Dark Eden: Book I
One good thing about travelling for work (as I have been for the past week) is that it gives me lots of time to read. I’ve recently found it hard to ‘click’ with books, but was thrilled to become deeply, voraciously engaged with Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden trilogy: a series which asks us to think about what it means to be human, about the stories that we tell one another, and about the way that civilisations develop. It wasn’t love at first sight: I was initially put off by the mannered language, but its rhythms soon wormed their way into my mind and even into my dreams. Beckett’s story takes place on Eden, a strange and exotic world where a small cluster of some five hundred people struggle to survive in the heart of an alien forest. They are all descendants of two people, Angela Young and Tommy Schneider, survivors of a space mission almost two hundred years before. They do their best to keep the stories of their ancestors alive, and to remember how they came to be in this inhospitable place, believing that one day help will come from Earth to rescue them. But not everyone is content to simply sit and wait and trust. John Redlantern is one of these, and his questioning and challenging will push the entire history of Eden in a new direction, changing the world forever.
John is only young – a ‘newhair’, what we’d call an adolescent – but he chafes at the rules laid down by those around him. People have clustered into different settlements, each of which wakes and sleeps at a different time from the others, to make protection and hunting easier. They are the Family, all of them together, and every year everyone wakes at the same time for three days of ‘Virsry’ celebrations, to remember the time that their first parents came to Eden, and to publicly tell the stories of their past. They remember how Angela and Tommy remained behind on Eden, believing that life here was better than the uncertainty of a return; they act out the tale of their travel from Earth; and they pass round models of strange objects made by Tommy and Angela to preserve memories of life on that far-off planet: a House, a Car, a Plane, things that mean nothing in the simple hunter-gatherer lifestyle that they now lead.
Everyday life is a matter of existence, simply waiting in trust that people from Earth will come to find them (after all, that’s why Tommy and Angela’s Three Companions returned, to fetch help). Life is clustered close around the sacred circle of white stones, the Circle, which marks the position of the original landing vehicle and the spot where the old people claim that Earth will return. But this means that food is beginning to run out in Circle Valley. People refuse to accept the idea of spreading out, of adventuring beyond their traditional hunting grounds. John is frustrated that no one can see the need to go elsewhere. Who says that Earth is going to come back? Everyone is being restricted by the demands of a few old people who don’t understand the new challenges facing the Family. What’s the point of living if you’re waiting for something which might never come? What right do the group leaders have to dictate what everyone else should do? And would Tommy and Angela, the fabled first parents, really have wanted their descendants to pass their lives in a stupor of waiting, never trying to make things better, never looking elsewhere, never daring to dream of something different?
I didn’t really think it was made up. I didn’t doubt that Tommy and Angela and the Three Companions had come down from sky. We had the Mementoes after all, we had the Earth Models, we had old writing and pictures scratched on trees. We had all kinds of reasons for believing it was true. I just didn’t like the way that some people were allowed to take that old story and keep it for themselves and make it say what they wanted it to say.
John can’t stop asking questions. Unlike other people, he wants to explore, to know. What lies beyond the snowy mountains? What if there’s a whole other rich world out there, which can help support them? Is there any way for them to get some of the things that made Earth so successful? ‘Lecky-trickity’ might be beyond their capabilities, but what about metal, which is found in stones? Why not move elsewhere, to find better hunting grounds? But people hate a troublemaker and John’s questions are all too swiftly seen as the sign of someone who’s out to cause ructions. For David, another young man who resents John’s successes and longs for power of his own, it’s a simple matter of ‘him’ and ‘us’. And, when John takes one step too far in challenging the past, David is the first to call for him to face the penalty. No one has yet killed another person in Eden, but the time is coming when blood may be the unavoidable outcome of this ingrained hatred.
Beckett’s world is completely fascinating, and I probably loved it all the more because of my interest in evolution and how humanity came to be what it is. Like an ideal scientific experiment, Beckett gives us a group of people in a virgin world, with no knowledge beyond that passed down for centuries from Tommy and Angela themselves, which is already beginning to morph through a kind of generational Chinese whispers. People keep themselves warm with basic wraps; they hunt; they adapt to their environment; they reproduce; they die. Children are often born with genetic flaws: ‘clawfeet’ or ‘batfaces’ (the latter being what we would call severe hare lips), due to the inbreeding that necessarily takes place. But they survive. And they tell stories.
On one level this is an adventure story. John’s daring transforms into a wonderful quest, accompanied by his cousins Jeff and Gerry, his friend Tina, and a small band of other boys and girls who dare to challenge what has come before. It’s a gripping exploration of a world that is so very different from our own, yet which has become second nature to these young people. But it’s also, surely, a kind of allegory: an exploration of the way that revolutionaries are treated in a highly conventional world. Human nature is indomitable and can plod along for centuries, as the people of Eden have done; but occasionally it is also sharp and questioning and innovative. John is the great original thinker: representative, perhaps, of all the people in our own evolutionary history who first discovered fire, or the wheel, or who dared to look at the world as it is, rather than through the eyes of what we’ve been told. And that’s what makes him brilliant and – to some people, like David – dangerous. If this is the story of Eden, then John and David are Cain and Abel, who bring killing back into the world, but who also start a whole new story of expansion and discovery.
This is the kind of book where you wish that someone you knew was reading it too, so that you could discuss it – what do you think ‘bucks’ really look like? How does this behaviour map onto what we know of primitive societies? Look at how familiar concepts have been warped by misunderstanding! And so forth. It is a science fiction novel, no doubt, but it isn’t interested in high-jinks among the stars so much as what happens afterwards – after the crash, after the abandonment? To what point do we regress? And how, if at all, do we finally begin to claw our way forward again? A thought-provoking read, full of ideas and so good that I immediately went on to read the next one – which takes the issues covered here, and pushes them up to 11.
Next in the series – Mother of Eden