An Interview with Chris Beckett, Author of Dark Eden

Yesterday I reviewed Chris Beckett’s excellent new novel, Dark Eden. Mr. Beckett graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of Dark Eden? What was the writing process like?

Chris Beckett Photo courtesy of the author.

Chris Beckett
Photo courtesy of the author.

CB: As is often the case with my stories, Dark Eden grew very slowly.   In 1992, I came up with a short story called ‘The Circle of Stones’, which included one of the crucial scenes from the book, was set in a sunless world, and centered on four characters who were to evolve in the book into John, Tina, Jeff and Gerry.  In 2006 I wrote the short story ‘Dark Eden’ which provides the back story for the novel (it can be found in my collection The Turing Test).   Although I had the idea from the beginning that there might be the basis for a novel here, the prompt to start work on it in earnest actually came from my daughter Nancy, who saw the title ‘Dark Eden’ and said it would be a great name for a book.  (So it is!  So good that there are at least two other books and a computer game with the same name!)

As I’ve said elsewhere, I believe the idea for a sunless world with luminous trees probably came from staring at the screen of the antiquated computer I owned in 1992: one of those ones with shining green letters on a black screen.   But at the core of the book were two things: the idea of a loss which cannot be undone (the loss of Earth), and the idea of a violent, ugly transgressive act which is nevertheless in some way necessary.  These were the things I needed to write about (for whatever reason), the incentive to keep going I suppose you could say, and the sunless world proved to be a perfect setting for what I wanted to do.   Once the book was underway, it seemed to flow pretty easily.  Perhaps you’d expect that, since it had been marinating in my head for the better part of twenty years!

You write on your website that your experience as a social worker has informed your writing. Was this the case for Dark Eden?

photo (65)CB: The book that is most obviously linked with my career as a social work is my second novel Marcher (which will come out later this year in an extensively rewritten new edition).   However, since my social work career involved dealing with unhappy families, that may well have made a contribution to my conception of the troubled Family of Eden, clinging together in their dark world.   (I don’t know though.  That could just have come from my own childhood!)

How did you go about conducting research for the novel?

CB: I did no serious research at all.   I think I’m a reasonably well-informed person, and I just relied on my own knowledge, imagination and my ability to think things through.  (I knew for instance, that bioluminescent life forms are found on Earth in the depths of the sea where the light of the sun can’t reach.)  I’m rather proud of the fact that some of the things I dreamed up back in 1992 turn out, on further reading, to have a scientific basis.  There really are rogue planets without suns, it really is possible that a planet with a hot core could sustain life and liquid water, there really are whole ecosystems, right now and here on Earth, which are powered by geothermal energy rather than by sunlight.

Which writers do you read while writing? Do your reading choices change depending on the writing project at hand?

CB: I don’t have a conscious strategy about what to read while I’m writing.   I guess I avoid reading anything too similar to the project I have underway, so as to avoid getting my own ideas tangled up with someone else’s.   I think it may also be the case that when I’m in the thick of writing a book, I become less interested in reading fiction generally, and more inclined to read non-fiction. (The fuel for fiction-writing should be reality, perhaps, rather than other fiction?)   Sometimes I don’t read at all.  At night, my wife will lie in bed reading a novel and I’ll just stare at the ceiling mulling over the story I’m working on.

I understand that a sequel to Dark Eden will be published in the UK this year. Are there any other writing projects on your horizon?

CB: Yes, the sequel to Dark Eden is called Mother of Eden, and is set some two Earth centuries on.   It will indeed be coming out in the UK later this year – and in the US also, though the date has not yet been fixed.

As I mentioned above, my novel Marcher will also come out in a new UK edition this year, and I have begun work on a new novel, provisionally entitled Slaymaker, which is set on Earth in the near future and deals with the politics of a hotter and less habitable world.   But it’s early days on that one, so I won’t say any more about it at present.

I have the beginnings of an idea also for a third Eden novel, but let’s see how the second one goes down first.

I hope to find time to write some more short stories too.  Short stories were what I was first known for and I love writing them, but I haven’t done many for a while.

My thanks again to Mr. Beckett for his time and generous answers. You can read an excerpt from Dark Eden here, and you can learn more about Mr. Beckett and his work on his website, http://www.chris-beckett.com/

New and Recommended Reading: Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden

Anthropology meets sci-fi meets adventure meets myth-making meets bildungsroman meets philosophy in Chris Beckett’s remarkable new novel, Dark Eden*.

photo (65)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.