Friday, October 17, 2008

Biting the Sun – rediscovering Tanith Lee

Rummaging through my fantasy book collection for book covers to display on my Eye Candy for Bibliophiles Blog, I have come to realise that I haven’t looked at, let alone opened many books in this category for several decades. What a wealth of books to be rediscovered are hidden there!

One of the authors whom I was very taken with back in the 1970s, was
Tanith Lee. I have practically a whole shelf full of her books, original first edition paperbacks published by DAW Books, including her debut novel The Birthgrave – a rich swords and sorcery fantasy featuring a heroine with super powers. I recently reread it and I must admit I quite enjoyed it. I even read one of its sequels Quest for the White Witch which I liked as well.

However, her most interesting books of that time were Don’t Bite The Sun (1976) and Drinking Sapphire Wine (1977), which are set in a utopian society of the far future. I’ve just reread Don’t Bite The Sun and whilst reading it realised, that although the society is based on a sixties hippy culture of sex and drugs and rock n roll, it has a prescience in relation to today’s popular culture and youth lifestyle. You see, in Lee’s Utopia, a high tech domed world called Four BEE, the populace are encouraged to live their teenage years (which last for centuries) in total abandonment of responsibility, to take drugs (one is called Ecstasy), indulge in free sexual relationships, change bodies and gender at will. They are called Jang and being Jang, as the narrator tells us, is to be conspicuous, wear outrageous clothing and generally act like young racegoers do during the Melbourne racing carnival, - over the top high spirits and generally pretty disgusting.

The nameless heroine and narrator of Don’t Bite The Sun, though Jang to a tee, is dissatisfied with Utopia – a rebel angel in paradise. The novels trace her disillusionment with, and eventual exile from, the Four BEE Eden.

The books are written in a wonderful vernacular style, the heroine grabbing the reader’s sympathy from the word go. I really liked her relationship with her stolen pet and the pet itself, another non conformist – fierce and wild and representative of the natural world outside the dome.

Written, so speak from an insider’s point of view, the heroine has a jaundiced view of her society. As she emerges from Limbo in yet another new body she describes it, “As usual it was depressingly lithe and glamorous…willow waisted, with an exotic bust and long, long scarlet hair” or when referring to her physical environment “Outside it was one of those depressing blue-crystal-golden-drops-of-sunlight afternoons. The weather is always perfect at Four BEE...”

By no means great literature, these books are nonetheless great fun to read and beautifully written– the irrepressible voice of the heroine is thoroughly addictive. Don’t Bite The Sun and Drinking Sapphire Wine are currently available in an omnibus edition entitled Biting The Sun.

There’s a rather good recent review of the omnibus volume by Jo Walton on the
Tor Books Blog

Cover artists for the above pictures for those who are interested are Brian Froud (Don't Bite The Sun) and Don Maitz (Sapphire Wine)

1 comment:

Clare Dudman said...

Yes, there's some gorgeous artistry in SF and fantasy covers, and I remember the seventies as a particularly wondrous period.

Strangely though, the books I ended up reading as a teenager were the plain yellow jacketed Gollanz books at our local library. You could never tell what was going to be inside - it was like breaking open a cracker. Some were great - but others were truly appalling - as well as being somewhat sexually explicit. If my mother had known I think she might have been shocked.