‘A character study of unconscious political ambition’ – Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
Chris Beckett’s third novel, Dark Eden, is a science-fiction dystopian tale in the vein of Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker or Patrick Ness’s YA trilogy, Chaos Walking – or, if we’re to go classical and mainstream, maybe Lord of the Flies. Set on a peculiar and lonely planet (Eden, natch) far beyond the Milky Way, Dark Eden tells the story of the five-hundred-plus descendants of the original, accidental settlers – a mismatched pair of astronauts who crash-landed and then stayed behind, waiting for their shipmates to return with help. One hundred and sixty years, and five or six generations, later, they’ve given rise to an inbred dynasty of five hundred-odd superstitious, Stone Age people – Family – who dream of their ancestors’ home, Earth, the land of Telly Vision and lecky-trickity. Beckett based the book on a couple of his earlier short stories – “The Circle of Stones”, published in Interzone in 1992, and “Dark Eden”, from his earlier collection, The Turing Test, the latter of which told the story of Angela and Tommy, the original shipwrecked pair. The novel, Dark Eden, is the story of their descendent, John Redlantern, the boy that challenges Family’s traditions and mythologies and demands that their world finally change.
So, what have we got? Eden, a world without a Sun, lit only by the geothermal flowers of pulsating trees, dark and cold, glacial, dangerous. Family, a matriarchal tribal community (hurray!) half of which is clubfooted (‘clawfeet’) or harelipped (‘batfaces’) due to the incestuous matings between the first couple of generations. Sex is casual, school has been abandoned, clothing is minimal. Sounds all right, eh? But Family is running out of food and space and the Council of Group Leaders won’t consider moving away from their original site; here, they say, is where the Earth spaceship will come looking for them, and here is where they must stay. John Redlantern, only twenty wombs, or fifteen years, old, can’t accept this; so he rebels and leaves, taking with him a crew of frustrated, adventurous newhairs (teens) including his semi-girlfriend, Tina; his cousin, Gerry; and Gerry’s younger brother, the peculiarly intelligent clawfoot, Jeff. I won’t spoil any more, except to say that Dark Eden dramatises the violent fallout of their rebellion.
What was it like? Well, first off, it isn’t a typical stand-alone novel – or, at least, it doesn’t read like one. I can’t find any mention of a sequel on Beckett’s website, but Dark Eden is something of an exercise in world-building. He sets up this odd and fascinating planet, Eden, as well as the Family itself and its customs; by the end, we’ve got the makings of a saga, as John and his companions stand on the brink of greater adventures than Dark Eden itself can reveal. You could read it alone, of course (I just did) but it’s not neatly wrapped up, so I’m guessing there’ll be at least one more instalment. If there isn’t in fact to be a sequel, then Beckett’s penned a rather intriguingly abrupt and unusual novel and I stand corrected; it’s possible that he’s being true to his Biblical referent and leaving his Edenites on the cusp of a long and messy, but otherwise untold future.
Second, it wears its influences on its sleeve. It’s an Adam and Eve story set in space – not the most unique idea, but always interesting – with the young-warrior-striking-out-against-his-staid-elders plot that I’ve come across again and again, and not at all exclusively in SF. There’s probably a name for it that I’ve forgotten. Beckett’s language – his attempt to find a new idiom for a new planet – wasn’t especially convincing, being neither as rigorous nor convoluted as in Ridley Walker, which tends to be my benchmark for this kind of thing. Pretty obvious distortions like AnyVirsry and, again, lecky-trickity, were a touch too easy, while the characters’ day-to-day speech was littered with equally complex words (‘pruning’, ‘poser’, ‘fenced’) that didn’t seem to cause them any problems. Some neologisms especially irked me – ‘slip’ in place of ‘sex’, in particular. I’m sure their violent and promiscuous Father, Tommy, was pretty likely to have perpetuated the word ‘fuck’ or even ‘screw’, seeing as he managed to teach them ‘dick’. And the characters’ tendency to drop articles (’sky’ instead of ‘the sky’) reminded me of Emma Donoghue’s Room – but here, it just comes across as a faux naivety that isn’t borne out in their otherwise complex speech patterns. But hey, let the linguists prove me wrong.
So, the tropes are a little worn. But it’s what you do with them that counts, right? And what Beckett does is interesting. He’s got a visually compelling world paired with a pretty by-numbers set-up – and yet he develops it into a character study of unconscious political ambition. I found John a fairly likeable, if mundane character – typical dissatisfied, impatient teen; the Everyman boy hero – but as the novel develops, we see his actions not only from his own perspective, but also from Tina’s, Gerry’s, Jeff’s, and those of numerous peripheral characters. And what we get is a multi-facetted analysis of his plans, his motives and how he’s perceived by others. In one section, he’s an inspiration and in the next, he’s secretive and power-hungry, and each of them rings true. So in the end, the slightly predictable trajectory of the narrative is elevated by this rather complex piece of character analysis, which makes me really curious to see where this all pans out – will John be the saviour of Eden? Or will he be its undoing?
Any Cop? It reads quite like a YA novel, which is no bad thing, but might not satisfy the more high-brow literary types. The theological aspects are well played-out – we’re all ultimately inbred, after all – and Eden itself is intriguing. It has a couple of truly sad moments. I enjoyed it more than I initially expected I would, and I’d happily read any sequels.