June 28, 2005

A Rebel in Dystopia

"My friend Hergal had killed himself again."

This bald statement begins a creative and somewhat bemusing trek into the mind of Tanith Lee. Already it's evident that the reader is in for an unusual ride.

I'm generally intrigued by science fiction and fantasy. The world of "what if" holds endless allure, and science fiction often challenges deeply ingrained assumption to reveal alternative states of thought, and hint at deeper meanings to the now. I read plenty of sci-fi, but rarely write it up, because it is often merely average, groaningly bad, or sadly clichéd, but I've found a notable exception. Simply one of the best books on the human condition I've come across in a long while is Tanith Lee's Biting the Sun. A compilation of two novels published in the mid '70's, (Drinking Sapphire Wine, and Don't Bite the Sun) Lee's Jang protagonist lives on the cheerfully hedonistic world of Four BEE.

Jang is the second stage of life in the domed cities of Bee, Baa and Boo - it is adolescence, and it's required. However, the world of Jang is a perfect world in which no danger is dangerous enough, no pleasure is off-limits, and no responsibilities exist - nor are there really penalties for 'wrong' behavior. The Jang are expected to make trouble. They live in a system divided by caste, confirmed by their own tosky slang, and hemmed in by the unwritten rule -- experience everything you desire! Just enjoy. The only rule, really, is that Jang are Jang, and should want for nothing more than the ultimate groshing Jang life.

Why play it safe if, when you choose to die, you can just get a new body and try again? Hergal suicides with boring regularity. Why sleep alone, when there are hundreds of people with perfect bodies with whom to sleep? Danor changes gender just to shake off a few of the people who want her. Need a new drug to get up, get you down, enthuse you about the latest fad? Ecstacy for everyone, or try the wine called Joyousness! The Jang have everything you need. As in any adolescence, there are nerds, and people who just insist on being awkward and out there, but you can always cut them out of your Circle. After all, they'll only cry for show. Jang life is to be enjoyed.

Oddly enough, what sounds like a perfect world isn't for a young Jang woman, who is the nameless protagonist. She's tried different bodies, different genders; marriages for a rorl, and had them annulled mid-vrek, or sometimes the same afternoon. Her increasingly frenetic quest for some kind of meaning takes her off-planet, within the maze of the adults in her society, and finally, to the brink of madness, as the insecurity, loneliness and meaningless of her life takes its toll. Starving for real experiences, she pits herself against the world that she knows, courting failure and disaster. And, when she essentially chooses to die for real, her life truly begins.

Lee's premise is not new; dystopian fiction has a long and stellar history, and her story has the lyrical tone at times of allegory. It could be argued that the Jang society parallels an inverted Biblical Eden, but Lee's triumphant conclusion hints at a salvation in the Godless universe found in the self rather than from an outside source. As the physical desert blooms, the nameless heroine outside of the strictures of Jang, Older Persons and the societies of the Bee, Boo and Baa (!) blooms as well.

A note on the slang: Many people are deterred by texts sprinkled with nonstandard words. Lee provides a glossary, but don't get hung up it - it's really beside the point! I hope you can enter into this book as much as I have. A gem probably most appreciated by older YA readers; I was glad to have discovered this intriguing book all these years later. Check it out, ooma.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read some of Tanith Lee's retold fairy tales when I was younger and enjoyed those, too--I've never read this one. I'll have to check it out. The premise reminds me a little of Steel Beach by John Varley, in which people's lifetimes are much longer and they can get sex changes at will, going through life as different genders at different times.