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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"Dark Eden" by Chris Beckett (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Chris Beckett Website
Order "Dark Eden" HERE

INTRODUCTION: I heard of Chris Beckett's work when The Turing Test collection won the prestigious Edge Hill Short Story prize in 2009. I immediately bought a copy of the collection and I read a few of the stories there. I generally enjoyed them and I plan to read all of them as time goes by, but they seem to work only in smaller doses for me maybe because they are quite concentrated.

However his previous two novels, Holy Machine and Marcher never really tempted me, so when Dark Eden was announced with the blurb below I was not sure either. Remembering vaguely that I read a story with the same title in The Turing Test, I checked the collection and sure enough the story Dark Eden is in there and it is precisely the tale of Angela and Tommy told through their two quite distinct voices in alternating parts. As I quite liked it and some reviews showering great praise on the novel appeared too, I decided to buy a copy for myself and try it immediately.

"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...."

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: In talking about Dark Eden, there are two different aspects that need to be considered, namely literary quality and sfnal scope. In short, Dark Eden is superb as a literary novel but something I've seen many times before as sf or (pre) historical fiction and not only that, but its scope is very limited since there is only so much you can do with a primitive society as sense of wonder and big picture - in other words the attributes that define high class sf - go.

After all, you are given a small grouping of people - no advanced tech to sustain too many or too hostile an environment and the tech base of the society is not able to tame said environment - relatively rigid rules which where justified once upon a time when survival was the first imperative, rules that lead to what the current younger generation perceive as stagnation, and the maverick hero/heroine who is set to change all that and in doing so breaks the social compact for better or for worse.

This is the sfnal structure of Dark Eden too and as mentioned I've read this so many times that in terms of the big picture there is not much to surprise and there is a clear logic of events that you can already guess from the blurb. The specific world building - planet in intergalactic space, with no sun but life, atmosphere and heat coming from underground volcanic activity - is interesting though and there is a lot of potential for complexity if the author chooses to develop this universe more.

If sfnally the novel is just good due to its limited scope, literary Dark Eden is superb. Its structure alternates narration mostly from John Redlantern and his girlfriend Tina Spiketree - they have 21 and respectively 16 of the 46 total chapters - with a few other characters with their own distinctive voices presenting their take on events at various points.

The rules and habits of the Eden society, their way of life, rituals, food gathering and hunting, mating, division into "normal" humans and the disfigured ones - as expected the descent of all 532 humans which live in Eden at the start of the book from Angela and Tommy has quite a few genetic negatives - are slowly revealed and the author balances action with world building and back story perfectly.

The transitions between chapters are very smooth and all characters that narrate even for only a chapter come alive. Of course as they have the bulk of the story John and Tina are the most nuanced and developed of all and we see their growth from a wondering but confused boy who is well liked by most women in the colony to a mature and determined leader in John's case:

"And in the back of my mind a little thought came to me that there were other worlds we could reach that weren’t hidden away in Starry Swirl, or through Hole-in-Sky, but here on ground, in Eden. They were the places where the woollybucks went, the places they came from."

and from a young girl who cherishes her "desirability" by men but does not really question her society and its way of life to one who discovers the courage to confront the "public opinion" and follow John in looking for a better life:

"John was interesting. I mean he looked nice, and I fancied him in that way, but what fascinated me most was the way he behaved. All that hunting trip he was trying to be different, trying not to be the same as all the other newhair guys. He went right up that icy ridge. He annoyed Old Roger and David by questioning the True Story."

So despite that almost everything that happens is predictable as it follows the logic described above, I was still captivated by the novel and turned the pages to see what happens with John, Tina and their growing band of followers.

While a standalone novel and with a very good ending that leaves open a lot of possibilities, I wish the author will return to Eden and tell us more about the fascinating human society he created there. Dark Eden is a highly recommended novel of 2012 and excellent literary sf that I can easily see shortlisted for both genre and mainstream prizes that appreciate writing style and "realistic" characters rather than sense of wonder and big picture speculations.


Anonymous said...

I've just finished reading this novel and I loved the way Beckett brings the planet alive - he describes everything so beautifully. Absolutely couldn't put the book down in my eagerness to find out what happens to John and Tina and their companions - is Beckett planning a sequel? I would certainly be the first in the queue to buy it!

Liviu said...

sequel signed recently and tbp 2014; not sure exactly how it ties in with this - immediate sequel, generation(s) later, etc - though, but I would enjoy reading more about the characters here


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