Don’t Bite the Sun, Tanith Lee (1976)
Review by Ian Sales
The unnamed narrator of Don’t Bite the Sun is Jang, which means she – and, once or twice, he – is a pampered teenager in the city of Four BEE, living a life of hedonistic pleasure in a far future utopia. Unfortunately, this proves not enough and the narrator has several goes at finding something meaningful to do. She asks to be uplifted to adult, but is told she must be Jang for at least a century. She decides to become a “maker”, ie a parent, but fails to find a suitable partner. She travels to Four BAA and Four BOO, sister cities, but also fails to find a suitable partner in either place. She asks for a job, but the authorities turn her down. And she joins an archaeology expedition into the desert… Before finally coming to the conclusion that she can only do what is expected of her as a Jang.
Don’t Bite the Sun seems to be quite well regarded among sf readers – it was in print for three decades, and is now still available as half of an omnibus, Biting the Sun (with its sequel Drinking Sapphire Wine). And yet… it often reads like an attempt to rewrite A Clockwork Orange in the sort of science-fictional language used by Samuel R Delany, but has neither rigour of the former nor the poetry of the latter. Partly this is due to Lee’s decision to pepper her prose with Jang slang words, definitions of which are helpfully given in a glossary at the start of the book. Unfortunately, the slang words themselves are too ridiculous to take seriously. Groshing, “fabulous, marvellous”, is one thing – albeit not that far from horrorshow. But attlevey for “hello” is unnecessary and silly, farathoom for “bloody, fucking hell” is plain daft… and as for floop, “cunt”, that’s just complete rubbish. The use of such invented words – a practice often known by the phrase “calling a rabbit a smeerp” – adds nothing to the world-building or narrative. If anything, it makes the narrator seem even more air-headed than she actually is.
While the Jang slang reads like the product of a tin ear, the setting is sketched in so thinly it’s not clear what supports it or how it manages to exist. During the narrator’s trips through the desert to Four BAA and Four BOO, Lee displays a nice turn of phrase in describing the landscape, and the descriptions imply some form of catastrophe in the distant past… but the cities themselves seem to be post-scarcity, without any actual available resources. (Although the narrator shop-lifts for much of the novel, it’s clear things should be paid for – but we’re not told where the Jang get their money from.) Most of the work is done by androids – referred to as Q-Rs – although many adults appear to be employed in make-work jobs. The only “professional” who gets any real time in the narrative is a Q-R psychologist who interviews the narrator on several occasions.
Despite the shortcomings of the world-building, the prose at least is readable and entertaining. Perhaps it focuses overmuch, if not almost entirely, on people’s appearances; but given the narcissistic nature of the Jang, that’s hardly surprising. There’s a narrative thread about friend Hatta, who always chooses ugly bodies, because he loves the narrator and wants her to love him for who he is and not what he looks like. There’s also a running joke regarding an animal the narrator steals from a shop, and which she calls her “pet”, and that has its amusing episodes…
But when all’s said and done Don’t Bite the Sun is as shallow as its narrator, of all the Jang in fact; and anything meaningful it tries to say about teen years of state-sponsored hedonism as a precursor to lives of adult responsibility gets lost in the silliness of the narrator and her various pursuits and relationships with her friends and lovers. The books lacks a foundation – in its world-building and in its plot. It’s entertaining enough fluff, although I suspect it felt a little dated even in 1976; and I suppose its colour and silliness give the novel some charm…