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.