Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden is a daring science fiction novel, one that takes full advantage of the genre’s lack of limitation to create a world that is truly alien. At once disturbing, thrilling, and intellectually provocative, it’s a book that should please genre stalwarts and make at least a few sci-fi converts of readers who prefer more literary fare. Acclaimed in the UK, where it won the Arthur C. Clarke award, the novel has only just been released in the United States, where it deserves to find a wide audience.
The novel tells the story of an isolated society living on a sunless rogue planet floating through the Milky Way. The planet—which its inhabitants have termed “Eden”—is largely icy and inhospitable, habitable only because of geothermal energy that makes its way to the surface in the form of hot sap that pulses and glows inside the trees. Near the warmth of these forests, animal life has taken hold and flourished: bats and singing leopards and six-legged herbivores called “woolybucks.” The world of Dark Eden is eerie and beautiful, equal to Ray Bradbury’s Mars for the sheer otherness of its landscape.
But as alien as the setting of Dark Eden may be, the society that the novel depicts is far more unsettling. Consisting of a mere 500 people, this human community comprises the offspring of just one man and one woman who were marooned on the planet after a disastrous wormhole expedition took them millions of light years away from Earth. Now, decades later, their inbred descendants have grown into a culture that is both deeply strange and familiar—and it’s hard to tell which is more unsettling, the strangeness or the familiarity.
They call themselves “Family”—and having descended from just two people, that’s exactly what they are: an inbred, incestuous family. The society is matriarchal, and peaceful. Murder is unheard of. So is rape. Sex is nonmonogamous and largely utilitarian, undertaken for the purposes of procreating—but birth defects and deformities are widespread.
Family’s language is deserving of special note, especially given that the entire novel is told by various first-person narrators. Descended from two English speakers, Family speaks in a dialect that combines American and British English, and which has also evolved over the years (or perhaps devolved would be the better word) as its speakers have forgotten some words and invented others to describe the alien landscape they find themselves in. In the opening pages of Dark Eden, this dialect is extremely disorienting—doubly so since the landscape this alien language attempts to describe is, itself, alien. But as initially confusing as the novel’s prose can be, it’s not as difficult as the invented English dialect of, say, Alex Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange—and in fact, the language of Dark Eden ends up being one of the novel’s great pleasures as the reader slowly puts things together and figures out what words like dip, and slip, and batface, and Any Virsry mean.
Most interesting of all, however—and perhaps most significant, given that the novel is called Dark Eden—is Family’s worldview: a quasi-religion based on the story of how they came to be stranded in Eden in the first place, of Tommy and Angela, the primal ancestors who birthed their entire society, and of the Three Companions who left in the “Landing Veekle” to go get help from Earth. Like any good religion, this origin story tells Family who they are and how they must live. It’s a tale with a moral imperative: Don’t stray too far from the spot where the “Landing Veekle” left, because Earth’s coming back, and we have to be ready for them when they do.
Those familiar with the biblical Eden story will recognize the familiar contours of the primal myth—a primitive landscape, an innocent existence, and a simple taboo. Of course, if you know the Eden story, you also know that taboos in literature rarely stay unbroken for long.
The one who will do the breaking is John Redlantern, a “newhair” (adolescent) of 20 “wombtimes” (15 years) who begins to chafe against the claustrophobia of life in Family. As large as the themes of Dark Eden are, John’s transgressions against the laws of Family are almost laughably small, at least to begin with. It all begins when John travels to the top of Circle Valley, where Family lives, and sees how small their world truly is. John has an ability to see beyond the limitations that others mindlessly accept, and he intuits that soon, Family will outgrow Circle Valley and risk starvation. When he suggests that they venture into “Snowy Dark” in search of a new forest to live in, he discovers that the smallness of Family’s world is matched only by the smallness of their minds—its leaders simply cannot imagine a life beyond the limits prescribed to them by circumstance. Believing that moving away from Circle Valley will go against the wishes of Tommy and Angela and make it so they will never return to Earth, they declare John’s suggestion blasphemous.
From there, John Redlantern’s transgressions escalate in ways I will not reveal—except to say that as in the Bible, the eating of the forbidden fruit in Dark Eden has complex consequences. John’s is a double fall: a fall from grace but into culture. By upsetting the stasis of Family, John introduces new possibilities into their world. He also introduces discord, violence, and a new dichotomy where once there had only been unity: in place of we, us versus them.
These are big themes, themes of culture and progress, good and evil—but the way Chris Beckett teases all this out from a small, intimate story rooted in recognizable human motivations is simply thrilling. The result is a story about youthful rebellion, ambition, lust, love, power, and jealousy that also manages to raise huge questions that are pertinent to our own world. Where does culture come from? Is it possible to have the products of culture without murder, discord, and war? Why, in our world, are men dominant—and what would it look like in a world where the opposite was true? Is a world without religion possible, or must people always require a story to orient themselves emotionally to the material conditions of their lives?
You’ll be thinking about these questions and more after you’ve read Dark Eden. Though the book isn’t without its flaws—a rushed third act that ends abruptly in the midst of still-rising action is the main one—it’s a truly original book that demands to be read by sci-fi fans and skeptics alike. It would be a shame if the novel’s genre classification prevented it from finding a large audience. Dark Eden, in spite of its superficial confinement in the prescribed valley of science fiction, ranges freely to the farthest reaches of literary imagination. From within the confines of its genre, it crafts a tale that should be read by all lovers of evocative, idea-driven fiction: one that asks us to wrestle with difficult questions and dream beyond the limits of the cultures in which we’re all embedded.