In a world where the least desire is met, our heroine/hero is getting bored. They want something intangibly more that vast technological advances can’t meet. The questions becomes not whether they will find the answer they seek but whether society will let them.
This is one of Tanith Lee’s most popular works, and having finally read it, I see why. Not just for it’s entertainment value, of which is has a lot, but for the chances it takes and the messages it sends. By today’s standards, what Lee does with the idea of gender swapping might seem tame, but for it’s day, I can imagine it was different, illuminating, and maybe even shocking to some. Characters in this world change appearance and gender on a whim. They get married and divorced within a week. There is a lot said here about sexual orientation, sex in general, gender identification, and so on. In many cases, the truthfulness of what’s said is debatable, like how our nameless narrator makes a very different man than she does a woman and what the implications of that are. But it can still be said that this book takes a lot of worthy chances by involving the idea of gender being transitory.
The story also echoes the classic Brave New World, though from a slightly different angle. Where Huxley had an outsider appalled by what he witnessed in this supposed utopia, we have an insider who starts to see the sheen and glitter of their utopia tarnish. And in the most interesting way. Death is nothing in this world. Suicide is the norm, something people do so they can come back with a new body. Yet our narrator suffers loses. The path she takes (and most of her loses are suffered when she is in a female body) makes it so she witnesses death in a very personal way. So that by the time we reach part two of the story, she is now a he and pursuing an entirely different way of life than those around him. The heroine/hero’s narrative is so well-done that this transition feels entirely natural, and the character development is thorough and fascinating.
As you can see, this book is hard to sum up. It’s about a dystopia in sheep’s clothing. It’s about acceptance of the imperfect. It’s about facing death. It’s about gender identity. It’s also just an amazingly fun romp for all that. A future-world adventure with a narrator who starts out a shallow nuisance and becomes something their world has never seen before. It has a rich plot and a great main character. It’s worth the hype it receives.