Friday, June 16, 2017

Review: Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
Published: Corvus, 2012
Series: Book 1 of the Dark Eden series
Awards Nominated: BSFA Award
Awards Won: Arthur C. Clarke Award

The Book:

“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.”

The Arthur C. Clarke award usually selects some interesting books, so I’ve been meaning to try this one since it was announced as a winner. This is the first book I’ve read by Chris Beckett, and it is the first of a trilogy.

My Thoughts:

The first thing I noticed when I began to read the book was the unusual narration.  The story was told through the eyes of a handful of members of the Family, and the writing style followed the speech patterns of their community. The language reflected their declining mental ability and distance from their Earthly origins, and it was characterized by a limited vocabulary, emphasis through repetition, and a kind of baby-talk for Earth-based words that had no clear meaning on Eden.  It was not difficult to read, but the simplicity of the language and frequent switching between viewpoints made it harder for me to feel invested in the characters.     

The simplicity of the language made the story feel initially like it is intended for a younger audience, but I think a lot of the content was more suitable for adults.  John Redlantern was a teenage protagonist, eager to come into his own and challenge the status quo. However, he lived in a culture that largely revolved around food, sex, and babies.  I think that this made sense for a slowly starving community that was descended from only two people.  As they waited for rescuers from Earth, most people didn’t think much beyond immediate survival and creating the next generation.  This means that there was an awful lot of casual sex, particularly between people that appeared to have good genes.  Even their language showed the preoccupation with sex, since most of their ‘curses’ were references to the sexual characteristics of the initial explorers.  While reading, I couldn’t help but wonder if some of Tommy and Angela’s sadness was from their realization of the hardships their descendants would endure, in the absence of rescue.

Despite the necessary focus on survival, I found it interesting how desperately the people of Eden clung to their stories.  Even after they gave up on the idea of education for the children, they insisted that everyone remember the stories of Earth and of the founders of their Family.  I think it was a way of maintaining their identity as a people, and of giving them hope (of rescue) for the future.  Given how small their Family was, though, I think that valuing these ritualized stories of people who had so recently lived also gave them a sense of the importance of individual actions on the course of their history.  John and his companions were keenly aware of their place in the history of Eden, and John made his decisions while consciously considering how their stories would be told by generations to come.  I can tell that the conclusion of this novel will have a major impact on the future of the humans of Eden, but I’m pretty satisfied with leaving the story here.

My Rating: 3.5/5

Dark Eden is the story of a small human community, descended from only two people, trying to survive on an alien planet.  The language of the novel is unusual and simplistic, reflecting the speech patterns of the community.  The protagonist is a teenage boy, coming of age and challenging the way his society works, and the novel’s perspective shifts between him, his companions, and several other people in the community.  There is a heavy emphasis on sex, since the community depends on having as many healthy babies as possible.  I found it to be an interesting alien world, and a bleak but believable human culture.  This first novel of the trilogy comes to a good stopping point, and I don’t think I will continue the series.

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