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