I’m intrigued. I do agree that Lee makes N interesting, especially as you follow her development of the course of the book. The small disaster, as you aptly describe it, is really well done.

        • Hopefully you enjoy An Alien Heat it more than me! My review certainly generated a lot of argument — I seem to be in the minority. Moorcock’s non-editorial work has not impressed….

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