Given that the protagonist has sex with his mother on the second page of the first book, The Dancers at the End of Time trilogy is not for the easily offended; these are about as far as it’s possible to get from Heinlein’s juveniles and the Lensman series. (The three books comprising the trilogy are An Alien Heat, The Hollow Lands and The End of All Songs) That said, the books have never struck me as prurient. Kinky in places, sure, but nothing involuntary!
Interested yet? I’ll assume you are if you made it past the first paragraph. I do heartily recommend them, just not for the squeamish. They’re great fun, and like many of the books of bar tales to which I referred in an earlier entry, I read this as a teenager and was left with no particular scars.
These are pretty much the ultimate fin-de-siecle science fiction; in fact, they’re better described as fin-de-temps because, as the title suggests, the majority of the three books are set at the literal end of time. In this time, all ills are long vanquished: there is no death, no disease, no infirmity of any kind, no hurt done to others against their will. Indeed, the protagonist gravely insults one of his acquaintances by saying “You are without wit or charm or grace.” Anyone who dies involuntarily can be brought back to life in an instant. There is no longer any need to work for a living; all the inhabitants of this future world need do is amuse themselves as they can draw on the powers of the dying cities to create all that they need, all that they want and all that they can imagine. Unfortunately, there is also nothing that those of us in the world now would consider “good”: there is no representational art, no literature or poetry, no plays performed, no music sung…all the inhabitants of this world do is amuse themselves in the most complicated ways of which they can conceive. All that’s really left to them is conversation, and interaction, and the various ephemeral (given that they tend to last for decades and even centuries) fads. They have no interest in exploring space–indeed there is little left in this end time–and time travel holds only dim appeal.
The trilogy begins as the protagonist, Jherek Carnelian, decides he will explore how to become “virtuous”; in this future world, there is little written or read, and most of that is wrong in any case, so researching how to go about this is difficult to say the least. Fortunately for Jherek, a Victorian time traveller woman appears and he ‘collects’ her for his menagerie in order to research the question from a primary source, so to speak. Just as Jherek realizes that he is in love with Mrs. Underwood, she is whisked back to her time by an agent who remains hidden from Jherek. The rest of the trilogy covers Jherek’s attempts to travel back to Victorian times to retrieve His One True Love, with little success; in the course of this fruitless attempt, he discovers what the real purpose of Mrs. Underwood’s appearance at the End of Time: they are to travel full circle around to the beginning of time (or perhaps another timeline!) and…well, you’ll have to read the book. I’m not going to give everything away.
It might drag for many people, though I should hope it was marginally less shocking now than when originally written. The flowery overblown prose is deliberately purple. The story drags at points for those who like swift action packed novels. Whether you like this will probably depend on whether you liked the Elric series; if you did like that series (or if you don’t much care for science fiction that goes out of its way to set societal mores on their ear), you probably won’t like this trilogy. That said, if you do want to read them, read them in order; out of order they make little sense. From a literary standpoint, that is.