Chris Beckett: Dark Eden (2012)


Chris Beckett’s novel Dark Eden was last year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award winner, which usually guarantees that a book is at the more literary end of the Sci-Fi spectrum. For once I can understand why a novel received an award. Dark Eden is nothing if not a tour de force. It’s as original as it is philosophical; in its themes as much as in its execution. Reading it wasn’t only a brainy experience, it was quite visceral as well. Beckett’s world felt so realistic, the everyday life of the people is described in all its strangeness and boring repetition, that I felt sucked in.

As a linguist and cultural anthropologist, I found the civilisation Beckett created extremely fascinating and thought-provoking. What would happen if a part of our high culture, a tiny fragment of our civilisation – two people to be precise – were abandoned on an alien planet, with nothing but their clothes, some paraphernalia and nothing else? This is what happens to Thommy and Angela, the ancestor’s of the people we meet in Dark Eden. The world they encounter is strange and dark. Light and warmth come from the lantern trees. Food abounds at first. The two humans can eat fruit and hunt the strange six-limbed animals of Dark Eden. Angela and Thommy procreate and once the story begins, the population of Dark Eden has risen to 532 people. Food is scarce by now. The perpetual darkness is hard on them. They have not ventured further because their creation myth traps them. After 160 years, or wombtimes as they call it, they are still waiting for a “veekle” from Earth to return and bring them back to their planet of origin. A planet that sounds like paradise to them. A planet where there is “lecky trickity” and daylight coming from a giant star.

Cultural anthropology studies – among other things – the development of civilisations from hunter-gatherers to (nomadic) herders to agriculturalists and more advanced civilisation. In Dark Eden this evolution is reversed at first and then starts to move through the aforementioned stages. The descendants of Angela and Thommy are hunter-gatherers, on the verge of becoming herders. And they have an oral tradition again; writing and schools have been abandoned a long time ago. Many of the words are written phonetically to illustrate that. “Rayed Yo”, “Veekle”, “Secret Ree”, “Wind Oh”. The sentence structure is simple and words like “very” don’t exist but instead of them, the narrators repeat words. “Very sad” becomes “sad sad” or even “sad sad sad”. I thought this was ingenious but – in all honesty – it got a bit on my nerves as well.

As we all know, a story needs conflict and the conflict arises in the form of a “newhair”. John Redlantern is only 20, but he questions the traditions who keep them trapped in this one place, waiting forever for an air ship that never comes. He dares the unspeakable. He challenges the elders and is finally cast out. What the elders didn’t expect – he’s struck a chord with many. Staying in one place means that food is getting scarcer and people are afraid of starving. When he leaves, a group of newhairs joins him.

John’s frustration has a lot to do with survival but is about something else als well. John’s suggestion to leave their dwelling place has something to do with leaving behind the past. Everything they do or think revolves around a distant time and place. They hope to be saved and brought back one day. They re-enact the story of Thommy and Angela again and again and, while waiting to be saved, they don’t really enjoy life or live freely.

What false hope can do to people is only one thought-provoking element, which is part of a profound analysis of meangless rituals and religion.

The structure of the novel is interesting as well. It has two main first person narrators and at least six minor narrators. That breaks up the monotony and gives Beckett the opportunity to show more than one view of the same story. The multiplicity of stories is another important theme in the book:

There are lots of different stories branching away all the time from every single thing that happens. As soon as a moment has gone, different versions of it start to be remembered and told about. And some of them carry on, and some die out, and you can’t know in advance which version will last and which won’t.

Dark Eden  describes a world in which sexuality is lived freely, in which nobody has ever murdered anyone and in which even the crippled and disfigured are treated like everyone else. But it’s not a peaceful society. Hatred and aggression simmer under the surface and can only be contained as long as absolutely nothing in the daily or yearly routine is changed. Once John questions tradition and sets in motion change, violence erupts.

The end is well done and logical. Pretty much what I had expected but that wasn’t disappointing. However, closing the book was a relief. The world Dark Eden describes is a wondrous place, filled with abundant vegetation and a strange and haunting fauna, but it’s bathed in perpetual darkness, and very suffocating.

Dark Eden is a novel that touches on many different topics – religion, family, tradition, overpopulation, hope, creation myths, languages etc. –  it’s philosophical and anthropological in scope and certainly testifies that Sci-Fi can still contribute a fresh and thought-provoking exploration of the human condition and our culture.

Thanks to Broadway Books for the review copy.

26 thoughts on “Chris Beckett: Dark Eden (2012)

    • It’s a very interesting book. I’ve never really read anything like it but it’s dark. I really wouldn’t want to live on Dark Eden. Just to think that they have no light coming from above . . .
      I’m very curious to hear what you’ll think of it.

  1. Another blogger told me this book sounded like my thing, so I grabbed a copy last week. Now if I could only READ it. My reading is the pits lately. Maybe I should drop everything and read this in the hopes it is the book to break the slump!

    • Just be prepared, it’s a bit slow in places. He really wanted to make this an immersive experiences and he succeeded. I feel like I was there. I’d be interested to hear what you think.

  2. Only you could make sci-fi tempting for me. 😉 This book sounds really interesting and I’m intrigued by the subjects covered, but need something less dark right now. The book about Chechnya left me drained.

    • I’m glad to hear it. 🙂
      I can imagine that Chechnya isn’t an uplifting subject.
      It was kind of dark but in many ways excellent. And really different.He certianly deeserved the award.

  3. From the review, it doesn’t sound like the typical sci-fi I usually read. It’s somehow feel like it goes more to social science than the science science. It sounds interesting tho.

    By the way, I often heard the words Tour De France but not quite understand what it means.

    • Yes, you’re spot on. It’s not about technology or science but about social and cultural elements.
      Tour de force means “extraordinary achievement”, something that is very hard to do.

  4. This book sounds the kind of serious, thoughtful science fiction that I grew up on and that I love.

    Anthropological and sociological Science Fiction has always been part of this sub-genre that I am also partial to. Authors like Fredrick Pohl and Frank Herbert did this sort of stuff so well in the past.

    Alas I have not really kept up with the latest authors and most important books, as this one seems to be. There is never enough time.

    Maybe I will give this one a read. It seems like a good to get back into the swing of things.

    • I’m far to under read in Science Fiction to know those sub genres but now that you name – Herbert did a similar thing. Totally other world but still.
      I think checking this award is a good way to keep up with the newer authors.
      I’d be so interested to know what you think of this. Maybe when you get time.

  5. Wonderful review, Caroline! Loved the premise of the book – the way it tracks the history of a planet from the time of its own Adam and Eve to the achievements, beliefs and challenges of its present day. Very fascinating! I love the concept of lantern trees. It is also quite interesting the way the novel explores how an outwardly perfect world could have seething problems below the surface. I will keep an eye for this book. I love that cover!

  6. I’m glad the Clarke award worked out for you. It really is one of the very few literary awards I have any time at all for.

    This sounds interesting. In terms of biology I don’t think you can get a viable population from two people, you get a horrific genetic bottleneck. I think about 500 is the minimum for species survival. That’s being picky though, since clearly the focus is anthropology rather than biology.

    I’ll keep an eye out for it. It sounds, well, interesting which is sort of the point of the Clarke.

    • I think he addressed this biological problem in a way. A lot of the people are either “bat faced” or “clawfotted”, so clearly they have some degenerative signs of inbreeding.
      And yes, it’s an anthropological exploration. It was very interesting but it wasn’t free of annoying elements. Reading it is an immersive experience -participant observation almost – , an effect he only achieved through a lot of repetition. Anthropological field work is a bit boring. Still, I’m very glad I read it.

  7. I love your review, although it’s not the kind of book I read. But then that’s what makes some reviews – and always yours – so interesting. You get a glimpse of books and the ideas behind them that would otherwise be lost to you.

    • I’m glad you like the review. I konw what you mean. sometimes it’s just interesting to know what a book is about but you wouldn’t want to read it.
      Dar Eden i one of those books that is far better once you’ve finished it. It’s a real achievement. But it wasn’t alwalys easy to live in this world.

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