Oct. 26th, 2009

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After reading a philosophy-heavy post I made (in character) on the new Paradise Towers online roleplay forum, [livejournal.com profile] tiamat360 disappeared downstairs for a minute, and then came back and handed me a book, Biting the Sun by Tanith Lee. "You need to read this," she said, and so, three days later, I have. The book, I think, is fundamentally unsuccessful, but fairly good for all that. Certainly, I want to talk about it, but I can't really *recommend* it to anybody. Thus, the below has plot spoilers, if that's likely to bother you.

Biting the Sun is set in a fantastic, hedonistic future utopia (it's ocassionaly hinted at but never made clear that it's on Earth itself) where humans live forever in domed cities, never need to work and thus dedicate themselves solely to pleasure. Drugs and other sense-expanding experiences are omnipresent, people can and do switch bodies and sexes at the drop of a hat, and if your wait period between bodies is too long for your taste, you can just commit suicide and your consciousness will be automatically transfered into a new one.

This system is run by benevolent androids (called "quasi-robots" or QRs) and powered, in a curious bit of sci-fi thinking, by emotions. When you want to buy something in a store, you simply step into a booth and, often aided with stimulants, literally weep and scream with thanks. Our nameless narrator likes to steal, an odd choice given the utter lack of real cost in "paying" properly.

Our narrator, of course, is growing discontented with this utopia, though it takes her quite some time to put a name to her restlessness. First, she tries on a variety of the different social roles available to members of the society, but none fit quite right. At last, after spending over a decade buried in the historical archives, she basically reinvents the ideas of dueling and, subsequently, murder. The QRs who run the society don't know what to do with her -- the idea of crime hasn't been around for centuries -- and so they eventually offer her the choice between suicide, followed by complete personality wipe and rebirth into a new body in three hundred years, and solitary exile into the vast desert that covers most of the planet (with essential nutrients and shelter to be provided by the city for the remainder of her natural lifespan). She chooses the latter, and, with a "water mixer" the city provides her, waters the dunes until they bloom with latent plant life. She nurtures her Garden for a year, after which it is finally noticed and a number of other people voluntarily exile themselves in order to join her. Disturbed, the QRs try to sabotage her project to force her to commit suicide, but the attempt fails and the book closes on the little community looking into the sunset, the narrator and her friend already pregnant.

The book is trying, very hard, to make a point about the real meaning and worth of accomplishments and personal expression, but that aspect of the narrative falls very flat. The problem is that there is never any real, meaningful danger, and so even the narrator's accomplishments at the end, raising the garden from the desert, fails to feel at all significant. Though she may have helped dig irrigation trenches by hand, the vegetation arose simply from the artificial rainfall provided by the water mixer machine, which in turn was powered and fueled by a literally infinitely refillable source. Though the community was moving towards self-sufficiency at the end in terms of food, their shelter (and life-preserving "oxygen pills") were all gifts from the city that cast them out. The entire little enterprise is really only on the society's sufferance -- in order to discourage more runaways, the best threat they can come up with is that the only food the exiles will be allowed is basic, flavorless gruel. Oh, no!

People in this society are in a state of more-or-less constant adolescence, and despite everything the narrator never really grows out of that. Her bold defiance of tradition and subsequent exile comes across less as a young heroine leaving behind all she knows to make a new life in the wilderness and more like a young girl misbehaving and getting sent by her parents to a boarding school -- an adolescent rebellion, not a mature one. The only thing she really loses by her displacement is the infinite youth that would be her birthright in the cities, but since she was tired of city life that doesn't even register as a cost to her or us.

What I found particularly frustrating was that there were several other far more interesting bits of plot and worldbuilding that were left inefficiently (if not totally) unexplored. For a simple example, at one point the narrator faints (an unprecedented event) right after saying the phrase "Oh God." Nobody has ever heard this word before, including her, and nobody knows where it came from, why she said it or what it means. It's a mystery! The book refers to it several more times, including one exchange in which saying it basically sends a computer into a bizarre logic loop, but never even begins to offer an explanation. Even the computer eventually deals with the problem by erasing its memory of the word and installing an input filter to avoid hearing it again.

More interesting is the idea that in each human there is a "spark of life." This spark is what is kept alive between death and rebirth in a new body, and is the constant element throughout Personality Dissolution, the ego-wiping process offered to people who finally grow tired of life. QRs don't have it, we are told several times -- the narrator wonders whether they are jealous of humans because of it -- but it's never totally clear what impact that lack has. Would a QR with a spark be able to revolt against its programming?

At one point during her exploration of social roles, the narrator attempts to "make" a child (there are no pregnancies or live births). We are told that only a male and a female, together, can create a new spark of life, but this is not explored: the narrator simply says that scientists had "thrown up their hands" at the curious circumstance. The narrator donates an egg, but, unable to find any suitable friends currently male in her social circle, changes sex herself and donates her/his sperm. However, when the QRs attempt to fertilize the egg, "the two life-sparks explode the moment they touch and return into vacuum."

Uh, what? That implies some really serious metaphysical points about the nature of life and the human soul! To be fair, this book was written in 1977, decades before cloning became a reality, but regardless of scientific facts there are some incredibly significant implications in this bit of science fiction. Hell, you could get an entire short story just out of exploring that one concept, but Biting the Sun never really returns to it.

What this book does very well is capture, at great length, the sensation of adolescent frustration and ennui. Its focus at all times is on the narrator's emotional state, and it really does paint a very rich and believable picture. The imagination behind the worldbuilding is also really creative, enough that many of the visuals and other sensory images come across powerfully, even though Tanith Lee's actual descriptive language is workmanlike at best and painfully stilted at worst (the opening few pages were particularly bad). Biting the Sun also has a large number of really interesting ideas at work in it -- beyond the ones I mentioned, there's a fair bit of exploration of the nature of creativity, love for the self vs. love for others, artificial intelligence, appearance vs. inner nature, and maturity.

Unfortunately, none of those explorations are taken far enough to be satisfying. More than anything, the book feels unfinished: I want to hear more about what happens twenty, fifty years down the line, when for instance the narrator finally has to confront the physical reality of aging and impending death rather than youthfully spitting in the face of those abstract concepts. Her journey has really only begun: what would happen if her little society suddenly lost all connection with and supplies from the city? A lot of stuff has been set up, but the book is really only an exploration of that setting-up process.


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