My first reaction to sitting down and writing this review was to check the publication dates of Don't Bite the Sun against The City and the Stars by Sir Arthur C. Clarke. They're actually published about twenty years apart, and certainly the way Tanith Lee is writing about society is very different, but I would seriously argue that much of the message is the same thing. It's the idea that if humanity can ever create a utopia where no one has to work, and people can live as long as they want, they'll create a soulless utopia that will erode creativity and spirit. (I'm also looking at you, Wall*E, that animated movie that was charming for the first while and then maddening as fuck for the rest.)
Man, I don't know. I don't know what would happen. But I do know I get really very frustrated with this idea that somehow, pain is all that keeps us human. That if we let life get less painful, more comfortable, that instead of giving people the time and resources to figure out what they actually want to do with their time, that would lead to nothing at all. This then becomes, in its way, an argument against alleviating discomfort at all, because obviously that discomfort will help people want to move out of poverty, or bad relationships or pain, instead of being just one more thing that traps them there, and eats up time, attention, and temper just to keep going every day. (Also doesn't help that mostly the people who make this argument are generally among the comfortable.)
I feel strongly about this. I think we should at least give a minimum level of comfort for everyone a try, and see what it does to us as a society. And I'd love to see a science fiction author examine that idea without jumping to the assumption that what it's going to do is make us all bored and frivolous. We're inventive people, humans. Can we have a little bit more faith? (Also, early experiments in minimum basic incomes are not showing that as an outcome.)
This is making me get all cranky at Tanith Lee, which is unfortunate, because I really do like her writing. And the world she creates here is interesting. It's just too bad that she's picked a theme that I've seen a bunch and don't particularly like.
This does some interesting things with youth culture, sex, and marriage - without ever quite telling us why, if you're in the youth part of the life cycle (lasts at least a century, seems to be some indication people can get wiped, go into stasis and start all over again if they want), you get married before having sex. Marriage is mostly a short-term thing, but the young won't have sex without it, whereas the adults think that's adorable.
You can also kill yourself and get a new body at more or less will, although there's supposed to be a limit within a specific time period. Most get bodies that conform to beauty standards - the one character who doesn't seems to be looking for someone to love him for him, but the main character certainly can't get past the strange ways he looks when it comes to sex.
The main character (mostly a she over the course of the book, but gender is also swapped at will between different bodies) is bored as hell with the pursuits of the young, but is told that she's not ready yet to graduate from being "jang" to being an adult. When she tries to pursue a job, she finds that adult jobs are just mindless busywork anyway, so there would be no help there. Travel doesn't help. Wanting to have a child doesn't help. There don't seem to be many long-term relationships - her own parents have stayed together for abnormally long and dissolve their relationship quite casually midway through the book.
It's a world where everything is provided and nothing has soul, where everyone lives a jet-set lifestyle and nothing means anything.
I mean, okay. If this were the only book I'd read with this as the thesis, and ones abounded about how a post-scarcity society might lead some interesting places, that would be fine. But since I've mostly run into the latter, this feels, while more drenched in sex and doing some interesting things with body changing and gender and purpose, much of a muchness.