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.

John Scalzi: Fuzzy Nation (2011)

Fuzzy Nation

Sometimes I’m easy to please. It took John Scalzi less than one page to win me over with his novel Fuzzy Nation.

See for yourself:

Jack Holloway set the skimmer to HOVER, swiveled his seat around, and looked at Carl. He shook his head sadly.

“I can’t believe we have to go through this again,” Holloway said. “It’s not that I don’t value you as part of this team, Carl. I do. Really, I do. But I can’t help but think that in some way, I’m just not getting through       to you. We’ve gone over this how many times now? A dozen? Two? And yet every time we come out here, it’s like you forget everything you’ve been taught. It’s really very discouraging. Tell me you get what I’m saying to you.”

Carl stared up at Holloway and barked. Carl was a dog.

The idea that the book is told by a main narrator whose best friend is a dog to whom he speaks as if he was a human, amused me so much. The best thing however was that the whole book didn’t disappoint. It was not only a fun and charming read from beginning to end, but interesting and thought-provoking as well.

John Scalzi is said to be the most accessible Sci-Fi author writing today. I can see why. Not only does he write in an engaging way, but he has a knack for dialogue and great characters and a wonderful sense of humour. He’s also far more accessible than others because his world-building is minimal. Just a touch of description here and there to set the scene, but nothing that over stretches your imaginative muscles. As much as I like sci-fi, when the world-building is too detailed, my eyes glaze over and I simply can’t see the worlds that are described. Another reason why Scalzi is easy to read is his use of older material, which we may be familiar with. Fuzzy Nation, for example, is a “reboot” of Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper.

The central theme of Fuzzy Nation is the question: What makes a sentient being? Jack Holloway is a contractor for ZaraCorp a huge corporate company who exploits foreign planets. While working on the planet Zarathustra, Jack accidentally explodes a cliff and discovers a seam of unimaginably precious jewels. Legally, ZaraCorp is allowed to exploit this seam and give Holloway his share, but only if the planet is really not populated by sentient beings. So far only two other sentient species have been found in the universe.

Jack lives outside of the city, in a tree house, high above the raptors who populate the forest below. One day cute furry creatures come to stay at his house.  Jack is amazed how intelligent they are, but when his ex-girlfriend , biologist Isabel, tells him she thinks they are not animals but people, Jack is reluctant to accept that. He would never harm the Fuzzys. He would never harm any animal, but he doesn’t think they are people. After all, they don’t speak. Or do they? In any case, it would be awful for him, if they really were people, because he would lose the prospect of making millions.

Fuzzy Nation isn’t only an adventure story, in which cute little animal-people are suddenly in great danger and other people have to make some tough decisions, it’s also an exploration of what makes a human. Is it understanding, intelligence, dexterity, the aptitude to use machines or language? In any case, once you’re declared a sentient being, you have the right to possess things. Before that, everything you own can be taken and destroyed.

I have discovered a new favourite author and I’m sure I’ll read more of his novel in the future.

J.G. Ballard: The Drowned World (1962)

The Drowned World

Ballard is an author I’ve always wanted to read, but I was never sure which novel to pick first, so I postponed reading him again and again. Why I finally picked  The Drowned World is an interesting story because it mirrors the content of the book in an uncanny way.

I keep on dreaming about the city I’m living in. In my dreams it doesn’t look like the actual city but is completely overgrown, drowning in vegetation, all the streets look like rivers of grass. It’s not hot in this city and it’s not necessarily a post-apocalyptic setting, but it’s a completely altered landscape. Curious to see whether anyone ever wrote something like this, I googled a few key words, which eventually led me to Ballard’s The Drowned World. What an amazing experience to find an echo of my own dreams and imagination in this book. Furthermore I have always been very fond of  surrealist paintings and the idea of archetypes makes sense to me; both are important elements in this novel.

The Drowned World is set in a post-apocalyptic world, or, to be more precise, in a submerged, overgrown, tropical lagoon that once used to be the city of London. Solar radiation melted the ice-caps; the land was flooded. The heat and the floods have changed the climate completely.

Dr Robert Kerans, a team of researchers and an army unit map the flora and fauna of the different lagoons. While the team wants to move north, Kerans and a few others want to remain south. They have begun to dream strange dreams, which are a sign of their devolution. It seems as if they were regressing; the changing landscape has affected their psychology.

As Bodkin, one character, says:

“Well, one could simply say that in response to the rises in temperature, humidity and radiation levels the flora and fauna of this planet are beginning to assume once again the forms they displayed the last time such conditions were present – roughly speaking the Triassic period.”

Because the landscape once used to look like it does now, the subconscious of the people reacts:

“But I’m really thinking of something else. Is it only the external landscape which is altering? How often recently most of us have had the feeling of déjà vu?, of having seen all this before, in fact of remembering these swamps and lagoons all too well.”

The premise is that everything the species has ever experienced is stored in the subconscious of each one of us and with the devolution, the memories are triggered:

“The brief span of an individual life is misleading. Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory.”

I thought this was highly fascinating and it does make sense. Maybe not as literally as Ballard states it, but it’s sure that landscape influences us, it even influences our deep psychology, and it’s entirely possible that the memories of the species are stored in our subconscious as well.

The novel is not very action-driven but there is conflict. At first the army wants everyone to leave and move up north, but they finally give in and depart. Kerans, Bodkin and Beatrice Dahl – Kerans enigmatic lover – stay behind. They know they will not be able to survive for long but before they can decide on their future Strangman and a group of pirate-like characters appear. They are looters. They travel from lagoon to lagoon and rob all the submerged buildings of their riches. What nobody knows at first is that they dry up the lagoons and towards the end of the novel, we see the silt- and algae-covered London emerge from the waters. Another uncanny moment.

The end is predictable, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful. It reminded me a lot of Joseph Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly.

My edition of the novel contains an interview with Ballard and a short essay by him. In these two texts he underlines that surrealism, dreams and the fact that he grew up in Shanghai were important in the writing of this book. Max Ernst and Paul Delvaux are mentioned in the novel and have influenced Ballard’s imagery. As a child he witnessed how Shanghai was flooded every summer and that as well has contributed to create the images in the novel.

Eye of Silence

Max Ernst

Lunar City

Paul Delvaux

The Drowned World is not an easy book because it’s heavy on descriptions. As a lot of what he describes felt familiar from my dreams and my travels to Asia, it was easy for me to see what he painted with words, but I suppose it could be a challenge if you prefer action driven books. If you have never experienced the humid heat of the tropics it’s equally hard to imagine how that climate could affect you. That’s why I compared it to Conrad. The way Westerners are affected by the tropics is quite explicit in Conrad’s work, while it is much more implicit in Ballard’s book. Comparing the two is interesting.

I know that I wasn’t able to do this book justice. I think that is because I liked it too much. That may sound weird but that’s how it is. The Drowned World is one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read. I loved the premise and the imagery; it was so powerful, reading it felt like lucid dreaming. It’s making my best of this year list, and maybe even my all-time favourite list.

Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 (1953) Folio Society Edition

Yes, I know, it’s November and I should be reading German literature but…. After having read Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree in October I was so in the mood to read Fahrenheit 451 which was one of the few famous Bradbury novels I hadn’t read so far. What a coincidence that Jackie reviewed it a few weeks later. While she wasn’t too keen on the book I was still very tempted to read it right away and luckily someone saw my comment and a few days later I had a stunning Folio Society edition in my letterbox. It’s my first Folio Society book and it will not be my last. I love the nice paper and the illustrations by Sam Weber.

And the book? It’s not what I had expected. It’s so different from The Halloween Tree which is rich in descriptions and warm atmosphere. But I loved it anyway. It’s such a strange book, reading it felt a bit like walking around in a surreal dream.

Fahrenheit 451 is set in a dystopian future in which books are forbidden. If anyone is in possession of books, the firemen come to his home at night and burn it down. The job of the firemen in this novel is not to extinguish fire but to start it. They are feared but that doesn’t mean people let go of their books easily.

Montag is a fireman who secretly hides a few books. He doesn’t even read them and why he keeps them isn’t clear. It is something in his unconscious that pushes him to act this way. One evening when he returns home he meets Clarisse, a young girl. She is like nobody else he knows; she speaks with him, sees him, shows interest. What she tells him of her family is most unusual too. They sit together in the evenings and talk. Meeting her changes Montag in subtle ways and when she disappears he changes even more.

The society depicted in Fahrenheit 451 is a society in which real relationships are substituted by fake ones with people who are projected on walls in the living rooms of the houses. Giant TV screens replace real life, real experiences. It’s like a collective trance. Montag’s wife spends more time in front of those screens than she spends with her husband.

“Stuff your eyes with wonder, ” he said, “live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal. and if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that, ” he said, “shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass.”

I liked this book a lot for many reasons. I liked the haunting atmosphere and the images it created.  I also liked some of the characters like Clarisse. And there are other amazing elements. Most of the novel takes place at night, the people of this society are all isolated from each other, nobody shares anything, still they feel strongly but live life vicariously through the people on the screens. I’m not much of a TV watcher but I’ve heard people talk about things they saw on TV, series or reality TV, which made me think they were talking about real people. Depicting a society like this was very perceptive in 1953.

Fahrenheit 451 is not my favourite Bradbury but it’s an amazing book, one that is really worth reading.

Thanks again to the Folio Society for this lovely book.

Frank Herbert: Dune (1965) Book III The Prophet

It is Saturday once again and time for the third and last Dune readalong post. I’m so glad I participated despite the initial feeling of “What have I gotten myself into?”. I can still not say, I loved Dune, that would be a lie but I can say I loved the readalong. It was a great experience, the dedication and the discussions were great and I’m looking forward to the next readalong. The readalong is hosted by Carl V from Stainless Steel Droppings,  The Little Red Reviewer and Grace from Books without any Pictures. This weeks questions have been sent by Grace. Here are the other links.

What is your reaction to finally learning the identity of Princess Irulan?  Do you think that her convention added to the story?

I wanted to “meet” her from the beginning and was very intrigued by her character. The parts quoted from her manuals and books stand out style wise. I was not surprised that she was the Emperor’s daughter but saddened about the plans they had for her. She strikes me as too special to be handled like some goods.

Were you satisfied with the ending?  For those reading for the first time, was it what you expected?

I still don’t think it feels like a standalone novel. For me the story is just about to start, I also think that this third part felt rushed. There were some fastworwarding moments that did not feel right to me. Comparing it to the first parts, there were much more things that were just mentioned but we did not see them happen.

On both Arrakis and Salusa Secundus, ecology plays a major role in shaping both characters and the story itself.  Was this convincing?  Do you think that Paul would have gone through with his threat to destroy the spice, knowing what it would mean for Arrakis?

I thought that it was very well done how ecology and characters of the different cultures were interwoven and for me this was the special appeal of Dune. I’m fascinated how surroundings influence and form cultures or how one thing that is meaningful because it is scare in one place, becomes unimportant in another to an extent that it isn’t even appreciated anymore.

There certainly is a possibility that Paul would destroy the spice but I’m sure he will find a solution not to do it. Someone who gets married to a woman for purely political reasons doesn’t strike me as someone who will give up a pricey resource.

Both Leto and Paul made their decisions on marriage for political reasons.  Do you agree with their choices?

This ties back to answer no. 1. I found this quite horrible, horrible for the concubine and, in Paul’s case. also for the future wife and I have also a feeling that this will not work and this is also why I thought the book ended at an awkward moment. I can’t imagine that Paul will use the Princess Irulan purely for breeding or, I hope, she will not let him do that to her.

What was your favorite part in this section of the book?

I enjoyed it when they rode the worms. I was fascinated by these creatures the whole time and thought it showed so well to what extent the Fremen are capable of mastering their hostile surroundings.

One of the things I noticed in the discussions last week was Herbert’s use of the word “jihad.”  What do you think of Herbert’s message about religion and politics?

I said it in the last posts and the discussion that I found the use of the word jihad problematic but I also found the use of the word messiah problematic and I can’t see Paul as a Messiah figure. He has some superior mental faculties but that isn’t enough for me to see a saviour figure in him. What Herbert does, is mix a lot of elements from all sorts of religions, it is a real religious hodgepodge what he offers.  I am not sure what he wants to tell us with this. That all religions are equal? That the elements are interchangeable? The religious world he created has no new elements, that’s for sure. Maybe the most striking is that he created a world in which everything is tied to politics and religion. And politics and religion are once more tied together, something the West has overcome. There is no laicism on Dune, their political system is far from secular which will always be problematic.

Frank Herbert: Dune (1965) Book II Muad’Dib

It’s time for the second Dune readalong post. The readalong is hosted by Carl V from Stainless Steel Droppings,  The Little Red Reviewer and (slight change of the initial three) Grace from Books without any Pictures. This weeks questions have been sent by Redhead (The Little Red Reviewer). Check out the other links here.

I’m happy to report that I liked part II much better. There is far less dialogue and if there is, it is an exchange between two people and not purely an instruction of the reader.

Was Liet’s identity a surprise?  Who do you think he really works for?

I’m not totally sure about this question. I thought he died? I thought since he was a Fremen he also secretly worked for them.

What do you think of the Fremen culture?  Is this a culture you think you’d enjoy spending some time with?

They sound like a very proud and interesting people and reminded me a bit of the Tuareg or any other desert dwelling nomads. A lot of Dune is inspired by North African culture. But since I like rain and plants more than anything else in the world and as appealing as I think some of it sounds, thanks but no thanks, I wouldn’t want to live with them. Furthermore I’m not into duelling. A fierce fighting people isn’t the kind I would want to spend time with. One aspect that I liked is their patient attempt to re-green the desert. Their elaborate plans sounded very convincing.

What do you think of Count Fenring’s unusual verbal mannerisms?  

I found it quite annoying and was trying to imagine how it would sound. I’m not sure what Herbert wants to tell us with this?

This is a far future empire with very little in the way of computerization. Information is often passed down orally, and schools (such as the Mentats and the Bene Gesserit) have formed to train young people in memorization and information processing.  What are you thoughts on a scifi story that is very “low-tech”?  Does that sound like a feasible future? A ridiculous one?

This is precisely the reason why I thought from the beginning that it really is a bit of a sci-fi/fantasy blend. Considering the fact that resources are limited on earth, and very likely on other planets as well, low-tech seems a more viable way to go. These people are advanced in other ways. The mental faculties are far more developed and this would be something to wish for. Unfortunately, humans stay humans, and will, even with low-tech support only , try to exploit others. At least that’s how it is on Dune.

If you found the beginning of the book tough to get into, do you find that you’re having an easier time with the middle portion, now that all the “set-up” is complete?

Yes, it is far easier, as I said in the intro, there is much less dialogue in this part and finally people seem to talk to each other. At least to a certain extent. In part I the dialogue was meant for the reader to understand life on Dune, which is a highly artificial way of getting information across. Since a lot is “set-up” now, he did let go of this. The reading was more fluent and there was quite a bit of action. I liked the part when Paul and his mother are on their own. That part was quite gripping.

The center portion of the book is still pretty dialog heavy, but what I’ve noticed is the subtlety of the dialog. Things left unsaid are often more important than things that are said.  What do you think of that as a stylistic choice? does it make the dialog more interesting? less interesting? 

Any change in the dialogue form was a welcome change for me. I appreciate it much more the way it is handled here but it is still far from realistic. And whenever the parts are centered on the Baron, the dialogue is still heavy (meaning too much and artificial).

Dune was written in the 60’s. Does it feel dated to you? How does it compare, writing style-wise, to more contemporary science fiction you’ve read?

I don’t know any new science fiction. It doesn’t feel dated, no. Maybe the strong Arabic element is dated. I have a feeling a contemporary writer wouldn’t use a word like jihad and would try to be more inventive in terms of cultural elements and not just pick from existing cultures.

If you’ve never read this book before, where do you think the storyline is headed?

I’m really not sure. I start to have a feeling that we will be left with a lot of open questions at the end of Part III. It’s epic, so that seems logical. I wonder if we will even get introduced to the Princess Irulan. I would like to read something about her. But – should anyone wonder – I will not go on reading this series. The moment I close part III, that’s it for me.