I'll never forget the time Danor and I, both female then, I might add, disabled the robot controller at Lookout 9A and let in a downpour of volcanic ash from one of the big black mountains outside, floods of it for units and units - everything went zaradann. They had to deliver food by birdplane, and the roads were full of robots trying to dig us all out. We even achieved an earthquake once. Nothing fell down, of course, though we all hoped the Robotics Museum would. Hergal and I were sitting in a big crystal tower at the time, unsuccessfully having love telepathically, and it shook like jelly, which was more than we were doing.
The Earth is a dying, desertified wasteland, human life is confined to a handful of domed cities maintained by quietly-authoritarian robots, but the party goes on, more or less, in Tanith Lee's splendidly bonkers technicolour dystopia, Drinking Sapphire Wine (comprising the two short novels Don't Bite the Sun (1976) and Drinking Sapphire Wine (1977)). This is a world in which young people (known collectively as 'Jang') binge-drink, sleep around and generally cause havoc not out of rebellion, but out of conformity:
Thinta liked the Dream Rooms, though it was reckoned to be pretty anti-Jang really. You always met lots of Older People with 'set ideas' who told you you shouldn't be there, but out having love and ecstasy or sex changes or Sense Distortion, like all young people are usually rigidly expected to have.
Jang is a socially- and legally-enforced adolescence that lasts for decades, during which time individuals are free to indulge in as much sex, drugs and self-harm as they please. They can perform all manner of daredevil stunts without fear of consequences. Death puts no cramp in one's style, since the robots can always provide a new body (the book's opening line is, "My friend Hergal had killed himself again") - in whatever style, shape or biological sex desired. Relationships are fleeting - although always formalised by a short period of marriage - and friendships flighty.
Indeed, Jang (and their elders) can have whatever they want; no-one needs to work, since the robots take care of everything, and the only currency is effusive, babbled gratitude to Our Robot Overlords - something that is more than a little creepy, in practice ("'I'll pay.' [...] I sobbed and laughed and blessed them, and called down upon the city the joys of the firmament."). Unless, that is, what they want is gainful employment:
"[...] the Committee does not employ the Jang. Your minds should be free to explore recreation and pleasure. Older People, if they wish, may render some sort of voluntary service, certainly, but in the formative years..."
"Have you ever asked any Jang whether they'd like to spend a few formative years doing something slightly useful?" I demanded.
"Er--" he said.
That it is a shallow sort of life does not escape our unnamed narrator, who as the novel begins is in the process of growing bored with the apparent utopia - hence the above exchange, one in an increasingly frustrated series of attempts to find distraction and (eventually) meaning. Recounting the story some time after the events, it is the narrator who gives the whole thing life and heart. (The narrator has neither given name nor obvious gender - this will be discussed further below - and so for the sake of simplicity will henceforth be referred to as 'N').
N has plenty of emotional blindspots, as befits someone never allowed to grow up. Upon receiving a declaration of enduring love that transcends physical appearance and gender, for example, N cannot overcome the horror that a suitor would choose such an unattractive body:
"Can't you see," Hatta said, pathetic, "the body I'm in doesn't matter that much? I'm still me."
"Well, be you in a groshing body and I'll marry you immediately," I said wildly. "That's a promise."
N is still amusingly, endearingly scatty, as when relaying the etiquette of Jang interactions and escapades, the main topic of the first book:
"Listen, Hergal," I stated, "I'm afraid I've put in an order to have you officially cut out of my circle of friends. It's not that I don't like you. I mean, you're really lovely, especially with your - er - wings, but I'm just tired of everyone coming up and saying to me: 'Is it true you know that floop Hergal? Do tell!'"
"I see," said Hergal. He didn't even have the politeness to cry. Everyone in the Jang always cries when they're officially cut out of circles.
Yet N is clearly much more thoughtful, and feels things more deeply, than is truly comfortable for the extended childhood involved in being Jang ("I was a bit of a pest," we are told at one point, "I always have too much imagination to fit inside my head"). Joining an archaeological expedition into the desert - yet another whim, a search for distraction - N finds a world unlike anything previously dreamed of, an emotional and sensory experience impossible to replicate inside the sterile, perfectly-regulated domes:
It's all real out there.
It's all beautiful and real, and throbbing and singing and alive!
I staggered; he grabbed me and snapped: "I told you you had to breathe, didn't I? Why don't you pay attention?"
But I had breathed. I'd more or less gasped my lungs inside out. [...]
I shook as I stood there.
It was dawn and red this time from some ooma mountain bursting flames, and greener near the top of the sky, and velvet dark above that, with a last sugar-sprinkle of stars. [...] And the sky was so enormous. It made me giddy.
But N still cannot quite cut loose from the protective, stifling spoon-feeding of the robot-controlled cities; nor can N find true joy there any longer. N's persistent ennui is unusual in this society, if apparently not unknown, and it is this, rather than pranks played on the authorities, that gets N marked down as a menace; pranks are conventional and expected, discontent with continual indulgence is not. Various attempts are made to control N's behaviour, but finally N goes beyond the pale - or, at any rate, gives the robots a pretext to act - by killing another Jang in a duel.
N is exiled to the desert, a fate that - it is assumed - will both quash N's rebellion of the spirit and set an example to other Jang. But against expectation, N makes the best of the situation, through a mixture of idealism, resourcefulness, accident, and canny manipulation. Conveniently for the plot, the robots have an inherent weakness: they have to give N whatever N asks for, because they are programmed to help ("I'd got the Q-R Committee by their service-to-humanity-programming curlies. Though a menace, I was human, and I had a need"). So they must provide the very basics for N's survival.
N thus manages to make a small piece of the desert bloom, and carves out a life there - albeit one not without pain, as when Pet, N's closest (animal) companion, dies ("So irrevocable, so unavoidable, so terrible, so dull [...] Don't bite the sun, you'll burn your mouth. I'd bitten ceaselessly, hopelessly, and I was burned, I was burned. I was a cinder."). Word spreads of N's exciting-looking pioneering, and soon N is joined by a small cluster of others from the cities - some hedonists, some idealists, and some saboteurs sent by the robots to stem this dangerous tide of self-sufficiency and freedom.
It's all very neatly done, an entertaining and uplifting story that treats a host of interesting issues with a lightness of touch and an infectious good humour that suits our narrator's essentially fun-loving personality. The robots are never very sinister - the world of the cities is a little too cartoonish for real dystopian fear - but their means of control are disturbing both in implication and in occasional demonstration in the story.
Naturally, given the Jang propensity to switch bodies regularly, the treatment of sex and gender is an important theme. Disappointingly, almost all the sexual relationships take place between individuals in opposite-sex bodies (N at one stage notes that "as a female, I felt nothing sexual or even romantic for Danor", Danor at that point being in a female body too; although this is prefaced with a "despite" and is a gloss on what is to all intents and purposes sexual jealousy, whatever the claims). However, these distinctions, interestingly, begin to breakdown among the nascent non-robot-controlled community in the desert, with new, and apparently more lasting, configurations appearing, including same-sex and multiple-partner relationships.
More nuanced is the treatment of gender. N chooses female bodies, predominantly - though definitely not exclusively - and hyper-feminised ones at that. Yet N also dreams of being the rescuer rather than the rescued, displays both 'feminine' and 'masculine' behavioural traits, and overall is a very proactive (if extremely hotheaded and reckless) figure - making for an unusual, for the time in which it was written, if essentially lighthearted character study. Intriguingly, it is clear that different individuals have different relationships with their bodies and their genders. Some respond in extremely gendered ways to a change in physical sex, while others do not; some have clear preferences for one or the other. As N reflects:
There were many like Zirk, who, when a male, tended to rangy heroic types with shoulders the width of Committee Hall doors, rippling bronze musculature, and a loud persona - for which Zirk made up, when female, by being about three feet tall, delicate as porcelain, and timid as a Four BOO sandrabbit. Then there were the ones like Kley, who, when male, was a quiet, well-mannered nonentity, and became a raging bully when in girl-shape. I, however, remained much the same either way. Always inclined to violence, chivalry, and general moodiness, the size of my breasts, or any alternative apparatus I happened to have about me, didn't really colour the situation to any vast degree - at least, I don't think so.
Great fun; recommended!