A marooned outpost of humanity struggles to survive on a startlingly alien world: science fiction as it ought to be from British science fiction's great white hope.
You live in Eden. You are a member of the Family, one of 532 descendants of Angela and Tommy. You shelter beneath the light and warmth of the Forest's lantern trees, hunting woollybuck and harvesting tree candy. Beyond the forest lie the treeless mountains of the Snowy Dark and a cold so bitter and a night so profound that no man has ever crossed it. The Oldest among you recount legends of a world where light came from the sky, where men and women made boats that could cross between worlds. One day, the Oldest say, they will come back for you.
You live in Eden. You are a member of the Family, one of 532 descendants of two marooned explorers. You huddle, slowly starving, beneath the light and warmth of geothermal trees, confined to one barely habitable valley of a startlingly alien, sunless world. After 163 years and six generations of incestuous inbreeding, the Family is riddled with deformity and feeblemindedness. Your culture is a infantile stew of half-remembered fact and devolved ritual that stifles innovation and punishes independent thought.
You are John Redlantern. You will break the laws of Eden, shatter the Family and change history. You will be the first to abandon hope, the first to abandon the old ways, the first to kill another, the first to venture in to the Dark, and the first to discover the truth about Eden.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the ill-fated explorers Tommy and Angela put down on the planet Eden to wait for Earth to send help. With their stolen sky-boat Defiant in no shape to make the long voyage home, Tommy and Angela made the best of the bad lot on offer on this sunless sphere: they built shelters, and began a family. So the story goes.
But Tommy and Angela did not expect to live out the rest of their natural lives bathed in the cold light of the lanternflowers that adorn the trees in this geothermal forest. They could not have known that the children they had would have children of their own as the wombtimes wore on, with still no sign of the promised search party. Certainly they would not have thought that six generations on, Eden would still be going strong... that every year, on the Any Virsry of Tommy and Angela’s arrival, all 532 of their inbred descendants would gather around a circle of stones, arranged “to mark the outline of the Landing Veekle,” (p.76) to hear their hallowed tale told.
Incredibly, even now, many of Eden’s accidental inhabitants hold out hope that someone will come to rescue them. As Oldest intones, “we must stay here and be a good Family and wait patiently [...] so that they will be pleased with us and will want to take us all back home to Earth.” (p.77) Yet some free-thinking newhairs question the holy story. Foraging for food has been a hardship for as long as young John Redlantern remembers, and with Family’s numbers ever on the rise, he reasons that the commandment that they must all stay around Circle, never to venture father than the fringes of the forest – the better to be there when the sky-boat comes – the commandment must be broken if they are to survive, far less thrive.
Dark Eden is John’s story, first and foremost: a deceptively sinister chronicle of his not entirely noble attempts to save Family, and make a hero of himself in the process. He means to do this by leading a splinter group of similarly dissatisfied individuals through the unfathomable region they have come to call Snowy Dark, and into the bigger, better pastures he believes – but does not know for a fact – lie beyond. Before John can begin rebuilding, however, he must instigate a break with the old ways... by laying waste, in his infinite wisdom, to the sacred stone circle:
“It didn’t take me long. There was no more Circle in Circle Clearing. It was empty and blank. It was sort of... dead.
“And I felt dead too. Empty. I couldn’t find any feelings inside me about anything. I knew I must have destroyed Circle for a reason, but I could barely remember what that reason was. I knew that big big things would happen now as a result, but I couldn’t make myself care what they would be. It was like I’d turned to stone myself.” (p.146)
In destroying the last remaining remnant of Tommy and Angela’s time on Eden, John severs the most vital connection to Earth and the age-old stories Family has. In this moment, if not before, the reader of Dark Eden begins to understand that his quest, whatever good or ill may ultimately come of it, is only as essential as it is self-serving. Beckett underscores this uncertainty by shifting instantaneously away from John, who has carried the bulk of the narrative thus far, to a second first-person perspective... or rather a fourth or a fifth or a sixth, because every other chapter brings a new storyteller into the fold, though Tina Spiketree’s POV is the only one we return to half as often as John’s.
At the outset Tina seems a rather passive character; little more than a love interest for our main man, and for a time she is exactly that, until – against her will – John involves her in his single-minded sacrilege. Thereafter Family tar Tina with the same brush as he, simply because of her association with this determined rule-breaker, this careless myth-maker, and presently Tina too comes to question our would-be teenage hero’s ego. From the systematic demolition of Circle on out, John does not make another pivotal decision without her second-guessing his motives, and soon the reader learns to follow Tina’s lead, such that however sympathetic he may appear, one can no longer simply fall in line with his actions.
But what’s done is done, and no matter the consequences, John has cleaned away the slate of old stories in service of a new narrative: his own, of course. And perhaps the people and the planet would have been the better for it... for it in isolation, but lost in space and abruptly cut off from everything they have ever cared about, not even Family can continue to exist in a vacuum. Thus, as one thing invariably does, it leads to another, and another, and in no time at all the tale our underhand narrator has in the interim become intent on telling gets utterly out of hand. When a new faction of Family wages war on John – on John and all those who would walk in his profane footsteps – he and his camp of cast-offs must take desperate measures to protect themselves, and their mission to explore more of Eden.
“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. It had never occurred to me before that the story of John Redlantern might end up as the story of a famous killer, the first one in Eden ever to do for another human being. But now that story suddenly took shape in my mind.” (p.370)
The mark has been made, and it cannot very well be unmade. The bloodshed has begun, and it may never again end.
Chris Beckett’s latest is of course a science-fictional take on the Christian myth of creation, of paradise, original sin and beatific innocence despoiled. Dark Eden proves a provocative but powerful retelling of that old story, set against a backdrop genre readers will find themselves almost intimately familiar with, because it also evokes a number of other comparable narratives besides the bible. In terms of its ecosystem of alien flora and fauna, Brian Aldiss’ classic Hothouse comes immediately to mind, meanwhile the lush landscape and the isolated society of Kaaron Warren’s Walking the Tree bear certain resemblance to their equivalents in Eden – though Beckett’s Family orient themselves around a circle of stones instead of Yggdrasil. In addition, Dark Eden’s stylistic and linguistic idiosyncrasies – which Beckett employs to symbolise the degradation of language in step with everything else in this incestuous civilisation – reminded this reader of Russell Hoban’s award-winning Riddley Walker, the early parts of Alan Moore’s Voice of the Fire, or, more recently, Room by Emma Donaghue.
Strange, then, given its many and various counterparts, and its arrangement of self-evident influences, that Dark Eden does not feel particularly derivative, or even cobbled together. To wit, it won’t win many points for novelty or innovativeness, but between Beckett’s pointed prose and his easy grasp of the craft, refined to near-perfection in Interzone and Asimov’s in the intervening years between his first short story sale in 1990 and now, the author is able to weave together the aspects of what must be his most ambitious narrative to date without leaving a single ugly seam in sight. Strange... but true.
Bleak, black, yet at times brilliant enough to blind, Dark Eden is a magnificent and readily accessible novel about the fictions of fate and faith and family by one of science-fiction’s most overlooked modern masters. Bolstered by balanced characterisation and a narrative every bit as intelligent as it is ultimately insidious, it has to be Beckett’s best yet, and considering the acclaim heaped upon The Holy Machine, that’s saying something.
As is Dark Eden.