The plot of Dark Eden is, in many ways, fairly clichéd. A century and a half before the present day of the book, two astronauts found themselves stranded on an alien planet. They procreated and their offspring created a closed, insular society that was very resistant to change. And then a heroic and technologically minded teen arises to lead a plucky band of outcasts into the wilderness to symbolically and literally open up a new frontier. It's Dune and the Fallout games and Battlefield Earth and Dragonflight and a dozen other stories about backwards societies and far-sighted heroes.
The book—the third novel by British writer Chris Beckett—partially redeems the formula through the inventiveness of its worldbuilding and its deep uneasiness with the tropes it has called into service. Still, in the end, I was left wondering whether the novel had gone far enough. At times, its complexity seemed more like window-dressing: the necessary accoutrements to make a traditional hero's journey more palatable to a sophisticated audience.
This novel takes place on a planet, Eden, that is unmoored from any star and, hence, exists in a perpetual night. Strange flora and fauna have arisen on this world: almost all life—except for the predators—produces its own light and depends, ultimately, on the heat of the planet's core. Huge trees that sprout up from vents in the ground pipe heat to the surface, but outside the ambit of these forests, snow and darkness prevail.
The story takes place in a forested mountain valley that is ringed by a vast Snowy Dark that no one has yet managed to penetrate. One hundred and sixty years after two survivors of a disastrous space expedition decided to build a life on Eden, their descendents have grown into a Family of some five hundred people. Beckett doesn't shy away from the implications of the Adam and Eve scenario. A half-dozen generations of interbreeding mean that the family contains a significant number of congenitally deformed "bat faces" and "claw foots" and a number of people with mental disabilities.
Life is getting harder in the valley. The supply of game is dwindling. Each year, the Family have to work harder and harder to survive. Twenty years ago, they abolished School and now most of the Family is ignorant. Their only knowledge of their origins comes from a mishmash of half-remembered facts and stories that are ceremonially repeated at the yearly Any Virsry ceremonies.
But everyone knows one thing. They came from a better place, and some day a starship will come to the valley and return the entire Family, including the bones of its dead, back to Earth.
The story is at its best when we're experiencing the Family's makeshift life. One of the prime joys of the narrative is the strange, impoverished language of the family. Everything is reduced: you can feel the linguistic bottleneck they have passed through—they're limited to whatever words were given to them by their Adam and Eve. Sometimes it's childish: sex is "slippy," older women are "oldmums," and the primary intensifier for adjectives is to repeat them twice (i.e. "bright bright"). But other times, it's curiously modern, as in the words "Okay" and "comment" in the sentence, "Okay, maybe once twice in the past at an Any Virsry, a group leader had asked a grownup in their group to comment on something" (p. 82). The mixture of modern speech with the Family's slang drives home the realization that these primitive hunter-gatherers are descended from us.
Beckett writes with a very delicate touch. The story is told by multiple first-person narrators, and he trusts the reader to have patience with the things that aren't explained. For instance, characters refer to the flora and fauna as "trees" and "leopards" and never bother to describe them in full detail (why would they?), so it takes a while to understand how very different everything is on this planet.
Life in the Family is brutish: everyone works every day and everyone is hungry at least some of the time; at least half of its members are doomed, by their disabilities, to second-class status, and even the more intelligent members don't seem to be terribly acute. But there's also a lovely innocence to it. This really is a family. Everyone is related to everyone else. They live in one large compound, more or less communally. There is a congeniality to their interactions, and the hierarchy is less political and more familial—higher rank carries few privileges and denotes a much greater responsibility to those under you.
Enter John, a plucky would-be Messiah with just fifteen years (or, as the family would say, "twenty wombtimes") under his belt. He's exasperated that no one has yet tried to penetrate the Snowy Dark and seek out the other, richer, valleys that he knows must lie beyond it. So he rebels against his hidebound elders and, well, the story goes more or less the way you'd expect it to go.
And yet, even as John makes stunning intuitive leaps and invents new technologies and showcases tremendous personal courage, the narrative remains ambivalent about him. In her first-person sections, his more-or-less girlfriend, Tina, frequently speculates that John is not so different from his antagonists: he's primarily interested in power and personal glory. She wonders why they can't live in a more peaceful, cooperative society. A minor viewpoint character, Gela, notes:
"Some men want the story to be all about them."
It was so true of John, I thought. As soon as things got quiet, and everyone was just getting on with things, he got uneasy because life stopped being a story about anyone in particular, and certainly not about him. (p. 327)
This uneasiness with the heroic narrative extends into the backstory. Eden was settled through a complicated set of hijinx, involving a stolen spacecraft, a police vehicle, a botched wormhole jump, and a man and a woman—a criminal and a police officer—who made the uneasy decision to stay on the planet, rather than risk trying to return to Earth in a damaged spacecraft. Their resulting domestic life was, apparently, fraught with abuse and melancholy. A garbled version of this history is retained by their descendents and related, with a heroic gloss, every year.
Time and again, both John and his antagonists return to this origin story to provide justification for their actions. They say that they should stay home because the original couple—Tommy and Angela—stayed on Eden. Or they say that they should venture into the dark because Tommy and Angela were explorers. Each time the characters invoke it, the reader can see the strain that is being placed on the legend. The truth is that their history is too complex to yield simple lessons.
Similarly, John's actions complicate the reader's attempts to see him as a hero. He lies to his followers. He takes unilateral action in a way that complicates life for everyone around him. He brings murder and warfare to Eden.
But . . . I'm not sure how impressed I was with the book's level of nuance. To me, a multifaceted view of heroism seems to be part of the price of admission nowadays. Even in a fairly old SF novel like Dune, there is a nod towards subverting the heroism of the heroes—both Paul and Leto come off as being rather brutal. More recently, A Song of Fire and Ice has ushered in a spate of grim and gritty fantasies where all rulers are either good and ineffectual or evil and very competent.
For all its ambivalence about heroism, Dark Eden still posits a scenario where an entire society is saved from ecological collapse and eventual extinction by the courage and foresight of a single fifteen-year-old boy. Although the novel takes pains to reassure me that it understands the uncomfortable aspects of this scenario, I eventually got a bit tired of its hypocrisy. If heroism makes it that uncomfortable, then maybe it should show us the pitfalls of heroism and the alternatives to it. Without that, the nods towards complexity read more like apologia: the novel wants us to forgive it for presenting such a traditional tale.
And, for the most part, I have. It's a beautifully written book with a very well imagined setting. Its atmosphere is as claustrophobic and lightless as anything I've ever read. It's both heartbreaking and triumphant to watch these characters try to reason their way through their ignorance and intellectual deficits and somehow make something of their corner of the world. The book does a great job of looking deep inside them and showing us that they have emotional and spiritual lives that are just as deep and complex as our own. After John mistakes a distant animal for the light of the long-prophesied Landing Veekle that will return them to Earth, he says:
I felt a fool, but beyond that I felt sad sad, because for a few seconds I'd really thought that the time had finally come when we would find our way back to that place full of light and people, where they knew the answers to all the hard hard questions we had no idea how to solve, and could see things we can't see any more than blind people (p. 10)
Just as the Edenites have to be satisfied with John, despite his flaws, because he's the best hero they're going to get, I've made peace with Dark Eden. Despite its flaws, it's one of the most imaginative lost colony stories I've ever read.
Rahul Kanakia is a science fiction writer who has sold stories to Clarkesworld, The Intergalactic Medicine Show, Apex, Nature, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. He currently lives in Baltimore, where he is enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. He graduated from Stanford in 2008 with a B.A. in Economics and he used to work as an international development consultant. If you want to know more about him then please visit his blog or follow him on Twitter.
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