Anthropology meets sci-fi meets adventure meets myth-making meets bildungsroman meets philosophy in Chris Beckett’s remarkable new novel, Dark Eden*.
On a planet without a visible sun, the Family lives in the glow of phosphorescent trees, waiting to be rescued by the people of their ancestors. Time is measured in terms of “wakings” and “womb-times”; Siren-like singing panthers kill in the forest, and giant worms lurk in the glowing trees. Eden is a frightening place even before the Family’s internal problems are taken into account. Years of inbreeding have produced genetic abnormalities in the small population; their vocabulary is dwindling; their oral tradition and laws and methods of keeping the peace are all strained to the point of breaking. Even food is becoming scarce.
The 532 inhabitants of Eden hear legends of a world where “lecky-tricity” made things move, where there was a sun in the sky, where people could make ships that left the world itself. And soon, the stories tell them, a “Landing Veekle” will take them back to that world.
But young John Redlantern isn’t content to wait. A cross between Prometheus and Cain, John wants to explore beyond the Family’s living area and hunting grounds, to remake Eden as a permanent home for the Family. He wants to do the unthinkable: traverse Snowy Dark, where the cold can kill and the darkness is absolute. It’s dangerous, and worse, it’s heretical. What will happen to the Family if their most closely-held beliefs are challenged?
Dark Eden‘s world-building is excellent, and refreshing, since it’s neither Star-Trekkian (gadgets and gizmos and talking computers) nor Hunger Games-style dystopian (our own world in a terrible mess). Don’t get me wrong — I love Star Trek and The Hunger Games. But it’s wonderful to read something fresh, that answers a question I wish I’d thought to ask: what would a primitive culture look like if it evolved on an alien planet from a tiny population with prior experience of technology and advanced culture?
It turns out that the intentions of the initial population matter a great deal; the Family’s founders attempted to give their children a good chance at long-term survival, insisting, for instance, that children go to school, that histories be preserved, that women and men are equal. As I mentioned above, the gender politics in the novel are fascinating; the Family doesn’t quite have a matriarchal power structure, but paternity isn’t tracked and sexual violence is unheard of in Eden.
One of Dark Eden’s best aspects is the author’s attention to linguistic detail. Over generations, vocabulary changes and some kinds of speech atrophy (oh, my poor subjunctive!). So, for example, in the Family’s oral/aural culture, some pronunciations are off (“lecky-trickety”), and intensifiers like “very” have been lost. To convey that something is “very cold,” John Redlantern or Tina Spiketree would say, “cold cold.” On the other hand, English slang (“bloke”) and personal euphemisms (“slipping” for “sex”) remain, perfectly out of place in an alien world.
Dark Eden‘s story is John Redlantern’s, in many respects, but he is not the sole narrator. Mr. Beckett chooses his other narrators carefully to give a rounded perspective on the world and John’s actions. Given the limited vocabulary all the narrators work with, the resulting polyphony is all the more impressive. This is literary sci-fi at its best, and highly recommended reading.
Tomorrow: An interview with Chris Beckett, author of Dark Eden
*My thanks to the publisher for sending me advance copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.