Sci-fi / utopian dystopia / bodies as constructs (literally); the nature of happiness; seeking meaning rather than bliss; sentience ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ ✰ [five out of five stars: worth owning and reading over and over]
In a world where gratitude is currency, fantasy is reality, and ecstasy is obligatory, an unnamed character rejects norms and seeks meaning at any cost.
This is my fifth or sixth time reading this, but the first time reading it after my social justice awakening. I was so scared it would be horrible. And maybe nostalgia is coloring my lenses, but it was still wonderful (though not without flaw) and I really loved the read. I could happily recommend it to most people.
Bodies are endlessly replaceable, and people change sex almost as often as hair color. No body has any disabilities because all bodies are created by computer with no room for unintentional variation. Still, almost everyone chooses muscular and/or skinny bodies, the main character mostly chooses white bodies, and when the main character later chooses a body with dark skin this is considered 'unfashionable.' This combined with some reminiscing about 'ancient extinct tribes' smacks of colonialist assumptions and colorism, but this is not a significant part of the storyline. Age is also a fairly artificial construct, but when people move from the young class to the old one they tend to choose slight visible aging. There are no classes; everyone has equal access to resources. Mental illness is presumed to be in the 'life-spark' because people who commit suicide have the same urge in the next body, and people who compulsively steal also have the same urge in the next body.
Gender is assumed to be binary and related to sex, but in an odd way; people are men when they are in assigned-male bodies and women when they are in assigned-female bodies, and have a tendency to prefer more time in one than the other. However, this is not related to what sex they are assigned at birth.
When I first read this, before I understood that both sex and gender have more than two options, this was a profound, new and beautiful concept to me. For its time (1976) it was revolutionary; transgender and intersex were not words the general public knew, much less understood. All attractions in the novel are binary, but there are a few who seek queer relationships.
Biting the Sun is written first person by the unnamed protagonist, in a memoir style. It has the feel of a journal, and the tone shifts as the character grows. The writing is passionately raw, and it feels very honest. The protagonist admits when they break norms and laws and when they have feelings they are ashamed of. I can't conceive of a way the writing style could be improved in this book. It's described lushly yet concisely. As a memoir, there is little dialogue, but what there is passes the Bechdel test for gender even if one includes the bodies people are in.
I felt this was beautifully and superbly imaginative when I first read it, and still feel that it is one of the most imaginative books I've ever read, though it doesn't take the deconstruction of gender to its logical end.
The plot is paced perfectly: enough suspense to keep you engaged but not so much that you get frustrated and skim. There are elements of romance but I feel they're treated realistically and they are not the focus of the story.
The only content note I can think of is for the death of an animal. It made me cry the first three times I read it; it's really heartbreaking.
Biting the Sun is an omnibus of 1976 "Don't Bite the Sun" and "Drinking Sapphire Wine" so the cover is not the same as the first publication. It's an ornate painting of a woman with an impossibly long torso and equally long curly/wavy blonde hair. The surrounding is a decadent garden, and in the far background is a crystal dragon. The cover makes it seem mystical and magical rather than like sci-fi: but I know that the dragon is an android. I think it's meant to appeal to people who read high fantasy, but that seems a mistake to me as it's so strongly sci-fi (though I admit very soft sci-fi, marshmallow-soft).
Tanith Lee, a white cis straight non-disabled British woman, was age 29 at the time of writing this novel (one of the first few published of 90+ books). Lee grew up poor, moving a lot, and had mild dyslexia so didn't begin reading until age 9.